by Trudy Ring
posted January 18th, 2022
♠ “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”
♠ “Usually I’m Mortimer Brewster, but I’m not quite myself today.”
♠ “Look, Aunt Martha, men don’t just get into window seats and die!”
How can you not love a movie with lines like this, all delivered by the incomparable Cary Grant? Well, Grant didn’t love it — more about that later — but “Arsenic and Old Lace” is so unfailingly hilarious that it easily makes my list of films I can view umpteen times and enjoy as much as I did the first time. Maybe more.
The film is based on a Broadway hit, the most successful play written by Joseph Kesselring. He wrote about a dozen plays and got four of them produced on Broadway, but “Arsenic and Old Lace” was the only one blessed with a long run and the only one much remembered today. It opened in January 1941 and ran for three and a half years and 1,444 performances. Audiences were captivated by the tale of two charming elderly sisters who lure lonely old men into their Brooklyn home by advertising rooms for rent, then send the men to the sweet hereafter via elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and just a pinch of cyanide. Each victim is given a nice Christian burial in the ladies’ basement; their nephew Teddy believes they’ve succumbed to yellow fever and that each grave he digs is a lock for the Panama Canal. Oh, by the way, he thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Everything goes along swimmingly until two other nephews find out what’s going on.
Warner Bros. saw dollar signs and quickly bought the film rights to “Arsenic and Old Lace,” beating director Frank Capra to the punch. But Capra did get to direct the film; after years of making message movies, he wanted to do a film that was just simply fun, and he also wanted to make some money before going into the Army Signal Corps. Twins Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, some of Warner’s most reliable writers (they would go on to do “Casablanca”), adapted Kesselring’s play for the screen. It was filmed in the fall of 1941 but not released until 1944, when the play had ended its Broadway run.
Josephine Hull and Jean Adair were able to leave the Broadway production to play the sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, in the film. John Alexander also joined from the Broadway cast in the role of Teddy. But the producers wouldn’t release one of their star attractions, Boris Karloff, who played Teddy’s sinister brother Jonathan; the play even had a running joke that Jonathan looked like Karloff.
So Raymond Massey stepped in for the film. The third brother and the one apparently normal member of the Brewster family, drama critic Mortimer, was played on the stage by Allyn Joslyn, who had a long career in both theater and movies, but he didn’t have the star power of Cary Grant, who brought his gorgeous looks, unquestionable charisma, and gift for comedy to the role of Mortimer in the film.
Mortimer, who had been a vocal opponent of matrimony, has at last succumbed to its lure, marrying lovely Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of Abby and Martha’s minister neighbor. He’s visiting his beloved aunts to share the news of his marriage when he discovers a body in the window seat. Mortimer learns the truth about his aunts and tries to figure out what do about it (“It’s not a nice thing to do. People wouldn’t understand,” he tells the ladies) while being threatened by Jonathan, a serial killer who’s recently broken out of prison and is seeking refuge at the family home, accompanied by a supposed plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).
Grant delivers double takes, popping eyeballs, and more, a performance of both physical and verbal comedy. Grant didn’t think much of his performance, believing he overacted and saying Capra encouraged him to do so. Some critics agreed with his assessment. I’m sorry to disagree with my favorite actor, but I have to say Cary is hilarious in this. Yes, he’s a bit over the top, maybe more than a bit, but that’s appropriate for the zany material.
The cast also includes a who’s who of the great character actors of the time. Adair and Hull made very few films (Hull appeared in one other certified classic, “Harvey”), but we’re fortunate that they made this one. They are sweetly clueless, claiming they’re doing their victims a favor, and who knows, maybe they are. Alexander is a delight as Teddy, dashing up the stairs as if they were San Juan Hill and yelling “Charge!” Do yourself a favor and catch him in some other movies — especially as a fallen angel in “The Horn Blows at Midnight” and in a more serious role as Joan Blondell’s husband in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” It would have been interesting to see Karloff as Jonathan (he did play the role in a TV version in 1962), but after umpteen viewings I’m totally used to Massey in the part. Jonathan is a far cry from kindly Dr. Gillespie or saintly Adam Trask, but Massey shows he can play evil as expertly as good. Lorre is both creepy and funny as Dr. Einstein. And then there’s Jack Carsonas a cop who fancies himself a playwright, James Gleason as an exasperated police lieutenant, and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherfork — er, Witherspoon, superintendent of the Happy Dale Sanitarium, to which Mortimer hopes to have Teddy and his aunts committed. Carson, Gleason, and Horton enhanced every movie they appeared in. Priscilla Lane has the nominal leading lady role as Elaine. While not a great actress, she’s competent; this and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” are among her best movies.
All in all, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is two hours of sheer fun, filled with memorable lines and excellent performances. It evokes more laughs than anything outside of Mel Brooks, and it’s the perfect pick-me-up if you’ve had a bad day. And it makes a good day even better. You’ll find yourself singing along with Cary: “There is a Happy Dale, far, far away…” Or as close as your TV screen.
♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
CineMaven’s Note: Trudy, I think you might’ve just about convinced me to give “Arsenic…” one more chance. Just enter it with a spirit of fun and have a good time and not expect Cary to be smooth and suave, but silly. That’s the ticket! Good seeing Grant and Horton together again after their roles in “Holiday” (1938). And if you or anyone else is interested in learning more about the great Jack Carson, they need only click on his photo above to read Lesley Gaspar’s essay on him in her blog: Second Sight Cinema.
Now, onto more entries in “The Umpteenth Blogathon.”