Archive Review: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Few classic era film directors did comedy better than Frank Capra, if any. The over-the-top ridiculous dark comedy farce “Arsenic and Old Lace” is not the three-time Oscar winner’s usual cup of tea (there’s an inherent lack of romance), but he captures the adaptation of the play with a sense of humor that’s critical for a story so ridiculous.

Having seen the play myself, admittedly the comic twists and sheer outrageousness of some of the characters were less effective upon a second viewing, but it doesn’t detract from comprehending the comic genius of Joseph Kesselring’s original script. The moral of the story is that everyone’s crazy. Period.

“Arsenic” takes place in one afternoon and night in Brooklyn, where esteemed theatre critic and self-proclaimed marriage-hater Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has taken refuge with his dear old aunts before taking off on his honeymoon with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), a fact he’s publicly ashamed of. Not long into his stay, however, he discovers both sweet Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) are in fact mercy killers who poison lonely old men without families and homes and bury them in the basement with the aid of Mortimer’s delusional brother, Teddy, who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. In an effort to sort it all out, Mortimer drives himself practically insane.

I’ve never had a bad thing to say about him, but this is a fine piece of total overacting by Grant. Part of it is the charm story and Capra’s vision to acknowledge its absurdity, but from his first discovery of the body in the window seat, Grant is up and over-the-top. It takes a bit away from the momentum, neglecting a steady accumulation of craziness, even if that’s not the film’s intention. Grant is much better in charming romantic roles and not as an all-out comedian, but he has some quality moments.

Capra’s creativity was no doubt limited by the confines of the story. It almost entirely takes place inside the Brewster home (convenient for the play, just not the movie). The Epsteins’ adaptation takes some liberties where possible, but it’s merely wiggle-room. The director leaves his mark in moments when the story hits a peak in terms of the physical humor. He also films some comically dark scenes when Mortimer’s loony brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (wonderful character actor Peter Lorre). Those two actors add more dimension to their performances which helps the film be taken a tad more seriously.

Amidst the chaos, however, “Arsenic and Old Lace” has a truthful ring to it. Sanity is a relative attribute and we should be so lucky as to possess it in the slightest bit. “Arsenic” doesn’t feel like some of the ’30s and ’40s classics before it, but it’s great fun and a real laugh. Who says every film has to be totally sane and by-the-book?

3.5/5 Stars

Arsenic and Old Lace
Directed by Frank Capra
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, Joseph Kesselring (play)
Starring: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Priscilla Lane


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