“Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”
Arsenic and Old Lace was one of the first classic films I ever bought on DVD. It was five years ago and I know it was five years ago because my great-grandma turned ninety. For her ninetieth birthday my cousin photocopied photos of her and my great-grandpa together and put Cary Grant’s head on my great- grandpa’s! My mom made a pillow for her with Cary Grant’s face on it and she was so excited to sleep with it that night! I had no idea who Cary Grant was all I knew was that he was an actor my great-grandma really loved. I got curious, went online and found some of his films and my dad said he would buy them for me since he said they were good. My dad bought me Charade, Arsenic and Old Lace, and His Girl Friday. And so began my love of classic films and my love of Old Hollywood. I remember watching Arsenic and Old Lace when I first went away to college and I watched it with my roommate. Ever since then if we mention Cary Grant or the film we either go “Bully, bully” or “Oh Mortimer” haha.
Mortimer Brewster (Grant) is a film critic and, to put it simply, a hater of love and romance. But he has had a change of heart and he wants to get a marriage license to marry Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Mortimer gets caught on the line by two reporters but he and Elaine manage to evade them. Before they set out on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls the new couple stops off at their old homes in Brooklyn where they grew up. Mortimer lives on one side of a cemetery and Elaine on the other. They only planned to stay a short time while they get their things together that they have a taxi cab waiting for them.
Mortimer was brought up by his aunt’s Abby and Martha in the old family home. Abby and Martha still live in the house and are much loved by the community. Also living with them is Mortimer’s brother Teddy who thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. One of the aunts had gone out and when she comes back the other aunt tells her she had to hide a dead man under the window seat! Mortimer comes into the house surprising his aunts. He sits down on the window seat when the aunts go into the kitchen and he takes a look he finds the body in the seat! Mortimer thinks Teddy hid the dead man. He knows his brother is crazy so to protect him he gets papers together to have Teddy committed to a mental facility. The aunts tell Mortimer that they are the ones who put the body there and that there are twelve more like him in the basement. They say they do it as an act of kindness only killing lonely men who had no families then they have Teddy burry the bodies by telling him that the men have died from Yellow Fever. Now Mortimer begins to go out of his mind almost as bad as his aunts and Teddy.
Elaine comes by the house to see what is going on since Mortimer is not answering her whistle. She sees he is a total mess and he throws her out. While Mortimer is getting a judge to sign off on the papers to send Teddy away, two ominous looking men come to the door. The two men come in. One is a tall scary looking man who looks like Boris Karloff and the other is short nervous man. The aunts were hiding on the stairs and ask who the men are and what they want. The taller man says that he is their nephew Jonathan. Jonathan is a criminal who is wanted all over the world for murdering people. He is traveling with his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). Mortimer comes back from seeing the judge and sees Jonathan in the house. By this time Mortimer has just become a nut case himself. He goes in and out of being in oblivion and alert.
Jonathan and Einstein have a dead body on their hands. When the aunts lets slip that Teddy digs in Panama Jonathan plans to hide the body down there. The aunts will not have it they do not want a stranger among their other bodies. In a scene where Jonathan brings the body down to the cellar, Mortimer stays upstairs and talks to Einstein. He tells Einstein about a play he saw that drove him crazy where a man has his back turned to the bad guy as he is talking and is oblivious to the fact that the bad guy is behind him and sits down in a chair. The bad guy comes up behind the guy and strangles him. Well the same thing happens to Mortimer only Jonathan ties him up.
A new beat cop named O’Hara (Jack Carson) comes into the house because he heard Teddy blow his trumpet again. He sees Mortimer all tied up with Jonathan’s explanation that his brother was just telling them about a play he saw. O’Hara had wanted to meet Mortimer to discuss a play he was writing but Mortimer never met him there due to unusual circumstances so O’Hara decides to keep him tied in the chair so he can hear about his play.
The film goes from nuts to outrageously hysterical after this.
Cary Grant said that he thought he over acted so much in this film that this was his least favorite he made. I think this is one of his best performances he was so hysterical and so perfect. I was dying with him towards the end especially when the police come and they are trying to get Jonathan, he is trying to calmly make a phone call as if there is nothing going on around him. You would have to see it but that is my favorite scene of the film. Priscilla Lane was so good as Elaine I thought she was perfectly cast as Grant’s romantic interest. To me she had the look that was perfect for the film where everyone was going crazy around her, she was not glamorous to the point where she would have been unbelievable in the role she had a that perfect girl next door look. Peter Lorre is always a nervous fidget in the films I have seen him in so he was nothing to outstanding to me.
Frank Capra made a wonderful film. Every scene was beautifully filmed. There were some scenes where he captured shadows in the old house that I thought were great. My favorite scenes were the ones outside the house because they looked like a beautiful autumn night on the east coast and also because the scenery was very well made.
The story was taken from the stage play of the same title with the actual Boris Karloff as Jonathan so the movie Jonathan was made to look like the famed horror actor. The screenplay was written by Julius and Philip Epstein who would go on to write Casablanca. The dialogue is very witty and very fast paced.
Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the best dark/screwball comedies ever made. It takes a morbid subject of two aunts just killing men because they thought they were doing a good dead and making it hilarious. I will always cherish Arsenic and Old Lace as one of the films that got me into classic Hollywood and made me love Cary Grant as an actor. When I first watched the film it was just another movie to me that I thought was funny. Watching it again now appreciating classic Hollywood I love all the more and appreciate the funniness of it. Arsenic and Old Lace is a comedy for everyone no matter if you like old films or not. All you need is a love for comedy films.