MOVIE REVIEW | Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Murderess old ladies…  A terrifying serial killer…  Peter Lorre in all his bug-eyed, creepy glory…  The most suave dude in the history of Hollywood.  These things don’t sound like the makings of a comedy, but in the 40s, when screwball comedies were really firing on all cylinders, they’re exactly the kind of weird, disparate ingredients that lead to really funny movies, like Arsenic and Old Lace.

The movie starts with a crowd at a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankess that descends into a brawl.  I guess it kind of works as a setup to introduce us to the wild world of New York City where anything can happen, but it really has absolutely nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie which really starts a few minutes later.  Cary Grant is Mortimer Brewster, a newspaper theatre critic who has also written several books about the wonders of bachelorhood.  Despite that, he’s waiting in line for a quickie wedding with Priscilla Lane’s Elaine, a preacher’s daughter and next door neighbour of Mortimer’s two sweet, old, eccentric aunts.

Cut to the aunts’ house in Brooklyn where Mortimer races home to tell them the news before rushing off on his honeymoon to Niagara Falls.  Except, his quick visit turns into a long night of murder, misunderstandings, revelations of terrible family secrets, a nut job who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and general wackiness.   And all that happens before Mortimer’s long lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns as a horribly disfigured madman, accompanied by the creepy Dr Einstein, a perfectly cast Peter Lorre with his schtick turned up to 11.

There are times when the stage play origins of Arsenic and Old Lace become plainly obvious.  But while that’s usually a criticism of film adaptations of plays, it generally works here.  With the majority of the movie taking place in real time and on one set, it always works to highlight the constant pressure of the many balls in the air, countless spinning plates and other metaphorical obstacles, distractions and farcical contrivances that make it so much fun.

The real surprise for me was the performance of Cary Gant.  I don’t think I was overstating things when I called him the most suave dude in the history of Hollywood.  He has an effortless coolness and confidence that dominates almost everything he does.  But in Arsenic and Old Lace, he’s a mugging, broad, slap sticky goofball, and I loved every second of it.

It’s rare that a movie gets the mixture of terror and comedy just right, and they really nail it here.  Jonathan, the long lost, black sheep brother, is legitimately terrifying.  Peter Lorre basically plays his sidekick role for laughs, yet every time the two are together it works, and never comes off as two conflicting tones clashing or negating the other.  The two aunts and ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ are big, broad, silly and over the top, but close to perfect in everything they do.  And the out of character performance for Grant really was a great surprise.

I imagine Arsenic and Old Lace is the kind of movie people have in mind when they say, “they sure don’t make them like they used to”.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Directed By – Frank Capra
Written By – Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein  

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