IMDB #245: Arsenic And Old Lace

Hey, it’s nearly the weekend, and we’re taking a look back to 1944, a simpler time when we were caught up in some sort of European tea party with a short mustachioed gentleman, and apparently we had a national cinematic hunger for corpses and crazy little old ladies. Hence, Arsenic And Old Lace.

The Key Players:

Frank Capra directs, the master of both the heartstrings in time-revered feel good stories like It’s A Wonderful Life, and master of American pride and nationalism in his Why We Fight series of propagandatainment. But at least he put his money where his mouth was- he enlisted in the Signal Corps in 1941 during the filming of this movie, and received a delay of his order to report to finish editing it.

Cary Grant is of course, Cary Grant- the giant name above the bill and will probably come up again before I’m done with this. Formerly known as Cary Lockwood, born Archibald Leach (what was wrong with that name? I think it has a ring to it), he loses his usual debonair charm for an antic straight-man character in a family of psychopaths.

Priscilla Lane, our second billed star, is a former sister act singer turned movie star who’s most famous for this role, but starred opposite Ronald Reagan a couple times, and in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.

Peter Lorre, most recognizable from The Maltese Falcon, has a small role as an alcoholic German plastic surgeon alongside supporting turns from John Alexander, Raymond Massey, Jean Adair, and Josephine Hull.

The Story:

The beauty of this tale, set on Halloween, is that it sets you up to expect one type of screwball comedy, but then turn the tables and deliver another.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a bachelor famous for books about the foolishness and impossibility of marriage that has just gotten married (to Lane). The happy couple stops off at the old family home of his two kindly aunts, who are the gentlest, charitable souls you could ever expect to meet, who take care of Brewster’s mentally ill cousin Teddy, who believes that he’s Teddy Roosevelt.

Got all that? Now, while Lane is elsewhere, Grant starts looking for the manuscript to his latest anti-marriage book, to get rid of before his new wife sees it. He looks under the window seat, but quickly turns to look elsewhere- there was just a corpse in it.

Wait, what? So begins a hilarious series of over-the-top Grant double takes as his aunts sweetly explain that they let in lonely old men with no family, and then put a merciful end to their suffering with elderberry wine laced with Arsenic, Stricnine, and “just a pinch of cyanide.” Grant tries to immediately ship Teddy off to “Happydale” sanitarium for safekeeping while putting off what to do about his homicidally misguided aunts.

Then Grant’s long lost brother shows up (Massey), a gangster who’s had just had his face operated on by drunken sidekick Peter Lorre, who made him look like Boris Karloff by mistake- in the play this was based on, this was a self-referential gag, since Karloff played the role himself. They have a body of their own to get rid of, incidentally, and multiple corpse related hijinks ensue.

The Artisticness:

You can really tell this used to be a play, as nearly every scene is set at the old house or just outside it, except for the fake-out beginning scene where paparazzi try to expose Grant for a pretend marriage hater.

The slapstick comic timing, and in particular the rhythm of the dialogue are excellent- I’m a sucker for that old screwball stuff. I can’t be more excited for His Girl Friday and the like- I even had much more patience for recent throwback efforts like the Coen brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty and George Clooney’s Leatherheads than most people.

Personally, all I knew of Capra was the Why We Fight series, and earnest pieces like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington- I never woulda pegged the guy for a farcical black comedy.

The music is the standard orchestral swells and crashes, and Lorre in particular is great with a leering, cringing delivery. Visually I can’t saw I saw that much panache, but there is so fun work with shadows on the wall and so forth, especially when the evil brother enters the picture.


It all ends tidily, as screwball comedies often do. The brother gets arrested, the aunts and cousin Roosevelt all get committed to the sanitarium, and Grant even finds out he was adopted into the family and didn’t inherit the murder gene (apparently even great great Brewster was prone to “scalping the Indians”).

Lane, who Grant ignores and outrages while he distractedly tries to deal with the situation, actually discovers the bodies in the basement just as the whole affair looks to be tidied up- What does Grant do? Just kisses her until she forgets about. Ah, the forties! Thirteen dead men, you say- here’s a smooch.

And although there’s a dead body that drunk the poisoned wine before the events of the film began, nobody actually dies of arsenic in this film. I was kind of disappointed- is that wrong?


Overall- Should It Be Higher, Lower?

Well, damn, given the pedigree, I’dve thought it would be higher than 245. Personally, I enjoyed this movie a lot, and haven’t laughed this much at any other film made before 1950. Definitely my second favorite of the countdown so far (behind Shaun Of The Dead).

The Legacy:

Well, I’d definitely heard of this film, but clearly had no idea what is was about- poisonous doilies? It doesn’t help that the poster (Grant throwing Lane over his shoulder) makes it look like a gender comedy, and not a black comedy set on Halloween.

But it’s definitely the most revered and remember of the list so far, even though Grant cited it as one of his least favorite performances. It was remade as a 1969 ABC Movie of the week starring Bob Crane, and again in 1971 as a German TV movie, so that’s something as well.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

The first scene in the film is actually a completely random and inexpicable riot between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Um, ok?

Elsewhere on YouTube- a clip reel set to “Bad Day” by R.E.M. (?), and some no-goodnick has actually posted the entire thing in pieces starting here, if the law doesn’t bother you.

Leftover Thoughts:

  • The Roosevelt gag runs pretty thin after a while, what with the bugle playing and the constant charging up imaginary San Juan Hills, but you have to admire the commitment to the bit, I guess.
  • Two changes from the play to the film: someone does drink the wine and die, but the studio wasn’t big on innocent people kicking it (you know, besides the thirteen already dead). Also, when (spoiler) Mortimer finds out he’s adopted, he yells “Elaine, did you hear! I’m a bastard!” in the play, which is softened to “I’m the son of a sea captain!” for the national audience. Really? (end spoiler)
  • “When you say ‘others,’ do you mean… others?”
Coming up on the top 250 Countdown:

Monday: Network

Wednesday: Roman Holiday

Friday: A Christmas Story

1 Response to "IMDB #245: Arsenic And Old Lace"

  1. Anonymous says:

    It's funny that "It's A Wonderful Life" was a box office failure when it opened because people found it to be too much of a "downer."

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