Arsenic and Old Lace: A Hysterical Classic

L-R: Priscilla Lane, Jean Adair, Cary Grant, and Josephine Hull in Arsenic and Old Lace. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Arsenic and Old Lace, a black comedy directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, is just as funny now as it was in 1944.

Shot over the course of eight weeks in late 1941, the film wouldn’t see the light of day until 1944. Broadway plays are always a great source material for films. However, Broadway producers were always worried that movies would impact their attendance. At least, this was the case during the Classic Hollywood era. Because of this, many movies would not be released until after the run on Broadway ended. Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander reprise their role in the film. However, Boris Karloff stayed in the show so that the play wouldn’t lose money during the film’s production. Raymond Massey steps in for Karloff in the film. Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, who would win an Oscar for Casablanca, adapt their screenplay from Joseph Kesselring’s play.

On Halloween, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a writer, marries Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Ironically, Brewster has denounced marriage. Anyway, they go back to their Brooklyn neighborhood so Elaine could pack. Mortimer uses this time to visit his aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), and mentally ill brother Teddy (John Alexander). Teddy believes that he is President Theodore Roosevelt and always charges up the staircase. Anyway, Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat. Naturally, he assumes that it’s because of Teddy. He becomes horrified to learn that his aunts are culprits. Moreover, they are serial murderers!

Just when things couldn’t get worse, Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey) returns home with Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre). Nobody wants him home and it shows. Like his aunts, he is also a serial murderer and brings the body of Mr. Spinalzo with him. I love how they go for hardly any lighting when people are moving dead bodies around. While all of this is going on, Mortimer is trying to commit Teddy to the Happy Dale Sanitarium. He realizes his family has a history of mental illness and decides that he can no longer go forward with his marriage. Chaos continues to ensue as both the cops–including aspiring playwright, Officer Patrick O’Hara (Jack Carson)–and Dr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton) show up. Listen, I’d tell you what happens next but you really should see for yourself.

Unlike a lot of the studio players during this era, Grant was a free agent. Grant had commitments for one film a year at both Columbia and RKO. To make the film, Warner Bros. loaned out Humphrey Bogart to Columbia for Sahara. Of his $150K salary to work on the film, he only kept $50K. The rest went to a combination of the British War Relief (Southern California branch), American Red Cross, USO and another $10K to his agent.

One thing that never gets old while watching this film is Cary Grant’s facial gestures. This is never more true than seeing his reaction after opening the window seat. Grant is one of the best comic actors of all time and his reaction is gold. I mean, how would you react to discovering a corpse? Grant described his performance as being “way over the top.” It was a film that he felt “embarrassed doing it.” The actor felt he “overplayed the character” and that “Jimmy Stewart would have been much better in the film.” Regardless of Cary Grant’s thoughts on the film, Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the best comedies of all time.

DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
SCREENWRITERS: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein
CAST: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, with Raymond Massey, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton, Peter Lorre, James Gleason, and Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Grant Mitchell

Warner Bros. released Arsenic and Old Lace in theaters on September 23, 1944.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.