Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by Frank Capra

There are good comedies and there are great comedies. Arsenic and Old Lace is a great comedy. It achieves greatness through all the elements that make any great film: wonderful script and wonderful performances.

In many ways, in making the movie Frank Capra had only one job: don’t get in the way.

He doesn’t and it plays perfectly.

Based on a hugely popular play by Joseph Kesselring (the movie was actually made in 1941 but not released till the play’s Broadway run was through, 1944), it’s a movie about two nice old ladies who happen to murder lonely strangers and bury them in their basement.

The premise makes it a black comedy but here “black” is nothing like what contemporary black comedies are – there’s no meanness or spite involved, it’s just a dark idea that gets a very silly, frenetic and hilarious treatment. There is no angry subtext here, just jokes.

While a beautifully executed ensemble piece, at it’s heart is Mortimer Brewster, played to the comedic hilt by Cary Grant.

It’s one of Grant’s best comedic performances, one in which his natural comic talent gets free rein. He delivers with facial takes, rapid dialogue and perfectly executed pratfalls.

Mortimer is a theatre critic and bachelor who marries, though he’d like to keep the marriage secret from the public as it runs counter to his somewhat anti-marriage reputation. Headed for his honeymoon, he returns home to his old aunts where he discovers a dead body hidden in the drawing room.

The discovery acts as a starting pistol to the film’s comedy. Once Grant finds it, the film moves into another gear, one that’s screwball and highly energetic.

Contrasting Grant’s slapstick performance are Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, Mortimer’s aunts Abby and Martha. They are calm and gentle and sweet and a bit puzzled by their nephew’s frantic actions. (“Mortimer doesn’t seem himself today …”)

Things are complicated by his uncle (John Alexander), who lives with his aunts, and thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal in the basement (burying the bodies).

It’s compounded by the arrival of Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who happens to be a murderous maniac. He’s accompanied by a disreputable surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). It seems as if the house is populated by lunatics who have run amuck.

As Grant says to his new bride Elaine (Priscilla Lane), “Insanity runs in my family.” He then adds, “It practically gallops!”

Capra likes to fill his scenes with oddball characters and a great deal of activity, such as in the movie You Can’t Take It With You.

Often, it can be a little too chaotic but in Arsenic and Old Lace it’s a bit more controlled, perhaps because so much of it had been established by the Broadway production.

Watching this movie, it reminded me of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry. They are similar black comedies. But it seems obvious that of the two directors, Capra really is the one with the comedic flair.

Hitchcock is a little too dry and droll for the kind of slapstick energy that makes Arsenic and Old Lace work (which may be why Harry is a bit flat.)

And of course, with the brilliant script and exceptional performances, this really was Capra’s movie to wreck. But he doesn’t. Rather, he lets it play and the result is one of the funniest Hollywood movies.

It’s a genuine classic. And if your idea of Cary Grant is simply of the handsome leading man, this is another great example of what a fine actor of comedy he was.

The movie is also gem of an example of the wonderful supporting actors Hollywood use to populate its movies with.

Cary Grant may have been the star but Arsenic and Old Lace pays as much attention to its other characters and this is one of the big reasons it succeeds so well.

Yes, highly recommended. (U.S.): (Canada):

4 Responses

  1. Julia Adelman says:

    I would love a still pic of the dark room, light coming up from basement shot for a class. Can anyone help? Thanks, Julia.

  2. Emmafrank says:

    i need the script for free does any one know where i can get it?

  3. Jill hamlug says:

    I’ve had no luck either

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