Arsenic and Old Lace
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Cary Grant often said that his role in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) was his least favorite because of the overacting, but many people who see the film think that his numerous double-takes and frantic behavior are part of what makes it so hilarious. Grant was not known previously for doing such physical comedy, but in this role he goes at it with a manic energy. Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who writes books criticizing the institution of marriage in his spare time. The film begins with Mortimer and his fiancee, Elaine, getting married secretly, then the couple rush home to pack for their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Elaine lives next door to Mortimer's aunts, so he stops off to tell them his good news while Elaine prepares for their journey. While at his aunts' home, he discovers their awful secret: they have been seeking out lonely, elderly men, poisoning them, and burying them in the basement.
This black comedy originated as a play written by Joseph Kesselring. The film version was produced in 1941, but Warner Bros. delayed its release for three years until the stage version finished its run. Frank Capra, famous for films such as It Happened One Night (1934) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was chosen by executive producer Jack Warner to direct the film. Because of the Production Code in Hollywood, a few scenes or dialogue present in the stage version had to be changed or omitted for the film. Mortimer's famous line in the play, "Darling, I'm a bastard!" was changed to "I'm a son of a sea cook!" The film ends with the cab driver's declaration, "I'm not a cab driver. I'm a coffee pot", rather than retaining the final scene from the play. The latter showed the two aunts giving an unhappy, lonely old man a glass of elderberry wine laced with their special blend of poison. But the Production Code only allowed acts such as murder to be shown if the perpetrators were punished by the end of the film.
According to authors Charles Higham and Roy Moseley in their biography, Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, Arsenic and Old Lace was written to Grant's specifications for the screen, which included shooting the film in sequence. Even so, he was often irritable during production, complaining constantly about the set, the props, and the wardrobe of the cast members. At one point he admitted he would rather have starred in a film version of Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit. Of course, tensions on the set weren't helped any after Japan staged its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. The crisis halted production briefly and caused the film to run over budget.
Yet, Arsenic and Old Lace works as a comically grotesque vision of the American family and shares many similarities with the macabre humor of cartoonist Charles Addams. Among the memorable eccentrics are Theodore (John Alexander), Mortimer's young brother, who truly believes he is Teddy Roosevelt at the height of his presidency; the sweet but homicidal duo of Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) who clearly do not recognize the nature of their wrongdoing; Mortimer's older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who "looks like Boris Karloff" and also turns out to be murderous; and the alcoholic Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) who serves as Jonathan's sidekick and co-conspirator. And regardless of Grant's low opinion of himself in the film, Arsenic and Old Lace remains a favorite among his fans.
A final bit of trivia: The Bell company was trying to promote a new kind of phone - the "French Phone" - where the microphone and the earpiece were part of the same unit (on most of the phones at the time, the were separate). In this film and in many others, Bell provided advertising in exchange for the use of the kinds of phones they were trying to promote.
Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra and Jack L. Warner
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster).
BW-119m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
by Sarah Heiman