Movie Critique – Arsenic and Old Lace

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: It is a completely hilarious dark comedy with a sociopathic murderous strain hidden beneath that Frank Capra exploited thoroughly. Brilliant acting by some great actors, marvelous direction; amazing sets, the movie makes for a memorable watch. 

Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1944 American black comedy starring Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Peter Lorre and Priscilla Lane in the lead cast. Directed by Frank Capra the film was based on Joseph Kesselring's 1941 play of the same name. Screen adaptation was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein; a duo of brothers. Capra co-produced the film with Jack L. Warner; and was released by Warner Bros. 

Mortimer Brewster (portrayed by Cary Grant) who has disillusions on marriage, falls in love with Elaine Harper (portrayed by Priscilla Lane) and marries her. However right before he leaves for his honeymoon, when he returns to Abby (portrayed by Josephine Hull) and Martha (portrayed by Jean Adair), his aunts living in his family home, he inadvertently unearths some Brewster family's dark secrets that spin his mind even for a writer that he was.

I don’t remember where I first heard this movie, but it has been on my list for a long time. Finally I could watch it, again courtesy of Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel. And here is my review.

Due to contractual agreements with the play's producers the film was not be released until the play stopped its run, making the film to be released 3.5 years after the filming completed, as the show ran for that long. Several actors reprised their roles from the Broadway show in the film including the Brewster sisters by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair. While Boris Karloff (who could not be part of the film) got top billing in the theatrical version, Grant got top billing in the film version.

A strong connection exists between Jean Adair and Cary Grant. Twenty years prior to the film was released Adair had nursed a very sick vaudeville performer, Archie Leach, back to health, who would go on to become Cary Grant. They were very old friends by the time they both acted in this film. It clearly comes across in the chemistry between them in the movie, even though Grant considered this his least favorite film. His expressions are priceless though.

Priscilla Lane makes a pretty Elaine to Grant's Mortimer. She has spunk and at the same time the weird scarredy cat-ish portrayal of women back then. I think she looked and acted brilliantly with spot-on chemistry with Grant. 

With the low key lighting usage, the filmmakers created a spooky effect to the plot. The movie has a subtle thread of darkness woven within the humor; a sad situation of a family member's deluded mind that the family try to keep it within themselves; encouraging the delusions instead of treating them; and a more deeper secretive murderous strain in the family.

Capra is known for making films showcasing American values, such as the 1946 American Christmas family fantasy film It's a Wonderful Life; 1941 comedy drama Meet John Doe. This movie slightly deviates from his norms, in being a comedy. Although he had made great comedies earlier to this as well such as the 1934 pre-Code romantic comedy It Happened One Night

On a satirical fun note, the murder cocktail used in the plot is made of a gallon of elderberry wine, 1 teaspoon full of arsenic, 1/2 a teaspoon full of strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide. Pretty deadly and lethal if I may say so.

The opening and closing credits are shown on paintings or drawings of witches, cats, owls, potions, and everything related to witchcraft. And the movie begins with a title card with a preface into the movie. Cast is listed as "The Players" at the end of the film; as the norm was back then.

Raymond Massey plays the part of Jonathan Brewster in the film, which was played by Boris Karloff in the play. Since Karloff couldn’t appear in the film, the actor Massey's face is transformed to look like Karloff; which the characters adlib in their dialogues as well.

It is a completely hilarious dark comedy with a sociopathic murderous strain hidden beneath that Frank Capra exploited thoroughly. Brilliant acting by some great actors, marvelous direction; amazing sets, the movie makes for a memorable watch. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. The play was adapted to radio for a 30 minute show by The Screen Guild Theater and aired on Nov 25, 1946.  Another one hour adaptation was broadcasted on Jan 25, 1948 by the Ford Theater. 

b. The film and Broadway plot were inspired by the serial killings done by Amy Archer-Gilligan, a Windsor, Connecticut resident, between 1907 and 1916. A total of 60 elderly residents of the care home Gilligan ran.

c. Look out for Jack Carson as Officer O'Hara in the film; in one of his earlier bit roles before he moved on to bigger roles in movies such as the 1945 American crime drama film Mildred Pierce and the 1942 American comedy-crime drama film Larceny, Inc.

d. A new model of "French Telephone" with microphone and ear piece in the same unit was provided by the Bell Company; and takes a prominent place in the film - an aggressive product placement indeed.

e. Supposedly there is a tombstone in the film which has the name Archie Leach. Cary Grant's birth name is Archie Leach. It is supposed to be in this scene (picture below), but I couldn’t read the tombstones surrounding Grant clearly to see it. Also it is an inside joke played by the film makers. In the 1940 American screwball comedy His Girl Friday, Grant's character Walter responds to a threat by saying, "listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." As a joke, the filmmakers interred the dead Mr. Leach in the Brooklyn Cemetery near the Brewster's home in this film. 

f. Season 5 Episode 3 of Murder, She Wrote TV series, titled Mr. Penroy's Vacation has strong similarities with this plot. It was aired first on November 6, 1988.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the opening title cards, the film is said to be beginning at 3PM. However in the immediate scene where Mortimer and Elaine are at the window of the marriage bureau, the clerk greets them with "Good morning, children."

b. You can see the wire that is powering the flickering light in Dr. Einstein's (portrayed by Peter Lorre) hand clearly when he turns it on while he falls into the window seat.

c. After Officer O'Hara leaves, Mortimer closes the door firmly shut. However a few seconds later when he is leaving the house, the door is half open already. 

d. Einstein is trying to take hold of Mortimer's hand and pull him to the door. At the door, in a shot from one angle you can see that Mortimer snaps off Einstein's hands off him. But the very next scene shown from a different angle, Einstein is seen holding Mortimer's arm and trying to push him out the door.

e. Police Lieutenant Rooney (portrayed by James Gleason) is mistakenly gets addressed as Captain by Mortimer towards the end of the film.


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