I’m not sure what I expected from Arsenic and Old Lace, but it certainly wasn’t this goofy comedy. Perhaps if I had known it was a Frank Capra film I would have watched it much sooner. Yet, here we are. I’m not sure I would have appreciated this film as much had I seen it before this month so maybe it all worked out in the end.
In case you haven’t seen the film, or the stage play it’s based on, this classic s about a particularly insane family: two homicidal aunts (Josephine Hill and Jean Adair), one drama critic (Cary Grant, who discovers their secret on the day of his wedding and the Karloff-esque creep (Raymond Massey) who crashes the special day. The film is full of hilarious moments, over the top acting, and even some spooky moments that make it a really delightful Halloween film. For added Halloween feels, it also takes place on the holiday itself.
If you’re wondering what such a frivolous and fun film is doing on my list of films to watch this month, rest assured, there’s plenty of Halloween spookiness to go around. Despite its light and fun beginning, even with the discovery the Aunts are killing lonely old men who come to their house to rent a room, the movie takes a turn once Jonathan Brewster arrives on the scene. An abusive man since childhood, Jonathan has become a criminal in his adult years and now that he’s on the run (and wearing a new face like Boris Karloff, who played the character on Broadway and gave Capra and the studio permission to use his likeness in the film), he’s dangerous to everyone in the film. Shot with low lighting, the film also has a distinct horror film look. The shadows create so much tension in scenes as well as the orchestral music. It’s a horror wrapped up in an otherwise cheeky comedy.
The film is also so well acted by its company of brilliant men and women. Though they’re not top billed, Abby Brewster (Josephine Hull) and Martha Brewster (Jean Adair) are such an interesting pair to watch on screen. Though they’ve murdered twelve old men by the time we meet them, they have a genuine likeability to them. Perhaps its the little bounce in Abby’s step as she treads around the house after her latest kill or their insistence they are doing a kindness to the gentlemen they poison. The way they dress up for the funerals to give them a proper burial and their delight over the fact their latest was a Methodist.
On the exact opposite end of that spectrum, Raymond Massey gives a chilling performance as Jonathan Brewster. He had such a terrific quality about him that was chilling but still a sort of twisted fun character as well. When he’s talking to his plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) and he’s telling him what he wants done differently for his next face, he’s so matter of fact about it and I found that particularly amusing but then in one of the next scenes he’s reminding his brother that he used to put needles under his fingernails. The guy is a deadly cocktail of crazy on his own in a far more repulsive way than his similarly deranged Aunts.
In the midst of all of this crazy is a love story between marriage cynic, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), and the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). I loved watching their scenes together in particular, especially after they’ve gotten married and they’re chasing each other around the graveyard. They’re a lot of fun and their dynamic is so interesting. They’re also, of course, incredible on their own. When Mortimer first discovers there’s a body in the window seat, Cary Grant’s reaction is priceless. It’s so funny to watch and even though Grant didn’t like his performance in this film for being too over the top, I love it. It fits the almost cheesy nature of the film so well. Elaine brings this real purity to the film. She may be the only sane one in the whole story, but perhaps she’s her own kind of crazy? Crazy in love.
Oooh. That was a real bad joke. Sorry about that. Still, my point is that the acting in this film is truly incredible. I love that some of the original Broadway cast members from the play reprised their role here including the twisted Aunts and their hysterical brother, Teddy Roosevelt Brewster (John Alexander). Fresh off their Broadway runs, these three bring the most subtle and level-headed performances to the screen but that doesn’t make them any less larger than life.
Overall, Arsenic and Old Lace is a truly delightful film to watch. It’s a great choice for the season but not so specific you won’t enjoy watching it all the other times of the year too. If you haven’t seen it, go out and find it because it’s truly a treat to watch. If you have seen it, what are you waiting for? Go watch it again!