Movies in History: Arsenic and Old Lace

Plot: Cary Grant portrays Mortimer Brewster, a famous arts critic who marries the girl next door on Halloween. He returns to the Brooklyn home he shares with his two maiden aunts to pack for his honeymoon (at Niagara Falls, of course), when he discovers a corpse in the window seat. Mortimer is shocked to learn that his sweet old aunts have been poisoning lonely old men with arsenic laced elderberry wine,  and burying them in the “Panama Canal” that Teddy has dug in the cellar. He spends the rest of the movie frenetically trying to have Teddy committed, in the hope that if the authorities should happen to learn about the bodies in the basement, they’ll blame it all on Teddy. Midway through,  long lost, psychopathic third brother Jonathan appears on the scene with his plastic surgeon and another corpse in tow.

Arsenic and Old Lace was released in 1944. It’s in black and white and  very much like the stage play that inspired it, but when viewed as a period piece, one of the “madcap comedies” of the time, it doesn’t come across as dated. Cary Grant bears the weight of the plot, and he’s brilliant. It’s a joy to watch him convey a full spectrum of emotion in a ten second sequence of facial expressions.  Raymond Massey plays the role of Jonathan, who becomes enraged whenever anyone mentions his resemblance to Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre that of Dr. Einstein, who keeps promising to make him look like someone else. The aunts, some cops, Mortimer’s new wife, and the sanitarium director make frequent appearances to move the story along.

In spite of its macabre theme, this is very much a comedy, with lines that hold up quite well some seventy years after they were uttered. Great fun, full of laughs, and vintage in the best sense of the word.

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