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27 February 2021

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane
Jean Adair, Josephine Hull,
Jack Carson, Peter Lorre,
Raymond Massey, John Alexander
Edward Everett Horton

The Criterion Channel regularly throws up recommendations. Recently, it threw up That Touch of Mink, which I reviewed earlier. When this showed up in my recommendations, I remembered that Bollyviewer and I shared a love for all things Cary Grant; I am sure she will appreciate that I watched this in her memory.

Arsenic and Old Lace begins with the famous anti-matrimony theatre critic, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) at the Marriage License Bureau. He’s head-over-heels in love with the lovely Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of Reverend Harper, but he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s getting married – it would be headline news. In fact, he’s already attracted the attention of two reporters on the beat.
 
Mortimer decides he cannot get married, much to Priscilla’s distress, though she doesn’t complain. But one look at her angelically lovely face, her eyes brimming with unshed tears, and Mortimer is lost. What the heck! He is getting married! And so, they do.
 
 
They will go home, tell his aunts and her father, and then go off to the Niagara Falls for their honeymoon – just like everyone else. ‘Home’ is a nice, quiet, residential neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Where Officer Sanders (John Ridgely) is acquainting his young colleague Officer Patrick O’Hara (Jack Carson) with the beat he’s going to take over.
 
 
Noticing a ‘Room for Rent’ notice on one of the oldest houses in the block, O’Hara learns about the Brewster sisters – good, kindly women who are the sweetest, most wonderful people on earth. They are always doing good works, and anyone down on their luck is always welcome at their table. And O’Hara is soon to see that for himself. Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) Brewster are just as kind as Officer Sanders said. They have a huge box of toys for the policemen’s charity, and Abby even has a can of beef broth set aside to give Officer Sanders for his ill wife.But O’Hara gets a shock when Teddy Brewster (John Alexander) comes along with the toys.
 
 

Teddy firmly believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, President of the US. It is clear that both Abby and Martha, and even Officer Sanders, humour this delusion. Officer Sanders salutes Teddy as ‘President’ and elbows O’Hara to do the same.

In the room is also Reverend Harper, Elaine’s father. He tells the police officers that he learnt about mercy and kindness through knowing the Brewster sisters. When Officer Sanders gently reminds the ladies that the neighbours have been complaining about Teddy – he has a propensity to blow his bugle all the time – they inform him that it’s all completely under control. Mortimer has made arrangements for Teddy to be shifted to Happy Dale Sanatorium.

Reverend Harper, who begins to follow the policemen outside, expresses a bit of anxiety over the fact that Mortimer is squiring Elaine around. Given the latter’s strongly expressed views against matrimony, one can’t blame him.

The aunts don’t think so; they dote on Mortimer and contrive to soothe the good Reverend. Once he’s gone, Abby turns to Martha with roguish delight. She has a happy secret to share. But she’s interrupted by Mortimer’s arrival. They’re married!

Abby and Martha are delighted of course. They had been waiting for this news forever and now, they flutter around planning a celebration. Elaine has gone to break the news to her father (not before some good old-fashioned running-around-trees romance).
 
 
Abby mentions Reverend Harper’s reservations. Mortimer cheerfully suggests that they could hold a book burning ceremony, and the good Reverend could light the match. In fact, he had left the notes for his new book, ‘Mind Over Matrimony’ here, and would like to get hold of them before Elaine sees it.

Abby has kept them somewhere, but can’t recall exactly where, so Mortimer potters around looking in all the likely places – opening drawers and cupboards. In one, he finds an old photograph of his other brother, Jonathan. He was disagreeable, says Abby, he “used to cut worms in two with his teeth.” Ah, well, he’s probably in jail or dead by now, says a cheery Mortimer.

Still talking to his loving aunts who are now in the kitchen, Mortimer happens to open the window seat and gets a shock.

 
He’s still reeling when his aunts bustle in with the tea. “There’s a dead body in the window seat,” says Mortimer. Teddy must go now to the sanatorium. Instead of looking shocked or horrified, Abby and Martha are almost affronted. That has nothing to do with Teddy! He’s one of their gentlemen! His name is Mr Hoskins. Taken aback, Mortimer begins a gentle interrogation.
 
 
Mr Hoskins had come in for a meal and died after drinking some elderberry wine. Why? Oh, because the wine was poisoned. Mortimer is still trying to process the fact that his aunts had wilfully murdered someone when he realises that Mr Hoskins is either the 11th (as per Martha’s count) or the 12th (according to Abby) in a long line of old men whose lonely, miserable existence had been mercifully ended by the sisters. The saga had begun with an old man who had had a heart attack at their table after a hot meal. The peaceful look on his face started the sisters on their life’s mission of mercy killing. So… what did they do with the body? What will they do with Mr Hoskin? 
 
Abby smiles gently. The first gentleman had been buried by Teddy in one of the ‘locks of the Panama Canal’ – in their cellar. He had been informed that the man had died of yellow fever. Now, Teddy is to be informed there’s another yellow fever victim. The old ladies are very cheerful, anticipating the lovely service they are going to hold for the late Mr Hoskins. 

Mortimer is living in a nightmare, and when Elaine, tired of waiting for her newlywedded husband to take her off on their honeymoon, arrives, he kisses her, blabbers something incoherent, and hustles her out the front door.

 
Mortimer, realising that his aunts are as batty as his brother, and knowing the legal implications of what they have done, is now hellbent on saving them from the law if he can. He figures that if Teddy, whom everyone knows is cuckoo, can be committed to the sanatorium, he may be able to lay the murders at Teddy’s feet. So, he calls up Mr Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton) to hurry the matter along.  

Mr Witherspoon already has many Roosevelts running around and has no stomach for one more. He suggests that if Teddy could become Napoleon Bonaparte instead, perhaps it would easier all around.

 
But Mortimer, at his wits’ end, and harangues Witherspoon into agreeing to take Teddy as soon as possible. Reluctantly, Witherspoon agrees – providing Mortimer gets an affidavit signed by a judge, a physician and Teddy himself. Mortimer runs off to the Judge, but not before instructing his aunts they are not to let anyone in.
 
 
The aunts agree, but no sooner have they turned off the lights than the doorbell rings. It is Mortimer’s long-lost brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), now with a new face. He’s accompanied by a nervous, seedy plastic surgeon, Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), who has already given Jonathan several ‘new’ faces. Now Jonathan is on the run, Dr Einstein has to give him a new face immediately, and what’s worse, Jonathan has a corpse to get rid of – a certain Spinalzo, now seated comfortably in the back of his car.

Jonathan has no fondness for his childhood home, but it would be a great place to hide in while he’s operated upon.

 
He intimidates his aunts into letting him stay, when Teddy appears and informs Dr Einstein that he, the President, wishes his company while he visits the Panama Canal. Reluctantly, Dr Einstein goes down to the cellar to make an exciting find – there’s a grave-sized pit that would be the perfect resting place for Spinalzo.
 
 
But the aunts had already planned for their gentleman to be taken down to the cellar when everyone is in bed. So, Teddy quickly nips down with Hoskins and places him in the grave. Meanwhile, Jonathan has driven the car around to the back of the house and is pushing Spinalzo’s corpse through the window – Dr Einstein is pulling – when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Elaine. Flustered, Dr Einstein pushes Spinalzo into the window seat, left empty by the removal of Mr Hoskins.
 
 
Unfortunately, Elaine had noticed Jonathan around the back of the house, and the ever-suspicious Jonathan decides Elaine had better stay too. And amidst all this, Mortimer returns – to find a furious Elaine, a long-lost brother, a lush of a doctor, two very-flustered aunts, and a very exasperated taxi driver who’s been waiting around for ages.
 
 
Before Witherspoon comes around to take Teddy away, Mortimer must get rid of Jonathan and Dr Einstein, manage his batty aunts, manage the corpses, and pacify his very-angry-bride whom he’s not sure he should be married to – after all, insanity not only runs in his family, “it practically gallops.”

 Arsenic and Old Lace is based on Joseph Kesselring’s farcical black comedy called ‘Bodies in Our Cellars’. Broadway producer Howard Lindsay got his hands on it, and along with partner and collaborator, Russel Crouse, rewrote the play (without credit). Renamed Arsenic and Old Lace, it opened in 1941 to resounding success. Frank Capra, who watched one of the earliest performances, fell in love with it, saying that he owed himself “a picture like this. I’m not going to reform anybody…. For a long time now, I’ve been preaching one thing or another. Why, I haven’t had a real good time since It Happened One Night (1934)”. The ending was also changed for film, due to the prevalence of the Hay’s Code. The play ends with the aunts offering Witherspoon a glass of elderberry wine.

While he got Jean Adair, Josephine Hull and John Alexander on loan from the theatre to reprise their roles in the film, Capra failed to get Boris Karloff (to Karloff’s regret) because the producers were counting on him to bring in the audiences while the other regulars were in Hollywood. So, Capra put Raymond Massey into Karloff-like make-up, much to the producers’ dismay.

 Capra’s first choice for Dr Einstein was always Peter Lorre who validated his faith. Capra later said, “… he [Lorre] had more to do with his own characterizations than anyone else because he knew himself better than anyone else.” Capra, who let his actors ad lib wherever possible, believed that there was no reason to follow the script word for word with actors who were so much better than the script. And Cary Grant and Lorre ‘… were very good at it,” he said.

Grant, however, was not Capra’s first choice for Mortimer, but Bob Hope had a scheduling conflict. And Grant, although he found Capra very nice, felt that his performance in the film was his worst. “It was not my kind of humour,” he said, “too much hysterical shouting and extremely broad double takes.”  It made him shudder, according to his daughter, Jennifer Grant. He thought he “way over the top”. In fact, he had spoken to Capra about reshooting some of his scenes, but Pearl Harbour occurred, and Capra left to join the Signal Corps.

In my opinion, however, Grant was phenomenal, harnessing the physicality for which he was known, to build the required reactions – especially watch the scenes at the window seat when he first discovers a body, and later, when he discovers a completely different one. It’s the most physical I have seen him since I watched Holiday.

Jean Adair and Josephine Hull are equally fabulous as the two loony aunts whose air of genteel innocence and wide-eyed innocence complement their genuine desire to put old, lonely men out of their misery. Peter Larros as Dr Einstein channels a nervous energy to lend melancholy to his portrayal of a helpless alcoholic.

The film gets a bit tedious in between, with some scenes over the top, or unnecessary – the baseball game, the town office, even Priscilla Lane, lovely as she is.

But I found it a delightful watch and have no bones to pick at, at all.

Trivia: When Cary Grant ran into Jean Adair on the sets of Arsenic and Old Lace, he asked her if she recognized him. Of course, she said, she had watched all his films. Grant reminded her of a time when he was Archibald Leach, a young acrobat touring with Bob Pender’s troupe. He had come down with rheumatic fever and was confined to his room in Rochester, New York. Jean Adair, then appearing at a vaudeville house nearby, heard about the English boy who was ill and brought him fresh fruit and flowers every day until he recovered. Reportedly, Adair was so overcome with emotion, she threw her arms around him and hugged him.  

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