Arsenic and Old Lace, by Albert W. Vogt III

Thankfully, another Cary Grant movie came across my suggestion box that is my social media.  Speaking of which, I find it so strange that if I use more than three words in trying to elicit requests, practically nobody participates.  Are we truly in a post-apocalyptic (I am being dramatic) Twitter world where it is 280 characters or bust?  This saddens me.  What does not sadden me is watching a quality film like Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), starring the incomparable Cary Grant.

I was initially confused by the beginning of Arsenic and Old Lace.  The opening talks of it being Halloween in Brooklyn, while also showing clips of a game between the Dodgers and Yankees.  And love is in the air?  I could not fathom what Halloween, Brooklyn, baseball, and love had to do with each other, particularly as we next focus on famed playwright and critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in a busy line with his bride Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) trying to obtain a marriage certificate.  He is attempting to keep a low profile since most of his scribblings have been about the joys of bachelorhood, and he does not want his reputation to be sullied by his evident marital bliss.  As we shall find out, this is not the only secret he will attempt to keep under wraps.  We then shift to a neighborhood in Brooklyn where Sergeant Brophy (Edward McNamara) is introducing Officer O’Hara (Jack Carson) to the residents on the beat that the junior officer will be taking over for the sergeant.  It is during this stroll that they come to the Brewster house.  There lives two kindly old ladies, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha Brewster (Jean Adair), along with their deranged nephew (John Alexander), who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt.  Mortimer and Elaine arrive shortly thereafter to celebrate their nuptials with Mortimer’s aunts, who raised him, before going off on their planned honeymoon to Niagara Falls.  It is convenient, too, because Elaine lives next door to the Brewsters, and can therefore speedily pack for their trip.  This is important to remember because they keep a taxi outside waiting for their departure with the meter running.  What derails the lovebirds’ excursion is a curious discovery by Mortimer in his aunts’ living room: the corpse of one Mr. Hoskins in the storage space under the window seat.  Mortimer confronts his aunts, and they act surprised that Mortimer should find this out of the ordinary.  You see, Abby and Martha had been advertising a room to rent to any older, lonely men looking for a home in which to stay, and I truly mean stay.  Once there, the older gentlemen are given poisoned wine and pass away.  And because they apparently have Teddy Roosevelt living in their house, the old ladies tell him to dig another lock for the Panama Canal in their basement where they bury the bodies.  Abby and Martha see what they are doing as an act of charity for poor souls who have nowhere to go, and they make sure to give them a proper Christian burial.  Poor, dear, Mr. Hoskins, they often say.  Mortimer is quite shocked by this revelation, and promptly all but forgets about Elaine, much to her disappointment.  Instead, he frantically works to have Teddy committed, thinking he would make the perfect fall-guy if these deaths were discovered.  While he is out obtaining the commitment papers, his long-lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up at his aunt’s house with his own corpse in tow.  All we know about him to this point is that he is ugly, and Mortimer thinks he is likely in prison somewhere.  He probably should be as when he arrives he and his partner, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), are on the run from the law, and they are carrying with them the cadaver of one of Jonathan’s murder victims.  When they find out about the grave-like holes being made in the cellar, they decide it is the perfect place to stash their own corpse, to his aunts’ horror.  The twelve bodies down there are “friends,” not some stranger like Mr. Spinalzo, Jonathan’s victim.  Now Mortimer returns and suddenly he has the joint problems of his aunts and Jonathan to deal with, let alone trying to get Teddy to Happy Dale, the institution to which he hopes to have Teddy assigned.  Because Mortimer stands in Jonathan’s way, the criminal brother decides to do away with the writer and critic.  In the middle of tying up Mortimer and torturing him, in walks Officer O’Hara checking on a disturbance caused by one Teddy’s many random bursts of trumpeting.  Instead of immediately untying Mortimer, O’Hara launches in to a description of a play he has been writing.  Everything gets worked out, though, when Dr. Einstein, wary of Jonathan’s violence, knocks Jonathan out, leading to the criminal’s arrest.  As more police arrive, as well as Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton) from Happy Dale, Mortimer sees an opportunity to take care of all his worries.  When his aunts protest at Teddy being taken away, he offers to have them committed as well, to which they are all too happy to agree.  They need one last doctor’s signature, which Dr. Einstein provides before hurrying off.  Finally, Abby and Martha reveal to Mortimer that he is not actually a Brewster, lifting the burden of his family’s checkered past from him.  He then joyfully carries off Elaine, who had just discovered the bodies in the basement, kissing her until she forgets all about their troubles.  They all presumably live happily ever after.

If the above description of Arsenic and Old Lace sounds sinister, then my apologies for misleading you.  The film is actually a comedy, and it is one of those where you have to listen carefully to catch all the lines.  There are some great ones, too.  What makes the film, though, is Grant’s performance.  His reactions to the matter-of-fact way Abby and Martha describe their peculiar habit, the sweetness dripping from every murderous word, are priceless.  Grant has a reputation, I believe, for playing suave and sophisticated ladies’ men.  However, his early work contains some comedic performances like this one, and I Was a Male War Bride (1949), that demonstrate his excellent acting range.  The others do a great job as well, and there are some hilarious running gags, such as Jonathan’s resemblance to Boris Karloff, that make for a rich film experience.  Sure, there are characters who clearly enjoy killing that are presented sympathetically, and that is a difficult concept for a Catholic like me to get his head around.  In a sense, Abby and Martha are assisting in suicide, albeit unwittingly if that makes any sense at all, because they see it as charity.  That is a big no from this Catholic.  However, can you imagine how much worse this would be if they decided to redo it today?  Gone would be the whimsy, the over-the-top performances, and the innocent love between Elaine and Mortimer.  It would likely be replaced with blood and gore, a bunch of foul-mouthed characters, and copious amounts of nudity.  In short, it would be a slasher film.  I pray they do not remake this film.

There is not much else to say about Arsenic and Old Lace.  I think it would be okay for any audience to watch it, though I could see younger people being bored or not getting it.  I just wish they still made movies like this one, but that is probably never going to happen.  Oh well.  Here is to Cary Grant.


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