ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
(director: Frank Capra; screenwriters: play by Joseph Kesselring/Julius J. Epstein/Philip G. Epstein; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Max Steiner; cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein), John Alexander (Teddy Roosevelt Brewster), James Gleason (Lt. Rooney), Jack Carson (Officer O’Hara), Edward Everett Horton (Mr.Witherspoon), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Garry Owen (Cabbie), Edward McNamara (Brophy), John Ridgely (Saunders), Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Frank Capra; Warner Bros.; 1944-B/W)
“Grows increasingly tiresome.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Frank Capra (“It’s A Wonderful Life”/”Here Comes The Groom”) directs this dusty black comedy, whose physical comedy timing seems off the mark and its farce moments are unnecessarily padded from its stage production. It’s based on a hit Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring, and is overwritten by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein.
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a NYC drama critic and is on record for being against the institution of marriage. But on Halloween elopes to Niagara Falls with the Brooklyn girl Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) despite objections from her preacher father (Grant Mitchell). Before marrying, he has a bad case of nerves and returns to his Brooklyn home, where he was raised with his brother John (Raymond Massey) by his kindly spinster aunts, Martha (Jean Adair) and Abby (Josephine Hull). There he’s shocked to find a dead person sitting by the window. He soon finds out his sweet aunts are batty and have poisoned the wine of lonely men visitors and for years have been committing mercy killings. With the help of her mental case brother, who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt (John Alexander), the dead men have been buried in the basement until there are now 13 bodies.
While Mortimer visits his former Brooklyn residence to get Teddy to sign his voluntary commitment to a private sanitarium, Happy Dale Sanitarium, his long-lost madman brother Jonathan has escaped from a nuthouse in Indiana for the criminally insane and visits his former Brooklyn home with the intention of killing Mortimer. The deranged escapee is accompanied to Brooklyn by his creepy crime associate, the fake plastic surgeon who goes by the name of Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The good doctor has by accident changed Jonathan’s appearance to look like Boris Karloff (the joke being that Boris played Massey’s part on Broadway).
The bungling police, in the forms of beat cops O’Hara (Jack Carson) and Brophy (Edward McNamara), show up to answer the neighbor complaints of the racket Teddy makes by constantly blowing his bugle. Meanwhile Mortimer tries to protect his aunts and runs around being goofy and doing double-takes at the weird stuff happening. While the critic is tied up by his madman brother, the dumb cops think this is done as a demonstration for a play he’s reviewing.
The comedy is gentle with no edge, and grows increasingly tiresome. Capra doesn’t seem good at comedy, which leaves it as a film that should have been a scream but instead turns into a clunky outdated comedy.
REVIEWED ON 8/1/2020 GRADE: C+