SHE PASSED OUT ON CARY! NO WONDER... SHE’S JUST DISCOVERED HIS FAVOURITE AUNTS HAVE POISONED THEIR 13TH GENTLEMAN FRIEND!
Madness. Mass murder. Marriage. Three things that some may think are not to be considered an appropriate subject for comedy. After all, what exactly is so funny about two supposedly sweet old women going around killing people with poisoned wine? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot actually. In fact, there’s a great tradition in stories that takes an irreverent and humorous look at something that is inherently dark and unfunny, such as death or war or madness. Often these films are incredibly sarcastic and witty, albeit in a very pessimistic kind of way. In 1944, Frank Capra, the man known best for films of unbridled optimism and hope, made a film that would come to be a fairly early example of the kind of dark humoured films that we call the ‘black comedy’.
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a drama critic and author, well known for his criticism of all things matrimonial. Now, though, he has married Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) and is about to go on his honeymoon. All he needs to do is stop by and tell his two aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). However, whilst there, he stumbles upon his dear aunts’ secret: murdering lonely old men that come to stay with them, and burying them in the cellar.
Arsenic and Old Lace began its life as a play on Broadway, written by Joseph Kesselring. Although he originally conceived it as a straight dark drama, he was convinced to turn it into a dark comedy instead. Clearly, it was good advice. It became the most successful play Kesselring ever wrote, and an instant hit with audiences. Such was its immediate popularity that a film adaptation was put into production in the same year the play premiered, in 1941. The film itself would remain unreleased for three years, having been contractually obliged to wait for the play to end its theatrical run, so as not to end up competing for an audience. As such, 1944 was the year of release for the film.
The play underwent some changes in the transition from stage to screen, which was adapted by twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein. Owing to the same Hollywood Production Code that I mentioned back in my look at Angels with Dirty Faces, the body count was reduced slightly and the fate of the two murderous old aunts was subsequently altered. There was also a slightly post-modern in-joke put in regarding the character of Jonathan, Mortimer’s sinister and sociopathic brother, who was played onstage by the great Boris Karloff, most famous as Frankenstein’s Monster. Although three members of the stage production were given leave to star in the film version (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander), Boris Karloff was kept back for the stage version, since they didn’t want to lose the draw of their biggest star. As such, there is a recurring joke about how Jonathan, now portrayed by Raymond Massey and some facial prosthetics, looks so much like Frankenstein’s Monster, which he always takes very poorly. There’s also a line of Mortimer’s toward the end of the play in which he says the word “bastard”. This was changed to comply with the Production Code’s regulations on profane language. However, the main points of the film stayed intact. The plot essentially remains the same, and the characters remain just as mad. And when I say mad, I don’t mean in that overused sense that people do nowadays (“I’m mad, me. I put butter on everything!”... sigh). No, these people are legitimately out of their minds. As Mortimer tells Elaine, “insanity runs in my family... It practically gallops.”
Frank Capra was the man tasked with directing the film version, which seems like a weird kind of joke in itself when considering the fare that Capra is most famous for, but it really makes perfect sense. Capra’s name has long become synonymous with happy endings and good feelings, thanks to the idealistic and hopeful likes of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. However, what really typifies Capra’s work is his ability to take the audience down genuine avenues of darkness and despair before wrenching them back again. It’s precisely because he embraces the darker sides of his films, occasionally dropping the comedy side of things altogether to craft moments that are legitimately sinister, that makes him such a great choice for this film. His direction is often a bit stagey, which is always a potential problem when adapting a play, but it never crosses the line to where you feel like you might as well have seen the stage version. What Capra does bring is a relentless pace to the whole affair, furthering the idea that things just go from bad to worse with an uncontrollable momentum. Indeed, the fact that many of the main characters are mad seems to seep into the film itself, creating a sense of slightly farcical mania about the whole thing. It’s incredibly amusing to watch.
Cary Grant has said that his performance in Arsenic and Old Lace is his least favourite performance of his whole career, considering it too over-the-top and frantic. To be honest, he’s kind of right, but that’s actually part of what makes it work. At the beginning of the film, and in light of his very public declarations about the saccharine nature of all things romantic, Mortimer’s biggest fear is being revealed as a newly married man. It’s also absolutely typical that he would chose to get married on Halloween. The fact that he then has to deal with the fact that his dear sweet old aunts are serial killers, not to mention the repeated interruption from his brothers Teddy and Jonathan, his new wife Elaine, and the police… I’d say the guy is rather justified in being somewhat frenzied. And Grant is so wonderful to watch in this mode. He has the look of a gazelle grazing who suddenly senses a predator and sits bolt upright, eyes wide open. Grant may not like his performance much, but it’s very enjoyable, and is the key to maintaining the energy of the film.
Hull and Adair are an unadulterated delight as Mortimer’s aunts, Abby and Martha. The pair of them so utterly hit the sweet-natured, slightly dotty nature of these characters that it just makes it so much funnier that they are what they are. The key to their characters is that they are not secretly evil or sadistic or even slightly nasty. Everyone thinks they’re all sweet and lovely because they are. They believe they’re just being helpful, taking in the old and lonely souls that have no one else and putting them out of their misery with a nice glass of poisoned wine and a good Christian burial in their cellar. In serial killer terms, they are what would be known as ‘Angels of Mercy’, taking it upon themselves to do away with people they think have no other reason to live, like family or friends. Yes, it’s absolutely appalling, but they are so lovable that you find yourself looking past this homicidal behaviour.
John Alexander plays Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Once again, he’s a character that should be quite tragic on some level, especially since his aunts take some advantage of him. It’s Teddy that buries the bodies in the basement, believing that the holes he’s digging are locks for the Panama Canal and his aunts’ victims are people who died of Yellow Fever. However, Teddy is still really funny, regularly spouting Roosevelt’s catchphrases (“Bully!”, “Dee-light-ed!”) or racing up the stairs yelling “CHARGE!” or blowing his bugle at all hours, hence all the visits from the police.
Raymond Massey is superb as Jonathan, a tall and very imposing presence in the household, always speaking in calm tones and menacing implications. From the moment he enters the house, he remains a constant and legitimate threat to everyone near him, except for Teddy, who holds the real Roosevelt’s lack of fear. A great help in selling just how scary Jonathan really is comes from Peter Lorre, who plays Dr. Herman Einstein. Einstein is Jonathan’s reluctant partner-in-crime and plastic surgeon. He’s also an alcoholic, and is responsible for the face that leads so many to comment on how Jonathan looks like Frankenstein’s Monster. Einstein lives in constant, cowering fear of reprisals.
Priscilla Lane isn’t in the film as much as others, because Elaine keeps getting sent to her house next door so Mortimer can try and clean up the can of worms he’s unwittingly opened. That said, Lane is a welcome presence in the film, mainly because she’s looks so pretty and always shows such worry for Mortimer.
And Max Steiner’s music is excellent, showing a great ability to score the scenes of comedy and darkness with equal precision, throwing in subtle nods and musical cues here and there.
Arsenic and Old Lace is an absolute triumph of mixing real darkness with real comedy. You’ll be amazed at just how much you actually laugh along with the film despite that fact most characters are genuinely insane and have done some appalling things. It’s by virtue of the clever writing, the well-paced direction, and the superb performances on show that make the film such a joy to watch and a classic to this day. If you haven’t seen it… why the hell not? Go. Now. CHAAAARGE!!!