Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Genre: Crime Comedy and Screwball Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 58 min.

Release Date: September 23rd, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Frank Capra Actors: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Edward Everett Horton, Peter Lorre, John Alexander, Jack Carson, James Gleason, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Grant Mitchell




ooks like the same suckers get married every day.” In New York, at the marriage license bureau, dramatic critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), the very symbol of bachelorhood (“marriage is a superstition!”), is in line with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), attracting the attention of nosy newspapermen vying for a scoop on the unheard-of union. Though he detests drawing attention to his situation, Mortimer can’t bring himself to delay the official documentation.

Meanwhile, at the Brewster residence in Brooklyn, Elaine’s father, Reverend Harper (Grant Mitchell), visits with the elderly Brewster sisters, Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair), as well as a kooky brother (John Alexander) who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. “He’s a very interesting character.” They’re a charitable, sweet family, if a touch eccentric, always welcoming passerby into their home. And, in private, Mortimer is no different, perpetually exuding an effervescence like a kid on Christmas.

All set for a Niagara Falls honeymoon, Mortimer is about to depart when he discovers a dead body hidden away inside the windowseat of the home; it may be Halloweentime, but this is too much. He immediately suspects Roosevelt, but his aunts confess straight away, behaving as if there’s nothing peculiar about having poisoned the poor bloke (with a cocktail of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide) and stashed the corpse. “We never dreamed you’d peek.” Dumbfounded yet distressed, Mortimer frets over a solution to the problem – until the gentle old ladies casually mention that the latest murder victim makes an even dozen, all buried in the basement. And they even collect trophies: the hats of their dupes. “You’re too old to be flying off the handle like this.”

The premise is wholly original, brilliantly taking a morbid notion and mixing it with a bit of slapstick, romance, and Grant at his frantic, befuddled best. Try as he might, Mortimer can’t seem to reason with his oblivious aunts, who think nothing of cheerily continuing their serial killing streak. “This is developing into a very bad habit!” To complicate things further, disfigured nephew Jonathan (Raymond Massey, clearly resembling Boris Karloff) returns to the family home, accompanied by unreliable plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), both seeking a hideout from the police for knocking off an acquaintance of their own.

“We’ve always wanted to hold a double funeral.” Playing out along the lines of “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” crossed with “Kind Hearts and Coronets” – and a number of Hitchcock films involving troublesome cadavers (all of which premiered after “Arsenic and Old Lace”) – with a dollop of “You Can’t Take It With You,” this singular undertaking actually has too much going on. In its fast-paced, scatterbrained pandemonium, the varying characters and their intersecting stories rarely seem to fit together smoothly. Jonathan in particular is too menacing and violent for this formula; no one reacts appropriately to his morbid behavior. The comedy can’t surface or find harmony when he’s onscreen.

“Insanity runs in my family.” There are also too many supporting personas – from a replacement beat cop (Jack Carson) to a sanitarium director (Edward Everett Horton) to a psychiatrist (Chester Clute) to a cab driver (Garry Owen). Most provide additional comic relief (and self-referential silliness), though the predicaments aren’t inherently funny, especially when the crazy aunts disappear for long spells. And Elaine vanishes for chunks of time as well, removing one of the main elements for softening the darker subject matter. And most of the last act is an overlong, circular approach to repetitive gags from before. “I knew this would end up in a nuthouse!”

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10