Wednesday, August 22, 2018

My Classic Movie Essentials - Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Setting: 1940s Brooklyn, New York though there is no mention of the war so it could easily be 30s or 50s.

Mortimer Brewster - Cary Grant
Elaine Harper - Priscilla Lane
Jonathan Brewster - Raymond Massey
Dr. Einstein - Peter Lorre
Aunt Abby - Josephine Hull
Aunt Martha - Jean Adair
"Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster - John Alexander

Premise:  A drama critic learns on his wedding day that his beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs.  Hijinks and mayhem ensue.

My Thoughts:  This is billed as a farce which it is but it isn't what I usually associate with the term farce.  This isn't a Three Stooges kind of humor (not that there's anything wrong with that) relying on physical humor or just pure silliness to get a laugh.  This is a perfectly ordinary man who finds himself in the most absurd situation with rather dire implications for two people who he genuinely cares for.  Throw in a very sinister brother and another who is convinced he's Teddy Roosevelt.  This is one of those movies with a lot of chaos - people talking over each other and frequently at cross-purposes - which is one of my favorite types of humor.

The Teddy Roosevelt character is hilarious with lots of bugle blowing and yellow fever victims.  His expression when the new police officer doesn't salute is hilarious and he never drops the over the top Teddy Roosevelt personality.  I love Cary Grant in this movie.  He's so suave and elegant at the beginning and by the end he's so not and it's kind of fun to see him unravel as the movie goes on.  Peter Lorre is wonderful as well.  He plays such a fantastic spineless villain and his whining added a nice element of humor to Raymond Massey's evil Jonathan.

This story was originally a play and the aunts and Grant's love interest, Elaine, are played by the actresses who had originated the characters of Broadway.  I can definitely see the more theatrical acting in the aunts especially which at times makes their performances feel a little stilted or exaggerated.  However, it's also fitting with the characters so I didn't really feel like it was distracting.  As well, while the terms used to describe mental illness are definitely from the time I don't feel like it made light or made fun of any mental health issues and none were insulting (mostly just the terms insane or crazy and I think the occasional nuts).  The characters were all kind and supportive to Teddy (other than neighbors complaining about his bugle blowing in the middle of the night which frankly seems reasonable).

What Makes This Movie Essential - Cary Grant.  Pretty much everything Cary Grant does is essential and this is one of his best comedic roles.

Read Alike - For some reason I'm thinking the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen.  Other than the time period there really isn't anything in common but they both have the same chaotic humor with some murder mixed in.


  1. I do like older movies that have that penchant for chaos, like you described, or even zaniness. They don't do that anymore! And Cary Grant. Can't believe I've never seen this!

  2. I've seen this movie but don't really remember it even after reading your post. I think it's time to watch it again.

  3. I've seen this one countless times when I was younger as my parents used to sit and watch movies like that one on tv with me when they came on. There was no dvd or any similar thing yet, so we were at the mercy of what the old movie channels wanted to play :) This is a funny movie on so many levels-- I love Teddy doing his "charge" up the steps...

    Interesting note: I've been to one of the spots where they filmed it-- a church cemetery that was not that far a walk from my early childhood home!

  4. I only watched this one for the first time a few years ago and it is so charming and funny

  5. I haven't seen this movie in ages, but I love it! I should really re-watch it.

  6. I love Cary Grant and love this movie!! :)

  7. I don't think I ever saw this. It sounds wonderful and I'm going to see if I can get the DVD from my library.

  8. I have not watched this in a long time. You've got me wanting to make some popcorn and visit it again!

  9. Oh... this is a delight. Such sharp characterisation and a quirky plot with plenty of humour:))

  10. I don't think I have seen this one. At least I don't remember it. I really need to brush up on my old movies.

  11. My comment was eaten again! 😱

    Short version... I love Cary Grant, and I got to see the play on Broadway with Polly Holiday (kiss my grits Flo from Alice) and Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker). I liked the way this movie kept the feel of a play in a way. ☺

  12. Terrific review on a marvelous classic. I adore all the Cary Grant movies (as I've been know to state hundreds of times), and often call watching them research for one of my novel series since one of my characters was modeled on Grant (they don't make actors like him anymore). This particular movie is one of my all-time favorites. My family makes Arsenic & Old Lace one of our Christmas movie traditions, and we all marvel how it's just as funny when you know what's going to happen--something not a lot of movies can live up to.

  13. I adore this movie - but then I adore almost everything Cary Grant was every in!