Murder was never as fun as in this riotous and much overlooked Halloween comedy
Being that Halloween is upon us, this week’s classic, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, fittingly takes place on the day of ghosts and goblins. It even begins with the words, “This is a Hallowe’ens tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen and it usually does”. Though it revolves around a delightfully daffy family who hide dead bodies in their cellar, this is not your typical scary movie but an outrageously funny one with just a touch of the macabre. It contains the cleverest use of confusion I've seen in a motion picture, as bodies seem to appear and vanish, and people are not who they think they are, who they look like, or who they appear to be. One of my favorite films as a kid, “Arsenic and Old Lace” still remains in my own comedy Hall of Fame - and I’m not the only one. This beloved film often appears on Best All-Time Film Comedy lists, and was named the 30th Funniest American Movie of All-Time by the American Film Institute (AFI). Directed by Frank Capra (the most successful director of the 1930s and early 1940s), starring Cary Grant (arguably cinema’s greatest comedic actor), and featuring a bevy of stellar veteran actors, this film is pure, first-rate fun.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” is laced (I can’t resist) with a fabulous mix of offbeat characters, and at the center is the peculiar “Brewster” family who live in an old house right next to a cemetery. The “Brewsters” are: “Mortimer”, a famous drama critic known as a symbol of bachelorhood (having written books such as “The Bachelor’s Bible” and “Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure”); the two aunts that raised him, “Abby” and “Martha” (who someone describes as “two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest old ladies that ever walked the earth”); his cuckoo brother "Teddy" (who thinks himself President Theodore Roosevelt); and his scary lost brother “Jonathan” (of whom “Aunt Abby” says, “Just the thought of ‘Jonathan’ frightens me”). We are also introduced to their retiring local cop, “Police Sargent Brophy”, who is turning over what he calls “the nicest and best beat in town” to the slightly dimwitted “Officer O’Hara”. Directly across the cemetery live "Reverend Harper” and his daughter “Elaine”, and at the beginning of the film “Mortimer” and “Elaine” get married. They return to their families to tell of their union, and quickly pack to leave on their honeymoon while their taxi waits. Before he leaves, "Mortimer" searches for notes he wants to destroy for his upcoming book, “Mind Over Matrimony”, and inadvertently finds a dead body in the window seat – and that is just the very beginning of “Arsenic and Old Lace”. From there, true mayhem ensues.
Part of the craziness is when the dreaded mass murderer “Jonathan” appears along with his plastic surgeon and partner in crime, “Dr. Einstein”. The two outlaws skirt the law since “Dr. Einstein” keeps changing “Jonathan’s” face. The last time he operated, “Dr. Einstein” had just seen the film “Frankenstein”, which influenced his work, and an ongoing joke in the film is that people keep saying “Johnathan” looks like the actor Boris Karloff, who played “Frankenstein’s Monster”. You don’t need to have seen the original “Frankenstein” (which scared the bejesus out of its original audiences) to understand most of the jokes, but if you haven’t seen it I highly suggest at least looking at photos from the film, or reading my entry about it (which you can find HERE). If you do, you’ll laugh a bit harder!
This film was based on the highly popular 1941 Joseph Kesselring play, “Arsenic and Old Lace”, which ran on Broadway from January 1941 until June of 1944. Capra saw the play and immediately tried to obtain film rights, only to find that Warner Brothers already owned them. Capra made a deal with Warners to direct the film, which was made in late 1941. When Warners obtained the rights, they agreed not to release the film until the stage play finished its Broadway run, so the completed film sat for three and a half years before being released in the fall of 1944. Three of the original Broadway cast members Josephine Hull (“Aunt Abby”), Jean Adair (“Aunt Martha”) and John Alexander (“Teddy”) took a leave of absence from the show to reprise their roles in the film. Boris Karloff played “Jonathan” on Broadway but did not leave the show to appear in the film, instead signing an agreement to lend his likeness and name to the production.
“Arsenic and Old Lace” might not immediately register as a Frank Capra film (and is often glossed over when people or documentaries mention his films), as it is not a "message film" about social issues. By the mid-1930s, those message films made Capra Hollywood's foremost director, a multiple Oscar winner, and earned him the honor of having his name placed above the film title (a feat so momentous, he titled his 1971 autobiography, “Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title”). Because it has no "message" or social issues, “Arsenic and Old Lace” stands apart from the other works of his golden period, such as his three previous films, "You Can't Take It with You", "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", and "Meet John Doe”). But upon closer inspection one realizes “Arsenic and Old Lace” is very much a Capra film. Often led astray by money or power, characters in typical Capra’s films are inherently good, and here we have two sisters who are sweetness incarnate but unwittingly do bad things because of misguided kindness (and a touch of insanity). In addition, it is easy to forget that Capra’s career began with all-out comedy. He started his film career writing comedy gags with silent film and slapstick legends such as producer Hal Roach and director Mack Sennet, and in particular, his work with actor Harry Langdon. Capra directed and wrote several features for Langdon, catapulting him into becoming a silent comedy superstar alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It would be no stretch to assume that when Capra saw “Arsenic and Old Lace” on Broadway, it stirred up a desire to revisit his years in unadulterated comedy.
The influence of his comedy years can be easily felt in “Arsenic and Old Lace”, as he pushed his actors to be more broad in their performances and included slapstick moments and physical gags. He even occasionally speeds up the film (common in silent comedies), as when “Mortimer” and “Elaine” return for the second time to the Marriage License Office – a blatant reminder not to take this film too seriously. By this point Capra was a master at telling a story, and while doing so was easily able to cultivate excitement and laughs. One fine example is when “Mr. Gibbs” comes to rent the vacant room. “Mr. Gibbs”, both aunts, and “Mortimer” are all in the scene, and Capra expertly switches focus between them - not based on dialogue, but based on comedy. Within the scene the camera lingers on “Mr. Gibbs” about to drink a glass of poisoned elderberry wine on the right side of the frame, and the aunts watching on the left. By doing so, Capra evokes nervousness from wondering when and if he will drink, and simultaneously humor from watching both aunts. That shot masterfully creates a big dose of suspense and comedy all at once.
With World War II in full swing (though the US had not yet entered the war), Frank Capra applied for a commission with the US Army Signal Corps in early 1941. Before reporting for duty, he decided to quickly and cheaply direct one more film, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” was that film. This time his intention was solely to entertain, and It became his last hit in a long string of hits, ending the most critically and commercially successful period in his career. Just after filming “Arsenic and Old Lace”, he reported for war duty where he made a series of documentary and training films related to the war (including his Academy Award winning Documentary, “Why We Fight”). His first postwar Hollywood film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, became his first non-box office hit in over a decade (it's now considered a masterpiece), and though Capra went on to make a couple more memorable films (including "State of the Union” and his final film "Pocketful of Miracles" in 1961), none of them reached the acclaim he’d received after "Arsenic and Old Lace". One of cinema’s top directors, you can read more about Frank Capra in my “It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” posts.
The studio wanted a star for “Arsenic and Old Lace”, and Capra chose Cary Grant. One could see why, as Grant had recently given standout comedic performances in "The Awful Truth", "Bringing Up Baby”, and "His Girl Friday”. Once Grant was onboard, the film’s screenwriters Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein were instructed to expand the part of "Mortimer" and tailor it to Grant (one of several changes they made to the play). And Grant is glorious as “Mortimer Brewster”, the man who just got married and in all the hoopla seems to have forgotten about his bride. In many ways I feel this is Grant’s quintessential comedic performance. In it, he shows off his astounding comedic skills to their extreme. Known for his one-of-a-kind double take, here Grant does a quadruple take (or maybe more), as when he hilariously first sees a dead body in the window seat. His physical agility is also at its peak as he leaps over furniture, joyfully chases “Elaine” around a tree, and often uses his body to emphasize his words. Capra was going for full-out farce, and although Grant was leery about being so over-the-top, he deftly delivered.
Grant was very unhappy during the shoot, with worries about the set, his clothes, and in particular what he felt was an overacted performance. Most books and articles about Grant and “Arsenic and Old Lace” agree that he felt this “large” performance was the worst in his career, and he would be dumbfounded when fans told him it was their favorite. This kind of farce is indeed very difficult to pull off, and what I think Grant failed to see is that even with all his mugging, his pricelessly exaggerated expressions are truthful and that's why it works. The more ridiculous and real, the funnier it becomes. To be so believable in a part so extreme only confirms Grant’s brilliance as an actor and why he became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (AFI named him the 2nd Greatest American Male Screen Legend). Because he was independent (not signed exclusively to a studio), Grant was able to negotiate high salaries, and for “Arsenic and Old Lace” he was paid $160,000. From his salary, he instructed that $50,000 go directly to the British War Relief Association, $25,000 to the American Red Cross, another $25,000 to the United Service Organization, and $10,000 to his agent (Grant had also donated part of his salaries from “His Girl Friday” and “The Philadelphia Story” to the war effort). You can read more about Cary Grant in my posts on “Bringing Up Baby”, “Notorious”, “The Philadelphia Story”, and “His Girl Friday”.
Priscilla Lane co-stars as “Elaine Harper Brewster”, the newly married wife of “Mortimer”. Lane is overwhelmingly enchanting, making it evident how this woman could melt even a bachelor’s heart like “Mortimer’s”. She brings a contagious excitement and sweetness to the screen as she expertly plays against Grant, displaying all the genuine excitement of a newlywed. The censors made the writers tone down the sexual frustration between “Elaine” and “Mortimer”, but you can still see glimmers of it in their chemistry, particularly their wonderful interplay in the scene around the tree. Lane also handles the cruel behavior “Elaine” receives in a very convincing manner, keeping the character believable in the midst of all the madness.
The youngest of five sisters, Priscilla Lane began studying dance with her sister Rosemary, performing by the time she was fifteen years old. After high school she moved to New York City where she and Rosemary were discovered by band leader Fred Waring, who signed them to a radio contract. After five years singing with Waring, he and his band were hired to appear in the 1937 Dick Powell musical, “Varsity Show”, and both Priscilla and Rosemary were given featured roles. It was her screen debut. She was signed to Warner Brothers and given the female lead in her second film, "Love, Honor and Behave” in 1938. Lane steadily appeared in films, including several alongside her sisters Rosemary and Lola, such as “Four Daughters”, "Four Wives”, and "Four Mothers". Though she appeared in leading roles in many successful films, it often seemed she was a supporting player to her male leads, never quite breaking out as a top star. After five years, Lane left Warner Brothers and her final film there was “Arsenic and Old Lace”. She became independent, and film roles were harder for her to come by, though she did star in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 suspense film, “Saboteur”. Lane appeared in a total of 22 feature films inducing "The Roaring Twenties", "Blues in the Night", "Brother Rat", and 1948's "Bodyguard" , after which she retired, devoting herself to her husband and children. She was married twice, with her first marriage lasting only a day (she impulsively eloped and left him the next day). Priscilla Lance died in 1995 at the age of 79.
Raymond Massey plays “Jonathan Brewster”, the creepy, murderous brother of “Mortimer” who, dare I say, looks like Boris Karloff. Massey is superb at being both scary and funny - often at the same time. In addition to looking like “Frankenstein’s Monster”, his restrained manner of speech and glaring looks are enough to frighten anyone, and “Jonathan” is often the reminder that this is a Halloween tale and not just silly fun and games. His interactions with “Dr. Einstein”, his brotherly arguing with “Mortimer”, and how easily he angers when he’s compared to Boris Karloff are all richly entertaining, and Massey truly does an amazing job as someone who can pass for Karloff’s “Monster” while being his own person. To make him look like Karloff's “Frankenstein’s Monster”, Massey withstood four hours of make-up each day (two to apply and two to remove), and it was worth it. With his physicality, many times Massey really looks like Karloff’s “Monster”.
A well-known and respected actor of stage, screen, and television, Canadian born Raymond Massey began in the theater, and in the course of his career, appeared in over 80 stage productions - many on Broadway and the London stage. His first film was the 1929 British film "High Treason”, and by his third he was playing the leading role of "Sherlock Holmes" in 1931's "The Speckled Band”. His first Hollywood film was the 1932 James Whale horror classic, "The Old Dark House", starring none other than Boris Karloff. Massey continued to appear in British and American films, and his notable early films include "The Prisoner of Zenda”, "The Hurricane”, and a starring role in the 1935 sci-fi classic "Things to Come”. In 1940 he appeared as Abraham Lincoln in "Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (a role he reprised from Broadway), for which he earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). In his career, Massey played Lincoln in five different productions (twice on TV, twice in films, and once on stage), and is largely remembered for playing him. In the mid-1950s Massey began to work on TV, eventually starring in the 1955 series “I Spy” , and most famously co-starring as "Dr. Leonard Gillespie” opposite Richard Chamberlain in the series "Dr. Kildare”. He amassed 87 film and TV credits, and his other classic films include "East of Eden", "How the West Was Won", and the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger films "49th Parallel", "A Matter of Life and Death", and "A Canterbury Tale" (for which he narrated the US version). He was married three times, including his second marriage to actress Adrianne Allen. Raymond Massey died in 1983 at the age of 86.
Peter Lorre is fantastic as “Dr. Herman Einstein”, part plastic surgeon and part “Jonathan’s” criminal sidekick. All too willing to kill, he also shows he has some heart, as when he tries to persuade “Mortimer” to leave the house before “Jonathan” kills him. Lorre brilliantly plays off of both Grant and Massey, and he really gets to show his gift for comedy. When Lorre was cast in “Arsenic and Old Lace”, he was stuck doing B-movies. Just as filming began (in 1941), “The Maltese Falcon” was released and made Lorre a full-fledged star (reinforced by his next film “Casablanca”, released in 1942). You can read more about Peter Lorre in my posts on both those films, as well as the film that first made him internationally famous, Fritz Lang's “M”.
Even though Grant and Lane are billed before the title, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is truly an ensemble piece filled with many great character actors, and I want to quickly point out three that have previously appeared on this blog. First is Jack Carson, playing the somewhat dense “Officer Patrick O’Hara”, who really wants to be a playwright. Carson was a prolific actor who appeared in 131 films and TV shows, including “Mildred Pierce” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” - both of which are on this blog, and you can read more about him in those posts. You might also recognize Edward Everett Horton, who plays “Mr. Witherspoon” of the Happy Dale Sanitarium. Also prolific, Horton appeared in 180 films and TV shows and this role is one of his more subdued. He appeared previously on this blog in “Top Hat”, where you can read more about him. The third actor you’ve seen before is James Gleason who plays “Police Lieutenant Rooney” (who shows up at the end of the film). Character actor Gleason appeared in 165 films and TV shows, including “The Night of the Hunter”, which is also on this blog and where you can read more about him.
The last two actors I must mention are Josephine Hull as “Aunt Abby Brewster” and Jean Adair as her sister “Aunt Martha Brewster”. They are both perfectly cast as whimsical sisters who have not an iota of malice between them. It’s no surprise both that came directly from the Broadway cast, as I can’t imagine anyone better in their roles. Both were primarily stage actresses with decades of performances behind them prior to “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Josephine Hull (“Aunt Abby") began her Broadway career in 1906, which continued until 1953. She appeared in one short and two feature films between 1929 and 1932, and “Arsenic and Old Lace” was her fourth film (and first notable part). Her next film was also a reprisal of her role on Broadway, playing "Veta Louise Dowd Simmons" in the 1950 film version of "Harvey", for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award (her only Oscar win and nomination). As the theater was primarily her professional home, she only appeared in six films and eight TV shows. Her Broadway credits include "You Can't Take It With You" and "The Solid Gold Cadillac”. She was married once for nine years to actor Shelly Hull until his untimely death at 34 years old. Josephine Hull died in 1957 at the age of 80.
Canadian born Jean Adair (“Aunt Martha”) eventually made her way to Broadway, where she debuted in 1910. She gained attention in her second Broadway show, “It’s a Boy!”, and began a solid Broadway career. Adair made one uncredited film appearance in 1933’s "Advice to the Forlorn” before appearing in “Arsenic and Old Lace” eight years later. She appeared in only four films (the last of which was an uncredited role in Jules Dassin’s 1947 classic, “The Naked City”), and made five television appearances. Some of the original Broadway productions in which she appeared include "Picnic", "Detective Story”, "Bell, Book and Candle", and her final, originating the role of “Rebecca Nurse” in Arthur Miller’s 1953 classic, “The Crucible”. In addition to Broadway, early in her career Adair appeared in vaudeville, and about twenty years prior to “Arsenic and Old Lace”, she helped nurse fellow touring vaudevillian Cary Grant (then known as Archie Leach) back to health when he had a bout with rheumatic fever. This film was a happy reunion for the two, and because she had little experience acting in front of a camera, Grant gave her pointers. She never married. Jean Adair died in 1953 at the age of 79.
Two more names you might recognize from the film’s credits (as I've mentioned both multiple times in previous entries) are that of costumer Orry-Kelly and composer Max Steiner. Orry-Kelly designed costumes (particularly gowns) for countless classic films, including three previously on this blog: “Now, Voyager”, “An American in Paris”, and “Some Like It Hot” (and in the latter you can read more about him). He and Grant were roommates in New York before making it in Hollywood, and according to Orry-Kelly’s diaries, the two shared an off and on nine year romantic relationship. Often called “the father of film music”, Max Steiner composed music for well over 200 films and TV shows, and many are on this blog, including "Gone with the Wind", "Casablanca", "The Searchers”, and "Now, Voyager”, and you can read about him in my posts on “Mildred Pierce” and “King Kong”.
Witty dialogue, topnotch direction, and delectable performances help this week’s classic brilliantly provide hysterical laughs and scary moments. It is a thoroughly fun, madcap movie which makes me laugh equally as hard every time I watch it. Have some frivolous fun this Halloween and enjoy “Arsenic and Old Lace”!
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