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Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by FRANK CAPRA

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), the drama critic who has publicly stated his aversion to marriage, just got secretly married (to Priscilla Lane‘s character). On the very same day he visits his elderly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) to break the good news. Problem is, he suddenly realizes those two sweet, lovely old women are murderers, and that everyone else is his family is utterly insane: one brother, Teddy, believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt (John Alexander), and another, Jonathan, is a killer (Raimond Massey), with Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), a alcoholic plastic surgeon, as his accomplice.

Arsenic and Old Lace is the film adaptation of a play by the same name, created by Joseph Kesselring. Some of the actors were reprising their roles from the play – namely Hull, Adair, and Alexander – but the big star who promised to fill the seats was Boris Karloff, who originally played the murderous brother. Though producers couldn’t get him to be released from the stage production, Capra still found a way to make a joke out of it: Jonathan’s face was surgically altered by Dr. Einstein, and now resembled Karloff’s – a fact adressed by several characters throughout the film, including an officer when saying Look at that puss. He looks like Boris Karloff. 

Said to be inspired by the Amy Archer-Gilligan case, Arsenic and Old Lace is wild black comedy filled with witty humour and pitch perfect performances: Hull and Adair balance the innocence and eeriness of their good-natured killings; Massey may not be Karloff, but he’s certainly as scary with that creepy silent stare; Alexander’s Teddy is probably the funniest part of the film, he could charge to the blockhouse for two whole hours and still be hilarious; Lorre wraps it up with a strong supporting performance; and Cary Grant plays an unfortunate soul, with all the goofy mannerisms, strange facial expressions and little noises of the sort – he may not have liked his part as Mortimer (thought it was terribly over the top), but everyone else did, so deal with it, Archie.

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