by Pat Perry
Few black comic tropes are as irresistible as the juxtaposition of sweetly oblivious little old ladies and murder. It was used to wonderful effect in THE LADYKILLERS, with ever-helpful Katie Johnson blissfully unaware of her boarders’ intention to do away with her, and it is arguably even funnier in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, where the little old ladies themselves are the killers.
The Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, are the sort of sweet Christian spinsters of whom the cop on their Brooklyn neighborhood beat rhapsodizes “They’re two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest, old ladies that ever walked the earth… they’re like pressed rose leaves!” And indeed they are. Abby (Josephine Hull) is a happy, chubby cherub of a woman, so full of life that she actually bounces when she walks. Her more reserved sister, Martha (Jean Adair) is the epitome of prim propriety.
What none of their neighbors suspect is that the “Room for Rent” sign in their front-yard is a lure for lonely old men, potential boarders whom the sisters send on to happier lives in the great beyond by serving them homemade elderberry wine liberally laced with a mixture of arsenic, strychnine and cyanide. There’s no malice in their actions; the sisters fervently believe they are performing a Christian charity for men whose lives hold no further promise. They even go to the trouble of donning black gowns and reading “services” over the men’s burial site.
About that burial site: the sisters press their even crazier brother, Teddy, into service to help with the disposal of the bodies. Teddy (John Alexander) who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt (he even ascends the stairs in the house as if they were San Juan Hill by brandishing a sword and screaming “CHA-A-A-A-RGE!!”) is routinely dispatched to the cellar to “dig the Panama Canal” after which he is given a “yellow fever victim” for immediate burial.
Everything comes to a head when their nephew, Mortimer (a memorably manic Cary Grant) drops by to inform them of his marriage to the neighboring Reverend Harper’s daughter (Priscilla Lane), and inadvertently discovers the latest “yellow fever victim” stashed in the window seat while awaiting a proper burial. It turns out to be the same day that Mortimer’s bad-seed brother (Raymond Massey) and his shady sidekick, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) drop by the aunt’s house, intent on stashing a corpse of their own
The Joseph’s Kesselring play on which the film is based is a classic farce in the American theatre canon, frequently revived in both professional and amateur productions to this day. In fact, it was still running on Broadway when Frank Capra made this film version in 1941 (though its release was delayed till the end of the play’s run in 1994). Hull and Adair were released from the Broadway production for eight weeks in order to workwith Capra. Sadly, Boris Karloff was not released to play Jonathan in the film – a pity since the character’s surgically altered resemblance to Karloff is a running gag in both play and film.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE was pretty damn funny on stage, but Capra and screenwriters Julius and Phillip Epstein added even more layers of lunacy to the story without sacrificing any of the original’s appeal. Theyframed the film with opening sequences that establish Brooklyn as a world unto itself “where anything can happen and it usually does”, separate from “the United States proper,” including an all-out fistfight between players and fans in a Dodgers-Yankees game. Mortimer, no longer just a drama critic, is now a notoriously confirmed bachelor with a best-selling anti-matrimony screed (“Marriage: A Failure and a Fraud’) to his credit, so we get to see Grant in a hat, dark glasses and turned up coat collar attempting to evade detection in the City Hall line for marriage licenses. The macabre elements of the story are underlined repeatedly, starting with the opening credits which inexplicably feature cartoon drawings of jack o’ lanterns and witches on broomsticks. Events now take place on Halloween, which allows Mortimer’s aunts to evade his frantic questions about the dead man in the window seat by tending to trick-or-treaters at their kitchen door. Exterior scenes inevitably show blustery winds blowing fallen leaves in every direction, and in one early scene, Grants flirts madly with Lane and chases her around a tree while in a cemetery.
Mortimer Brewster was an especially memorable role for Grant, definitely his biggest, most over-the-top performance. Grant is a veritable geyser of comic exasperation, mugging and reacting in pop-eyed disbelief to the chain of events – sometime directly to the audience – and in constant frantic motion. It’s the kind of performance that could easily have been a disaster, but it works to laugh-out-loud effect because every other character in the film performs as if in a straight dramatic play.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a departure from the other films of Frank Capra, who was looking to make a purely escapist entertainment when he saw Kesselring’s play on Broadway. He acquits himself as well as any of the directors more commonly associated with the screwball genre, and the film has rightfully earned a place on this and other countdowns of the most memorable film comedies.
How Arsenic and Old Lace made the Top 100:
Brandie Ashe No. 15
Samuel Wilson No. 15
Sachin Gandhi No. 25
Bobby Jopsson No. 32
Pat Perry No. 33
Marilyn Ferdinand No. 44
Bobby McCartney No. 45
John Greco No. 46
Frank Gallo No. 48
Dean Treadway No. 57