Arsenic and Old Lace is a deliriously brilliant black comedy directed by Frank Capra and starring a rubber limbed Cary Grant demonstrating a genuine knack for slapstick comedy. Though originally filmed in 1941, as it was running on Broadway at the time and continued to run with an impressive 1,444 performances, the movie was not released until much later in 1944 and is arguably one of the funniest films of its period, actually, I maintain it is one of the funniest film ever.
Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, drama critic, confirmed bachelor and author of anti-marriage literature. We join him as he is, surprisingly, about to get married. Mortimer has fallen in love with the preacher’s lovely daughter, Elaine Harper, and given the nature of his public reputation their impending nuptials have remained something of a closely guarded secret. However, before they can slink off for their Niagra Falls honeymoon there remains the small matter of informing their families of their recently wedded state and so they plan to make a brief stop in Brooklyn where, conveniently, Elaine’s preacher dad and Mortimer’s loving aunts live right next to each other their houses only separated by a cemetery.
Mortimer’s aunts, the Brewster sisters, are two sweet, kindly elderly ladies who live with their brother Teddy and as testament to their all round niceness they keep a room thoughtfully available for rent for any gentleman travellers who might be in need of a bed for the night. They are naturally thrilled at the news that their favourite nephew has finally settled down and married the lovely girl next door.
Unfortunately for the newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Brewster things are about to get complicated and more than a bit messy. First off, there’s the small matter of Uncle Teddy. Uncle Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, really, really thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and the neighbours have been complaining. There have been threats of Happydale Sanatorium. The situation has been terribly trying for the kindly and patient Brewster sisters, and it is now causing them to consider what would become of Teddy if they were no longer around.
Now, you may think that that would enough to deal with for one newlywed gentleman eager to get away on his honeymoon with his beautiful bride, but things are only destined to get worse for Mortimer when he accidentally stumbles upon a fresh corpse hidden in one of his aunts’ window seats. Initially, he suspects crazy Uncle Teddy until his aunts guilelessly explain that they are, in fact, responsible referring to it as ‘one of their charities’. It turns out that his lovely spinster aunts have been taking pity on the lonely old gentleman that come to take up the offer of their rented room and have been ending their perceived misery by bumping them off with homemade elderberry wine dosed with arsenic, strychnine and ‘just a pinch of cyanide’. This dubious endeavour, phrased charmingly as ‘a very bad habit’, has, it transpires, been going for a considerably long time and the aunts have amassed a sizeable graveyard in the basement, the bodies ceremoniously buried by Teddy under the impression that he is digging locks for the Panama Canal and burying yellow fever victims.
Naturally Mortimer is a bit taken aback by this revelation, not to mention beginning to become a tad concerned about what might be festering in the family gene pool. This suspicion is soon to be compounded when, in a further complicating turn of events, Mortimer’s criminally psychotic older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) pitches up towing his accomplice, drunken plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre) along with him.
Adding to the family album, Jonathan is a psychotic murderer on the run from the police and looking for a place to dispose of his most recent corpse Mr. Spenalzo. To keep himself free from prison Jonathan has undergone extensive and repeated plastic surgery at the hands of the unhelpfully perpetually tipsy Dr. Einstein. As a result of the repeated surgeries, and his pet surgeon alcohol issues, Jonathan now resembles Boris Karloff, or, more specifically, Boris Karloff made up as Frankenstein’s monster, a comparison that becomes a recurrent gag as the movie progresses. (This was originally a self-referential joke as Karloff himself played Jonathan Brewster in the stage production and it was the original intention that he would reprise the role in the film, but he was too much of a draw to be able to leave the stage production for the filming period.)
When Jonathan discovers his aunts’ little secret, he reacts better (well, worse really, but better in the sense that it causes him considerably less anxiety) than Mortimer. He considers it to be nothing more than a perfect opportunity to dispose of Mr. Spenalzo amongst the aunts’ bodycount of gentleman callers Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, however, take umbrage to this plan on the basis that their gentleman were nice, respectable men and they don’t want their eternal rest marred by the presence of common criminals. Sound reasonable. Jonathan cares not, however, and as he’s stumbled upon a rather nifty little set up ideal for the up and coming psychotic about town, all that there remains for him to do to claim it as his own is to dispose of Mortimer.
The comedy of Arsenic and Old Lace operates within the tried and tested parameters of classic farce. It presents us with a keenly played situational juggling act performed by a man struggling to stay in control of the increasingly crazy circumstances that are continually presenting themselves to him. Mortimer’s increasingly manic and fevered attempts to manage proceedings are hysterical, and let’s face it he’s got a lot of balls of crazy in the air; well meaning but murderous aunts, an impatient new wife whom he must placate and protect from the truth of his bonkers family, and then, for good measure, there’s also some incompetent cops and the impending arrival of a representative from Happydale Sanatorium eager to commit Teddy (whose probably the sanest of the lot). Not to mention, as his own severely tried wits begin to unravel, the dawning realisation that there’s probably more than a little heredity history of insanity in the Brewster family that he might need to contend with.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a perfectly paced farce; it’s hilariously funny and marvellously macabre and easily up there on my list of favourite films ever if I could ever commit myself to something so binding as a list of favourite films ever, my love is too wide and all encompassing for such a thing, I’m just a big, ole cinematic slut. If, God forbid, you haven’t seen Arsenic and Old Lace rush out and buy a copy now then snuggle up with someone you love on Halloween and watch the heck out of it. And love it. Please love it.