I've saved the best for last on this my final October Movies post.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE directed by Frank Capra, screenplay adapted by Julius and Peter Epstein from the stage play by Joseph Kesserling, and with an utterly delightful musical score by Max Steiner (arranged by Hugo Friedhofer), is, to my own mind, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever conceived in the mind of man or woman. There, I said it and I'm glad. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!
Cary Grant was not, I understand, the first choice to play Mortimer Brewster but really, I can't imagine anyone else in the part. Grant himself thought he was not the best choice. (I read he thought that Jimmy Stewart would have been better.) He was wrong. Grant was superb as the crazed (and reluctant) newlywed who suddenly (literally) finds his whole life upended by madness and murder.
His facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. He physically threw himself into the part and steals the picture away from a whole host of seasoned scene stealers. He was magnificent. I have to say that ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and BRINGING UP BABY are my two very favorite Cary Grant movies of all time. (In my book, two Oscar worthy performances, if the vaunted Academy had valued comedy parts as much as drama.)
Yeah, I liked Grant's serious stuff too, but I just fell in love with Mortimer Brewster as I did earlier, with Dr. David Huxley. I love when an actor plays against type so successfully. Despite (or maybe because of) his physical beauty, Grant was not afraid to mix it up, to play a nerd or a hysterical man on the eve of his honeymoon suddenly discovering that his doddering and adorable old aunts have been busy poisoning lonely old men who happen to drop by their house in Brooklyn. (No spoilers here, this is made evident very early in the movie.)
So, grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and get ready for the screwiest Halloween movie of all.
Here's the complete cast, just so you get an idea of the wonderfulness of it all:
Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a newspaper columnist and author of a best selling book quaintly termed, the bachelor's bible: "Marriage A Fraud and A Failure."
Priscilla Lane as the adorable Elaine Harper who has managed to rope in the very anti-marriage Mortimer, to his chagrin. Not to mention his readers.
Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer's sinister brother and Boris Karloff look-alike (Karloff, who played the part on Broadway, was unavailable).
Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's creepy plastic surgeon and cohort in crime.
Josephine Hull as Abby Brewster one half of the murderous duo of sweet doting aunts. She's the plump one.
Jean Adair as Martha Brewster, the other half. She's the skinnier one.
John Alexander as 'Teddy Roosevelt' Brewster, the loony-toony brother who lives with the aunts and thinks he's President Theodore Roosevelt.
Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon, head of the local lunatic asylum. Happydale Sanatorium.
Jack Carson as O'Hara, the local cop on duty, a simpleton who can't spot a crime happening under his very nose.
James Gleason as Lieutenant Rooney, the local detective and O'Hara's boss.
...and to top it all off, our favorite character actor of them all, the ubiquitous and long-lived Charles Lane who would outlive most everyone in this film, shows up at the beginning playing a news reporter.
See what I mean? Scene stealers all. But this time out, Grant does the stealing.
...and here's the story:
The opening scene at Ebbits Field, showing a Brooklyn Dodgers game which ends in bedlam is memorable. Brooklyn. The bums. What else can you expect? Then we see the bridge and we switch to Manhattan, the marriage license bureau at city hall where Mortimer and Elaine are getting a license to wed, standing on line while Mortimer tries to hide his face from the other couples and two nosy reporters.
And this being Frank Capra's show, we get a room full of mixed ethnicities which is very nice for a 1944 flick.
Then we switch back to Brooklyn. To a cemetery (it's Halloween after all) and there's wind blowing leaves among the headstones. It's chilly, it's Fall and here come Mortimer and Elaine, freshly married. She lives next door to Mortimer's aunts' house, next door to the cemetery. All very cozy and comfy, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Mortimer has the cab driver wait for them. (The bemused cab driver spends the entire movie waiting outside the house.) Elaine goes next door to get her luggage and Mortimer drops in on his aunts to tell them the happy news.
The delightfully roly-poly Aunt Abby and the thinner, more spinsterish Aunt Martha are thrilled with the news. They'd been match-making for awhile. Mortimer is their favorite nephew. Grant plays his scenes with them so sweetly. It is just a pleasure to watch.
So, while Elaine is off gathering her trousseau to take on their honeymoon trip, Mortimer spends time with his delighted aunts. Sometime within the next few minutes, he inadvertently discovers their secret. And what a hideous secret it is, too.
While searching for the notes to his new book, "Mind Over Matrimony," Mortimer lifts the cover on the window seat and discovers a dead body.
When he reacts as anyone would react under those circumstances, he is hilarious. Then when he tries to tell his Aunt Abby, she doesn't react as anyone would react under those circumstances. She is perfectly calm. She tells Mortimer to forget about it. Turns out that the body belongs to an itinerant old man who come by earlier in the day and been given a glass of the aunts' 'special' wine.
Abby had hidden the body in the window seat because sister Martha hadn't been there to give her a hand lugging it down to the basement. Teddy hadn't had a chance yet to dig another lock for the canal, to inter this latest body. Oh yes, there are many more in the basement. Teddy thinks they're all yellow fever victims.
Mortimer, never one to think slowly on his feet, realizes, once he speaks to both aunts, that they have no clue they're doing anything wrong. According to them, they're saving these old men from their lonely lives. They're doing a good deed.
Mortimer decides that he can't call the cops, he's going, instead, to call Happydale Sanatorium where Teddy was scheduled to go, anyway, once the elderly aunts passed on. Mortimer wants a rush job. He must have Teddy AND his aunts put away for their own good and the public's safety. The way he sees it, he has no choice. What is a sane man to do?
Meanwhile, when Elaine returns wondering what's keeping him, he pleads with her to go back to her house on some pretense or other. Actually, he carries her out of the house and locks the door. She is befuddled. They were all set to go to Niagara Falls.
Mortimer tries to get through on the phone to Mr. Witherspoon, the head of Happydale. Then he runs out to see the judge. His hysteria mounting. Let's face it, very few can do hysteria like Cary Grant.
In the meantime, later that same night, once the aunts are upstairs and the house dark and quiet the front door opens and in come two very strange men. Jonathan Brewster (who looks remarkably like the Frankenstein monster as played by Karloff in the films) and his henchman and plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein.
They've escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and have come home to Jonathan's aunts to hide out. Oh, and they're carting their own dead body, a Mr. Spinoza. A dead body that needs to be hidden.
The two aunts come downstairs but are frightened by Jonathan into going back to their rooms where they've been preparing for funeral services. They worry that their old man won't have a proper burial down the basement, with Jonathan in the house.
When Mortimer returns, he is not happy to be reunited with his brother. But when he tries to get them to leave, they tie him up and gag him.
For what happens next, you'll have to see the film. It's all fast-paced madness and nonsense and black humor and tons of physical comedy.
People coming and going keep intererupting Jonathan's plans, not to mention Mortimer's.
Jonathan is not a happy camper.
The cops would interrupt.
The scenes with Mr. Witherspoon are especially funny.
In the end, Mortimer works it all out after fearing that he too would go nutso since he is, after all, a Brewster. But the aunts have a further surprise in store for him.
See the movie, and if you've already seen it. See it again.