Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.

I've saved the best for last on this my final October Forgotten Film Post:

(This is a repeat of a review originally posted (by me) on 2011, newly edited (by me) and re-posted since, really, this is my favorite Halloween movie and it's kind of a ritual around these parts. Far as I'm concerned, you can't say too much about ARSENIC AND OLD LACE or for that matter, say it often enough. 

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 at least, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever conceived in any mind, 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've read he said that Jimmy Stewart would have been better.) He was wrong. Grant is superb as the crazed (and reluctant) newlywed who suddenly finds his whole life upended by hilarious madness and murder. Well, hilarious to us, at any rate.

Grant's facial expressions and over-the-top physicality alone are worth the price of admission. He threw himself into the part and steals the picture away from a whole host of seasoned scene stealers. He is simply 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 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 nerdy, hapless anthropologist or a hysterical, anti-marriage newspaper columnist on the eve of his honeymoon: a man who has suddenly discovered that his doddering, adorable 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 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 ultra 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. Literally.

James Gleason as Lieutenant Rooney, the local detective and O'Hara's exasperated boss.

...and to top it all off, our favorite character actor of them all, the ubiquitous and long-lived Charles Lane (1905 - 2007) 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, finally, here's the story:

Opening scene at Ebbits Field: the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball game which ends in bedlam. Bliss. Brooklyn. The Bums. Already I'm happy.

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. They're standing on line while Mortimer tries to hide his face from the other couples and two nosy reporters looking for a story, any story.

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, wind blowing leaves among the headstones. It's Fall, it's chilly, in fact it's Halloween and here come Mortimer and Elaine, freshly married. She lives next door to Mortimer's aunts' house, right 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. Mortimer is their favorite nephew and they've been match-making for a while. Grant plays his scenes with them so sweetly. It is just a pleasure to watch.

So, while Elaine is off gathering her trousseau Mortimer spends happy time with his aunts. But a few minutes later, he (very) inadvertently discovers the sweet old ladies' secret. And what a hideous secret it is, too.

While his aunts are in the kitchen getting refreshments, Mortimer decides to search for the notes to his new book, "Mind Over Matrimony". He lifts the cover on the window seat and - though he can hardly believe his eyes - discovers a dead body.

When he reacts as anyone would under those circumstances, he is utterly hilarious. Then when he tries to tell his Aunt Abby, she doesn't react as anyone would under those circumstances. She is perfectly calm and tells Mortimer to forget about it. Turns out that the body belongs to an itinerant old man who had come by earlier in the day and been given a glass of the aunts'  'special' wine.

Aunt Abby hid the body in the window seat because sister Martha hadn't been there to give her a hand lugging it down to the basement and brother 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.

Never one to think slowly on his feet, Mortimer realizes that his aunts 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/won't call the cops, instead he will call Happydale Sanatorium where Teddy (alias President Roosevelt) was scheduled to go anyway, in future, once the elderly aunts passed on. A most obliging coincidence.

Mortimer wants a rush job. He must have Teddy AND his aunts put away for their own good and the public safety - immediately, if not sooner. The way he sees it, he has no choice. What else is a sane man to do?

Meanwhile, newly-wed Elaine returns wondering what's keeping the new hubby. Mortimer pleads with her to go back to her house on some pretense or other and wait for him. Actually, he carries her out of his aunts' house and locks the door. She is befuddled. They were all set to go to Niagara Falls.

With Elaine temporarily disposed of, Mortimer rushes back inside his house and tries to get through on the phone to Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), the head of Happydale Sanatorium.
Then - his hysteria mounting - he runs out to see a judge to get an order for his relatives' incarceration. Let's face it, very few can do sympathetic hysteria like Cary Grant.

Later that same night, once the aunts are upstairs and the house dark and quiet, the front door opens and in creep two very strange men. Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey who looks remarkably like the Frankenstein monster as played by Karloff in the films) and his henchman and plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

A scary duo.

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. They too discover the old man in the window seat.

The 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 particular body won't have a proper burial down the basement, what with scary Jonathan in the house.

When Mortimer returns, he is not happy to be reunited with his brother. But when he tries to get Jonathan and Einstein 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 screwball madness, nonsense, black humor and tons of physical comedy.

Since this was based on a stage play, there's people coming and going, plenty of opening and closing of doors, plenty of interruptions to Jonathan's plans, not to mention Mortimer's.

The cops eventually show up.

The scenes with Mr. Witherspoon (who thinks perhaps Mortimer too should be included in the sanatorium family package) are especially funny.

In the end, Mortimer works it all out after fearing that he too will 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.

Link here to see the original trailer at TCM.

I didn't remove the original comments when I had the chance (didn't know I had to), so please remember that this is a re-do and I'm not the sharpest blade in the tool shed. Just pretend they're not there. Or add to your original comments if you feel like it. It's all good.


  1. Yvette,

    Thanks for reminding me of a long-forgotten pleasure. It's been so long since I saw this, that I've forgotten most of the film, except, of course, the general outline.

    I discovered as I went through the cast of characters that I had no idea of what their role was or what they had to do in the film. So, I will add this to my queue for an early viewing.

    Thanks again. And, the popcorn is awaiting.

  2. Thank you for reminding me of this. I'll bet I've seen it three times, at least, and am thrilled to see it on Netflix Instant! It's now in my queue. You put up the most gorgeous photos. Do you have to search around a lot? Are they from movie websites??

  3. Fred: You're most welcome. :) This movie is such a treasure. Perfect for this weekend.

    A good popcorn movie, for sure.

    Hope you enjoy it as much this time around.

  4. Nan: You're welcome. I'm glad to remind one and all of my favorite movies. I love doing that. :)

    The photos I include in the movie posts I just google around until I find something that will fit. Luckily I occasionally have a lot of time on my hands. :)

    I want to do these posts to look a certain way. If I couldn't do them this way I'd figure out something else. But I like this format. I usually have something in mind.

    I'm hoping I'm not stepping on anyone's toes by lifting these photos off google. If someone complains I'll adjust. :)

  5. A couple of years ago a church in the neighbourhood featured "Arsenic and Old Lace" for a family Hallowe'en movie night. The sign they posted read "Come in for a sCARY movie!" I thought that was very cute.

  6. C.W.: What a great idea. I wish someone would do that around here. This sort of thing is fun for a neighborhood. :)

    Love that 'sCARY' sign.

  7. I will not be obnoxious and put the number of o's behind the word "so" when I say I love this movie so much. Because I do. In fact, it's funny you mention it here because it's already on my bedside table, waiting to be watched Monday evening. Can't wait! It's my own little Halloween tradition.

  8. This film is kind of a guilty pleasure for me, since I'm the only one in my family who really thinks it's funny. I guess dark comedy isn't to everyone's taste. We do have a running joke about saying we're "going down to Panama" when going down to the cellar. (Ironic that you posted this on the real Teddy Roosevelt's birthday!) One of my favorite moments in the whole movie was when Mortimer and Jonathan raced each other to the window seat.

  9. Picky: Put as many 'O's' as you like, kiddo. I'll match 'em. I love this movie too.

  10. Elisabeth: Really? Teddy Roosevelt's birthday? Who knew? Wow. Happy Birthday Mr. President! :)

    You can be in our ARSENIC AND OLD LACE Fan Club, Elisabeth. It's a very exclusive club. :)

    Remember that moment too. Poor Mortimer. Ha!

  11. I LOVE this movie too. I just might have to pull it off the shelf for Halloween...it's been too long since I've seen it.

    I love Grant's comic movies...this, Bringing up Baby, The Philadelphia Story. I love them all.

  12. Me too, Bev. He was such an unique screen presence. You couldn't imagine any other actor doing what he did.

    You should watch this for Halloween. :)

  13. I never pass up a Cary Grant or Gregory Peck movie (I find them similar in so many ways - I don't know why). I haven't seen ARSENIC AND OLD LACE but I'm going to make sure I watch this one.

    Capra has made some wonderful films including IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart.

    Thanks for hopping over to my mix-and-match blog, Yvette. I appreciate the visit.

  14. Prashant: You're welcome, I've been meaning to stop by. :)

    Yes, Frank Capra made many great films. This is one of my favorites.

    If you've never seen this, you're in for a real treat.

  15. Well, seeing my previous comment, you already know my love for this film. But I'm dating someone new, and he WILL be initiated this weekend. Trial by fire and all that.

    Thanks for giving me a little Cary Grant this morning. My first and forever love. ;)

    1. You're more than welcome, Picky. :) The new boyfriend has to like this or else...! Ha!

  16. Nit-picking is my life:

    I believe that Julius Epstein's twin brother/collaborator was Philip, not Peter.

    Why I snagged on that: Back in the '60s,when I was a kid here in Chicago, there was a local car dealer named Peter Epsteen, who ran musical radio commercials featuring Sinatra and Martin soundalikes, who did parodies from the Rat Pack Songbook touting the joys of Peter Epsteen Pontiac. For a long time there, I knew the Epsteen versions of "High Hopes", "Come Fly With Me", "Ain't That A Kick In The Head", et al., better than the originals.
    I know that this has nothing to do with Arsenic And Old Lace, but I thought I'd pass it along for your possible amusement.
    As to AaOL itself, there's nothing I can add beyond what you've written.
    I did se a stage production here in Chicago, I think in the late '70s. The aunts were Jean Stapleton and Marion Ross, Mortimer was James MacArthur, Jonathan was Jonathan Frid, and Dr. Einstein was Larry Storch (doing Lorre all the way). Pretty funny production, I enjoyed it - but I wouldn't trade the movie away.

    1. I've never seens a stage production - I wish I had. What a great cast you saw in Chicago. Well, except for maybe James MacArthur. I don't see him as Mortimer. Well, who could top Cary Grant? No one.
      Nit-picking is okay around here, Mike. :)
      Now I know about Peter Epsteen Pontiac and the magic of rat pack impersonators.

  17. Believe It Or Don't! ....
    .... I can top that a bit.

    That stage production of Arsenic And Old Lace I saw was a national touring company.
    James MacArthur was a last-minute replacement for Gary Sandy (late of WKRP In Cincinnati), who fell ill just before the Chicago opening.
    Howzat grab ya, Yvette?
    I do wish I could remember who played Elaine; I seem to recall that it was a semi-name actress (equal level to MacArthur or Sandy).

    Oops, there goes another Pontiac
    One more Peter Epsteen Pontiac
    Oops, there goes another Pontiac Car!

    1. That's a catchy little ditty, Mike. Ha! Gary Sandy would have been wonderful.

  18. This is a wonderful post about a wonderful movie. I loved the collage of actors. This is a favorite movie in our household, and I never thought of it as a Halloween movie. Perfect. Now I want to watch it soon, but have a (small) list of movies I have to watch first.

    1. Oh it's definitely perfect for Halloween. Maybe you never noticed that it actually takes place on Halloween? I know how those lists add up, Tracy. Ha. I have tons of 'em. :)

    2. I meant to check back in with you earlier. We re-watched Arsenic and Old Lace last weekend after quite a few years and loved it just as much. And you are right, I had completely forgotten that it was all taking place on Halloween. I forgave myself when I realized how long it had been. It seems to me like we watch it every year or so, but I guess my husband just says he wants to watch it now and then and then we don't. It was such fun.

  19. This might be a spoiler of a sort ...

    Arsenic And Old Lace, the stage play, has a tradition of sorts attached to it, involving the curtain calls at the conclusion.
    After the first curtain call with the main players, the curtain comes down. When it rises again for the second call, twelve old guys come up from "the cellar" and take a bow center stage; they go in the background when the main players return, and everyone takes the big bow. If it's a major production, sometimes the twelve old guys include a celebrity or two, for an extra laugh.

    Back in the late '60s, ABC mounted a TV production of AaOL, in front of a live audience, with an "updated" script (bad idea). The cast was ... well, Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick were the aunts, Fred Gwynne was Jonathan (last minute sub for Boris Karloff, who fell ill), Jack Gilford was "Dr. Salk" ("updated", like I said above), David Wayne was Teddy, Sue Lyon was Elaine ...
    ... and as Mortimer - Bob Crane?
    Anyway, as I said, they did it in front of a live audience ...
    ... and they finished with the second curtain call - which got the biggest laugh of the evening.

    The preceding was presented as an object lesson ... sort of.

  20. Fun facts, Mike - thanks. I didn't know any of this. Bob Crane? I don't know. Maybe. Fred Gwynne sounds good and I always loved Jack Gilford in anything. I like that 12 old men idea. I'd loved to have seen that.

    1. When I got home last night I went to my reference shelf and ..
      ... Helen Hayes's partner on the ABC show was Lillian Gish, not Mildred Natwick.
      I must have had The Snoop Sisters on my mind.
      Natwick did appear in an earlier TV version of Arsenic And Old Lace on NBC, circa 1960; that one actually did have Boris Karloff, with Tony Randall as Mortimer.
      And before that, in the '50s, CBS did a live version with Helen Hayes, Karloff, and Orson Bean as Mortimer.
      More than you wanted to know?

  21. Tony Randall as Mortimer sounds wonderful. Yes. I can easily see him in the role. Also Midlred Natwick as one of the sisters. Orson Bean as Mortimer....maybe not so much.

  22. Just one (or two) more ...

    In the first two TV AAOLs, Mr. Witherspoon was Edward Everett Horton, as in the Movie.
    The aunts in the first one were Helen Hayes and Billie Burke.
    In the second one, Mildred Natwick and Dorothy Stickney.
    Teddy was John Alexander (the original) in the first one and Tom Bosley in the second.
    And in the third one, Mr. Witherspoon was Billy DeWolfe.

    Oh and in 1955, Orson Bean was in his late twenties, crewcut, and best known as a stand-up comic.
    Today, he'd be Mr. Witherspoon ...
    Can I lay it on or what ...?

    1. You certainly can, Mike. But I love it when readers take the time to post longer comments with additional info. Why not?

      Billie Burke would have been fun to see as one of the aunts. Oh I remember Billy DeWolfe - he was a fussy sort with little black mustache.


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