Time: 118 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Slapstick Comedy
Being a huge Cary Grant fan I've tried to watch as many of his films as possible. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is one of my favorites. The goings-on in this film are even more wacky than in his other screwball comedy classic BRINGING UP BABY and believe me, that's saying something. Frank Capra originally wanted someone else for the role of Mortimer Brewster, the only sane member of the household, but was forced to use Grant due to studio restrictions. This is the only time they ever worked together and it's a real shame. Both have a wonderful gift for comedy and it would have been interesting to see what they came up with a second time around. Originally a popular stage play, the rest of the film is filled out with an amazing cast of supporting actors, some of whom came from the stage production. Though Grant is wonderful, it's the rest of the players that make this film work.
ARSENIC is filled with both witty dialogue and a great deal of physical comedy, which blends hysterically together to show you a day in the life of an uptight drama critic terrified of marriage. That is, until he found the right girl. After secretly eloping, Mortimer (Grant) and Elaine (Lane) rush back home to tell her father and his aunts the good news before they dash off to their honeymoon. What Mortimer doesn't realize is that his aunts Abby (Hull) and Martha (Adair) have a little secret of their own. Though his younger brother Teddy (Alexander) has always been strange he believes he's Teddy Roosevelt Mortimer has always believed his aunts were sweet, elderly, God-fearing ladies who could do no wrong.
When he discovers the body of an elderly gentleman in the window seat, he doesn't know what to think, but his aunts soon clear up the whole situation for him. You see, the man in the window seat, didn't get there because of Teddy. He died because they poisoned him with arsenic-laced elderberry wine. They've been "rescuing" lonely, elderly men just like Mr. Hoskins for several years. In fact, they have an even dozen buried by Teddy in the cellar. (Teddy thinks they're yellow fever victims and the cellar is the Panama Canal).
Mortimer is stunned and outraged. You can't just go around murdering people because they're lonely and have no family. The aunts are upset by his scolding. Mortimer clearly doesn't understand the service they're providing. They give these men a hot meal, some lively company and a decent Christian burial. Mortimer is beside himself. He's supposed to be on a train to Niagara Falls, but he can't just let them continue on their merry murderous way. Not wanting his aunts to go to prison, he concocts a plan to blame Teddy for the murder everyone knows he's crazy and committed to a local sanitarium named Happydale.
Elaine, who's finished packing, whistles to Mortimer that she's ready to go, but he completely ignores her. Can't she see he has bigger problems? Thinking things can't get any worse, he rushes off to get a doctor to sign the committal papers, warning his aunts not to let anyone else into the house. Unfortunately, while he's running his errand, his psychotic older brother Jonathan (Massey) returns home, after years in prison, with his alcoholic plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Lorre), in tow. It seems they need a place to hide out and to bury his latest murder victim. Little do they know, it runs in the family. Mortimer returns to find his surgically-altered brother taking over the roost and it's more than he can stand. They both demand the other leave the premises. It's at this point that things really get out of hand. Needless to say, all's well that ends well.
Though most of the film is shot on one particular set, the Brewster living room, the pacing is such a whirlwind of dialogue and action, it's hard to keep everything straight. The one location helps to keep the characters front and center and the hysteria from getting out of hand. This was not one of Grant's favorite performances, but I think he does a great job as a man who's in way over his head, trying to keep his loved ones from the electric chair. He disliked the fact that he seemed constantly flustered, but I can't really think how else one would respond to his situation, if you were sane. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are brilliant as the insane, yet sweet aunts. Their wide-eyed innocence at any hint of actually wrongdoing is to die for. They make you believe that their crimes are actually a mercy service and not cold-blooded murder. Lorre, Massey and Alexander round out this fantastic cast with pitch-perfect performances of their own.