Release Date(s)1944 (October 11, 2022)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1153)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Arsenic and Old Lace is an unusual film from director Frank Capra, who made his name with socially conscious message films about the corrupting influence of money, how corruption makes its way into politics, and how politicians and the media sway the American people in a dangerous direction. Based on the successful play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace is pure entertainment, one of Hollywood’s best screwball comedies.
Drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) marries Elaine (Priscilla Lane), literally the girl next door to his childhood home. On the way to their honeymoon, they stop to tell their families about the marriage. Mortimer soon gets sidetracked by the discovery that his sweet old spinster aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), have been exercising their charitable natures in rather an unusual way. Taking pity on sad, old, poor, solitary men, they comfort each one with sympathy and elderberry wine containing something special, then bury the bodies in the basement with proper funeral services. Mortimer discovers their latest victim in the window seat. At first, Mortimer believes his delusional brother Teddy (John Alexander) is to blame until his aunts calmly tell him it was their way of easing the loneliness and pain of their victims.
Later, Mortimer’s other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who has escaped from an institution and gone on a killing spree, arrives home with his sidekick, Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre). Juggling his family’s insanity, the police, and a new cop on the beat (Jack Carson) who dreams of becoming a playwright, Mortimer considers ending his brief marriage because he fears that he, too, may carry the “crazy” gene and should spare Elaine the heartache.
Cary Grant does lots of double takes as bits of his aunts’ well-meaning activities become evident. These over-the-top reactions are initially funny but wear thin after a while. Much of his performance consists of pop-eyed astonishment, flailing panic, and wild histrionics in response to each new plot development. The audience is discovering the house’s secrets through Mortimer’s eyes and Grant’s reactions are intended to mirror those of the viewer, but Capra should have restrained him. Grant himself agreed, and thought his performance was far too broad. Re-takes were scheduled but never took place because Capra joined the war effort.
Hull and Adair originated their roles on Broadway and bring exactly the right combination of gentleness, conviction that they have performed a kind service, and dismissal of Mortimer’s concern as they fuss about in the kitchen, bake a cake, and tsk-tsk anyone who would tell a lie. Alexander, also from the original Broadway cast, gives Teddy’s lunacy a comic turn. Believing he is Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy pulls out an imaginary sword and yells “Charge!” every time he runs upstairs, the staircase becoming his personal San Juan Hill.
In the play, Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster. With the benefit of extensive make-up, Raymond Massey looks quite a bit like Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, a result of Dr. Einstein’s botched plastic surgery. Massey is the villain and adds a degree of danger to the comedy. Though we never regard the aunts as serial killers, Jonathan is truly a menace to society and to his family. Massey plays the role with intense grimness and an icy stare that suggests he wouldn’t think twice about snuffing out whomever gets in his way. Lorre adds some comedy of his own as the inept, perennially drunk Dr. Einstein.
Edward Everett Horton plays Mr. Witherspoon, the director of Happy Dale Sanitarium. Grant could have taken a note from Horton who knew how to underplay with a withering manner, pursed lips, and a condescending glare. His trademark comic fussiness is as sharp as it was in the Astaire-Rogers musicals a decade earlier. Grant Mitchell as Reverend Harper, James Gleason as Police Lt. Rooney, and Garry Owen as a frustrated cab driver round out the cast.
Capra opens up the play with an extraneous prologue shot at Brooklyn’s Ebbetts Field as fans wildly cheer for the Dodgers. A second sequence was added of Mortimer and Elaine at City Hall trying to get a marriage license while ducking reporters. But most of the film takes place in the Brewster home. An elaborate interior set duplicates the outside of the home with a small graveyard, Manhattan skyscrapers in the distance, autumn leaves on the ground, miniature moving streetcars, and the Brooklyn Bridge looming in the background.
At close to two hours, the film flies by. The script balances the comedy with Jonathan’s unpredictable behavior, creating suspense. It manages to treat calculated murder as the cornerstone of the film with Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha the two sweetest women imaginable… except for the fact that they poison people.
Arsenic and Old Lace was shot by director of photography Sol Polito on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Criterion Collection presents a new digital transfer that was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the original nitrate camera negative. As a result, the visual quality is excellent, benefiting from controlled lighting from its nearly 100% indoor filming. Many of Jonathan’s scenes are shot with deep, sinister shadows, and one extreme close-up is intended to frighten with Raymond Massey’s gruesome facial make-up. Clarity is sharp, with details, such as patterns and frills on the aunts’ dresses, the outside of the Brewster home, Mortimer’s exasperated expressions, scars on Jonathan’s face, and Elaine’s hair nicely delineated. A key scene is played in nearly complete darkness to hide exactly what is happening and enhance suspense.
The soundtrack is English 1.0 LPCM. English SDH subtitles are an option. Dialogue is clear and sharp throughout. Massey delivers his lines slowly, softly, with a threatening tone. Hull and Adair speak with a fluttering lilt suggestive of sweet-natured old aunties. Alexander’s frequent “Charge!” and occasional blaring of a trumpet at all hours break the usual quiet of the Brewster home. Scenes outside the home are accompanied by ambient sounds of wind blowing through trees and distant streetcars.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Charles Dennis
- Arsenic and Old Lace 1952 Radio Adaptation (59:24)
- Trailer (2:49)
In the audio commentary with Charles Dennis, author of There’s a Body in the Window Seat: The History of Arsenic and Old Lace., he states that Arsenic and Old Lace is based on the long-running Broadway play of the same name. The part of Mortimer Brewster was expanded to accommodate Cary Grant’s star status. Priscilla Lane represented the girl next door. The role of O’Hara, the cop, was expanded for Jack Carson. Actual incidents that served as the basis for the original play, by Joseph Kesselring, are related. His early plays were whimsical and didn’t do well, so he decided murder would be a sure-fire means to success. Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse adapted Kesselring’s play, making major changes. The film rights were purchased for $175,000, but by contractual agreement, the film could not be released until the Broadway show concluded its run. The show ran for another 30 months and the film remained “on the shelf” during that time. Frank Capra’s salary was $100,000 plus $25,000 for 5 weeks of editing and 10% of the gross over $2.5 million. The film came in under budget. Capra accelerated filming when Hull, Adair, and Alexander had to return to the Broadway production. When finally released in 1944, Arsenic and Old Lace was one of the most profitable films of the year, enjoying a worldwide gross of $4 million. The New York Times called the film “Good macabre fun.”
The radio adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace was broadcast on the NBC program Best Plays in 1952 with Boris Karloff starring as Jonathan Brewster, the role he originated on Broadway in 1941. A single black-and-white still photo from the film is shown on screen throughout the broadcast.
The accordion-style booklet included with this release contains the essay Madness in the Family by David Cairns, 6 black-and-white photos, cast and production credits, and information about the digital transfer.
Arsenic and Old Lace is clever in the way that it takes a morbid idea and mixes it with slapstick, romance, and Cary Grant’s befuddlement. The underplayed, excellent performances of Hull and Adair balance Grant’s madcap histrionics, resulting in a highly entertaining excursion into dark, often hilarious comedy.
- Dennis Seuling