Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace

Photo courtesy of the author

Wine anyone?

Arsenic and wine? This 1944 dark comedy has them both, along with two lovely old ladies who just want to be helpful, and their hilarious nephew who hasn’t got a clue. Based on Joseph Kesselring’s play Arsenic and Old Lace, this film was actually shot in 1941 three years before its release in 1944 due to Cary Grant’s availability.

The filming of Arsenic and Old Lace did have one major monkey wrench thrown at it when the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. Cary Grant donated his entire salary of $100,000 to the U.S. War Relief Fund which would be around $1,700,000 today! This event would also cause the film’s director Frank Capra to be quickly placed into the military, resulting in a rushed edit of his beloved film.

It’s true that after watching this film it would be hard to imagine anyone else but Cary Grant playing the role of Mortimer Brewster, but it’s interesting to think about how things would have been if the originally intended actor Bob Hope would have been in the role.

“For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.” – Aunt Martha

Plot Overview

The film begins with what seems like a tribute to Halloween, with a strange (but oddly enough) upbeat score mixed with pictures of witches, black cats and pumpkins. We are quickly introduced to Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a newspaperman and author known for his bitterness against marriage.

Funny enough, we watch as he is being married to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) at City Hall on Halloween day, while trying to be incognito so he will not be recognized and put under scrutiny. While he fails with his disguise, he does succeed in getting married. Before Mortimer and Elaine are off on their honeymoon, they take a quick trip home to have Elaine pack her things and to tell Mortimer’s two aunts about the happy news.

Arsenic and Old Lace

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Mortimer’s aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) are ecstatic to see him and it is shown that these two sweet ladies are very well liked and respected within the town. We then meet Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt (this being said, it is known that Teddy is eccentric but harmless).

Mortimer goes on with his business of trying to share the joyful news of his marriage with his aunts who seem to be very preoccupied. Through hilarious events, Mortimer finds out his aunts’ “hobby” is killing lonely old men and burying them in the cellar. Abby and Martha seem to feel no remorse as they feel they are doing the lonely old men a favor by putting them out of their misery.

This is where the main theme of the movie begins: Mortimer trying to protect his sweet insane aunts from the law, while trying to get his brother Teddy put into a mental institution. Enter Mortimer’s older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a murderer who is on the run from the law and who is looking for a place to hide the corpse of his latest victim. Jonathan arrives with his alcoholic accomplice, a plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre), who helps Jonathan change his appearance so as not to be recognized.

Twists and turns ensue with endless laughs and chills as the film unfolds. Will Mortimer’s loving aunts get found out? Will Teddy get put into a home and Jonathan put into jail? And will Mortimer finally get his happily ever after?

“Well, usually I’m Mortimer Brewster, but I’m not quite myself today“. – Mortimer Brewster

Arsenic and Old Lace

Photo courtesy of the author

The Good

The humor in this film is by far its highlight! The facial expressions made by Cary Grant’s character Mortimer had me crying with laughter.

That being said, the one liners along with the spot on acting and dark humor is worth mentioning. Each actor brings a wonderful, believable character with laughs, chills and secrets waiting to be uncovered!

“Thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. So what? There’s a lot of worse guys he could think he was.”- Police Sgt. Brophy

The Bad

Due to the subject matter of this film, I would not consider it a “family friendly” film. Though there is no real objectionable content, the character of Jonathan is pretty disturbed. While most of the dark humor will go over a child’s head, at times the film is dark and has a creepy feel to it.

“Yes. And I put Mr. Hoskins in the window seat, because Reverend Harper was coming.”- Abby Brewster


So is this dark comedy really full of laughs and thrills? The answer is yes!! It’s hard to believe that Cary Grant felt his acting in this film to be over the top and often said it was his least favorite of all his movies. I found this to be one of my favorite Cary Grant’s films and thought he did a great job with his comedic role!

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