Murder Comedies: Arsenic and Old Lace

This month’s theme is comedy … with a dark twist. And in keeping with the mystery element present in most of them, none of the titles will be revealed beforehand. How exciting is that!

July is my month to post, and I will do my utmost to be an excellent host. Yes, that rhymed. I welcome comments and suggestions for film discussions, and may do extra posts on the latter if I have time.

Our first selection is the 1944 comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane. Here is Liz’s take:

Liz: Confession: I have never seen the play Arsenic and Old Lace, so my opinions are formed solely on the 1944 movie of the same name with Cary Grant.

This is one of those laugh out loud movies that leaves you feeling a little strange once it’s over. It’s a movie about crazy women murdering lonely old men and a sadist trying to murder his own brother, and I’ve been laughing? That’s right—loudly, until you cry (at least I cry when I laugh).

The script is witty and the characters well-cast. Cary Grant plays his part excellently. I prefer him in comedy roles than in the more dramatic roles he sometimes played. I just like Peter Lorre, so having him in a movie is a plus. The play running on Broadway at the time the movie was made featured Boris Karloff as Cary Grant’s evil brother Jonathan. Karloff couldn’t play the part in the movie because of a time conflict, but his replacement, Raymond Massey, did a good job in the role and even resembled Karloff. Being a classic movie fan, I enjoyed the Boris Karloff references in the film.

I like the way Cary Grant’s character cares for his aunts and his brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt. The family affection shared by all, except Jonathon, helps make up for the morbid murdering and stashing of bodies part of the story.

If you need a laugh, or a non-horror movie to watch on Halloween (the day during which this story takes place), then I highly recommend this film.

Jaz: A newly-wed marriage skeptic, two sweet old aunts and a corpse in the window seat make the perfect concoction for a screwball comedy – with just a pinch of the macabre – in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace. Add to that a brother convinced he’s Teddy Roosevelt and a psychotic murderer on the lam with his personal plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (played brilliantly by Peter Lorre), and you’ve got comedic bliss.

(Which by the way, I wasn’t aware plastic surgery was common in the early 40’s – but then again, I’m not surprised. Hollywood is very knowledgeable with respect to this science.)

Cary Grant is a natural in screwball comedies. There’s something so endearing about his bewilderment and reactions when thrust in ridiculous situations. You can say all you like about North by Northwest and An Affair to Remember, but I’d still rather see him chasing and being chased by leopards and knife-wielding lunatics than wooing diamond-clad mistresses or scaling buildings.

Arsenic and Old Lace perfectly blends its dark and humorous elements. Consider the scene where Mortimer Brewster sits tied up in the dark, listening as Jonathan Brewster details different options for death by knife. Or when the head of the Happy Dale Sanatorium tells Mortimer they have too many Roosevelts but “we’re short on Napoleon Bonapartes at the moment.”

After the hilarious situations and quotable lines, the ending felt incomplete. Maybe Capra was unsure how to top all that. Or perhaps Joseph Kesselring, the author of the original play, chose to end it that way. Regardless, this film is a highlight of the murder comedy genre. And Grant is believable and natural as Mortimer Brewster (as believable and natural as an actor can be in such a role, anyway). We share his relief when he runs out of the house and yells, “I’m not a Brewster, I’m the son of a sea cook!”

And I’m not a blog writer, I’m a teapot!