Classic Cinema Wednesday is a weekly spotlight review series focusing on a classic film from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood (roughly 1927-1960) that I have never seen prior to watching for this series. The goal of the project is to catch up on old films that I haven’t seen and have overlooked due to their age.
Classic Cinema Wednesday #5: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Starring: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Raymond Massey
Director: Frank Capra
Writer(s): Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Joseph Kesselring (play)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Released: September 23, 1944
Cary Grant is a Hollywood legend, but until I watched this film, I had never seen a Cary Grant film before. I think I started with a pretty good one though, as I laughed almost the entire film. This is actually the first of the old films that I watched, late last year, and it was what led to the “Classic Cinema Wednesday” series. It’s also the film that turned me on to other Cary Grant films, and I have since become a big fan (and yes, I’ll have plenty of Cary Grant films in the covered in future editions). I’ve now seen this one twice, and it was equally as enjoyable the second time around.
Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who has frequently dissed marriage, who has fallen in love with and married Elaine Harper (played by the lovely Priscilla Lane). After getting married to Elaine, Mortimer returns to his old home to visit his aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) before heading off on his honeymoon. Mortimer’s insane brother Teddy (John Alexander) also lives in the house and he believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt; and he humorously yells “charge!” and runs up the stairs.
Mortimer discovers a dead body in a window seat of the house, and naturally thinks his insane brother has killed someone and stashed the body. Mortimer quickly, and humorously, finds out that his aunts killed the person and have killed several more and buried them in the cellar. His aunts describe this as a charity they provide to lonely people with no family, as a means to return them to their loved ones. They kill these men by giving them poisoned wine (poisoned with arsenic and some cyanide). Naturally, Mortimer doesn’t take the news all that well and quickly goes into panic mode.
Mortimer heads out trying to quickly get his brother committed to an institute, and while he’s gone his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up. Jonathan is a scary dude, in part because he’s had a lot of plastic surgery and kinda resembles Boris Karloff as Frankenstein (in fact, that becomes a running joke on the film, confusing him for Karloff, which is funny because Karloff played the role in the Broadway play). This brother actually is a murderer, and he’s in town with his plastic surgeon/accomplice to hide from the police and dispose of his latest murder victim.
Jonathan and his doctor find the other dead body, and learn that his aunts have killed more people than he has, and insists that he’ll best them by killing Mortimer. He also wants to bury his victim in the cellar, but his aunts are adamant that it’s not going to happen because their victims were nice people and Jonathan’s is a stranger.
A cop, who wants to be a playwright, gets involved but he’s not too bright. Mortimer eventually succeeds in getting his brother Teddy committed to the nut house, and luckily for him his aunts decide to go live there with Teddy too. Jonathan also gets arrested, and the film ends with Mortimer running off kissing his bride (who has discovered the bodies in the cellar) to keep her quite.
Obviously that’s a condensed version of the plot; the film is packed with humor (including some great facial expressions from Grant) that really can’t be described and are instead best seen. The humor may be lost on some people, as I watched it the second time with a few others and they didn’t seem to find it nearly as funny as I did. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it both times. The film was actually completed in 1941, but wasn’t released until 1944 when the Broadway play ended its run.
The acting is really quality from all involved, and the directing from Frank Capra is good as well. If you have never seen this, hit up Amazon Instant and give it a watch (free for Prime members); I’m sure the majority of you will like it and find it to be quite funny. It’s a good starting point for those who are like I was; that is familiar with Cary Grant’s name but not actually having seen any of his films. If that’s the case, you’ll likely come away a fan and will seek out another Grant film (in my case, it was “Bringing Up Baby”).
It’s a great classic film (in good old fashion black and white) that the whole family can enjoy. Stream it if you must, but this is one I definitely think should be in your DVD collection (you can purchase the DVD for under $10 on Amazon).