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Classic film review: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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By Teon. Owen. Cromwell, Jr.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a New York theatrical critic, author and confirmed bachelor known for his diatribes against marriage. Despite this, on Halloween day he marries Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the girl who grew up next door to him in Brooklyn. Immediately after the wedding, Mortimer decides to pay a visit to his two eccentric but lovable aunts’ Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, respectively). However, when Mortimer discovers a corpse hidden in a window seat his aunts’ reveal their new hobby; killing lonely old bachelors and burying their bodies in the cellar. Soon Mortimer's fugitive brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), arrives complicating matters further and adding to the merry mayhem.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a dark comedy from Warner Brothers, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant. Scripted by the Epstein Brothers this from Joseph Kesselring's hit play, the film was originally shot in 1941 but was not released until September of 1944 — after the original stage version had finished its Broadway run. Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander (who plays Teddy Roosevelt), were all granted an eight week leave of absence to reprise their roles from the 1941 stage production. However, Boris Karloff — who played Jonathan on Broadway — could not appear in the film because he was an investor in the stage production and its main draw.

For anyone who enjoys dark comedies, it is hard to bypass this hilarious adaptation. After watching the film, you cannot imagine anyone else but Cary Grant’s in the lead role, with his knack for comedy once again on full display; and the frantic cast of supporting characters are all equally excellent. Major kudos go to Hull and Adair, who turn in two entertaining performances which will have you laughing at how nonchalantly they view their crimes. Equally good are Massey and Peter Lorre as Jonathan, and Jonathan’s assistant, who show up with their own agenda.

According to Frank Capra’s autobiography, he was planning to go into the service — during filming he enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps — and wanted a moneymaking hit that could be done on the cheap, the result is this film. Arsenic and Old Lace are great inclusions to both Frank Capra’s and Cary Grant’s filmographies, one that has stood the test of time and continues to be hilarious even to this day.

Directed by — Frank Capra

Produced by — Frank Capra & Jack L. Warner

Written by — Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein, (based on the play by) Joseph Kesselring

Starring — Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey

Music by — Max Steiner

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