Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): What's in the wine and in the window seat?

Title: Arsenic and Old Lace
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

"Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops."

So says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a drama critic who at the start of the movie gets married to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) after years of confirmed bachelorhood. En route to their honeymoon, they stop by the house of Mortimer's kindly old aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who are known in their community as generous women, donating toys to poor children, visiting the sick, and performing other charitable acts.

As Mortimer discovers, after a look under their window seat in the front parlor, their idea of charity also includes killing off lonely old men. It takes some time for Mortimer to wrap his head around the fact that his aunts could be doing this.
Mortimer: What happened to him?!
Martha: He died.
Mortimer: Look, Aunt Martha, men don't just get into window seats and die!
Abby: Look now, dear, he died first.

Up until that point, Mortimer had assumed his family's madness was confined to his older brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt - and that his family's darker impulses were confined to his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a sadist who hasn't been seen in 20 years (but of course will show up, with Peter Lorre in tow to up the creep factor).

Meantime, Elaine - who doesn't know what's going on - is wondering why Mortimer suddenly seems so absent-minded and panicky, so unready to embark on their life of wedded bliss. (When there are too many bats in the family belfry, is wedded bliss possible?)

Arsenic And Old Lace Poster.jpg
"Arsenic And Old Lace Poster". Via Wikipedia.

Priscilla Lane has a thankless role as a woman who spends most of the movie getting shoved aside and bodily carried out of rooms. As for Cary Grant, his performance took some getting used to because it was too hammy (like, huge double-takes and expressions of HUH?). The other actors, especially Hull, Adair, Massey and Alexander, were spot-on in their roles. Also, Jack Carson in the role of a friendly but oblivious policeman.

It's a strange, funny dark comedy, which frays at the end like many comedies. There are hilarious scenes, numerous twists, and jokes that take time to develop and pay off. Fun for any time of year, but especially Halloween, if like me you prefer to avoid gory slasher/monster movies.