Arsenic and Old Lace

by Logan Gion
Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay

The Basics

Arsenic and Old Lace

1944

Directed by Frank Capra

Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre

Why is Arsenic and Old Lace considered obligatory?

One of the purest examples of dark comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace was a critical and commercial success upon release. Arsenic and Old Lace not only faithfully adapts the play upon which it’s based, it marries screwball and macabre with rare success.  Before this movie, dark comedy served horror well–in James Whale’s The Dark Old House–and lent its abilities to political satire–in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator–but the only preceding film which matches Arsenic and Old Lace‘s formula is 1938’s A Slight Case of Murder. Arsenic and Old Lace‘s influence, however, is present in cinematic touchstones like The Ladykillers, Harold and Maude, Fargo, Get Out, Parasite, and (strangely) Thor: Love and Thunder.

Arsenic and Old Lace sits at 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.9/10 on IMDb.

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Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay

Why did you watch Arsenic and Old Lace now?

Every Halloween or so, this movie makes the rounds for cinephile recommendations. For some reason, I’d always watched something else first. Since this month’s theme has been–

Dark

Comedy

Arsenic and Old Lace was on my radar again. This year, however, my co-writer, Chris, told me that my comedic writing style reminded him of this movie as well. Arsenic and Old Lace, which he watched in high school, was the first time he realized that old movies could be both so dark and so funny.

I was practically honor-bound to watch it at this point.

What’s Arsenic and Old Lace about?

Famed play critic Mortimer Brewster is getting married! This is odd because he’s written numerous books about how much he loves bachelorhood. To celebrate, he and his wife are going to Niagra Falls for their honeymoon. Mortimer just has to pop over to his aunts’ house to pick up a few things first.

The Brewster home includes a few odd characters: Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who believes himself to actually be President Theodore Roosevelt; Aunts Abby and Martha, who run a boarding house for lonely old men; and Mr. Hoskins, who is currently dead under the window seat. That’s right, Mortimer’s kindly relatives have a few skeletons in their cellar–literally!

Unfortunately, Mortimer finds out just as he’s about to leave. If the police get involved, his reputation will be ruined, not to mention his marriage will be dead on arrival. Mortimer’s going to have to wrangle his family together to solve this problem. Good thing the worst member, Mortimer’s criminally insane brother Jonathan, is nowhere to be found.

I wonder where Jonathan could be? Certainly not planning a return to his childhood home after all these years, coincidentally adding an extra layer to the frenetic proceedings…

Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay
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Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay

What did you think of Arsenic and Old Lace?

I liked it! B+. Good work.

I feel awful damning this movie with faint praise. This month’s theme has been a delight–I’m a huge fan of screwball and adore dark comedy. By all means, I should be over the moon for Arsenic and Old Lace. Even stranger, my main problem is with one of my favorite actors, Cary Grant!

Two problems with Grant’s performance stand out for me. First, I think that he starts too high on the reaction dial. As a comedy plays out, an actor has to bring bigger reactions to bigger events. If that actor’s performance goes overboard, the audience loses engagement, finding the character annoying rather than funny. Secondly, Cary Grant’s faces are funny because they’re meant to be funny–not because they’re genuine reactions to what he’s seeing. Jack Lemmon has a great quote from acting coach Uta Hägen regarding this issue. In a scene, he grabbed a coffee pot while mugging to the audience. His classmates chuckled, but Hägen rebuked him, saying, “You weren’t reaching for a prop. You were reaching for a laugh.”

Guess who agrees with me? Cary Grant. Reflecting on this role, he considered Arsenic and Old Lace the worst performance of his career, saying it was too large. To be fair to Grant, director Frank Capra wanted him to go big. Cary Grant wasn’t comfortable doing that, so the two had a prickly relationship on set. Of course, both Capra and Grant continued to do great work after Arsenic and Old Lace. Cary Grant starred in Hitchcock’s Notorious two years later while Frank Capra’s next film was It’s a Wonderful Life.

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Okay, but would the average person appreciate Arsenic and Old Lace nowadays?

This movie knocks ’em dead! I think that near anyone would laugh their face off (then get a Boris Karloff replacement face) while watching this movie. I happened to dislike the main performance, but I’m in the minority regarding that opinion. Most viewers find Grant’s work riotous in the movie.

Beyond that, the writing is masterfully layered to deliver maximum laughs. The comedic timing is on point, and the supporting cast make brilliant choices. Peter Lorre, known for playing bizarre villains, sends up his persona here as the plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their roles from the Broadway play, adapting the roles with whimsical charm. Raymond Massey, while not Boris Karloff himself, provides a sturdy effort as Arsenic and Old Lace‘s villain.

Macabre without being gross, funny without being slight, dark without being grim–Arsenic and Old Lace is the perfect Halloween movie for those who prefer treats over tricks.

Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay
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Used for Oblogatory's post "Arsenic and Old Lace" on S4Screenplay

Who’s the audience?

  • Fans of Old Hollywood comedies
  • Trick-or-treaters whose favorite candy is SweeTARTS
  • U.S. History students who need to study up on the Progressive Era

Where can I watch Arsenic and Old Lace?

You know what else is "must-see"?

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Note: Beginning in late March, I began a transformative yet energy-draining health procedure. I've had to take unexpected breaks from posting, so, unfortunately, I can't always get to everything I have planned. I'll do my best to keep it as accurate as possible.

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