Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): Capra’s Oscar-Winning Black Comedy, Starring Cary Grant

The huge success of the Broadway production of “Arsenic and Old Lace” motivated Warner Bros. to delay the release of their screen version of that play from 1941 to 1944.

The play, by Joseph Kesserling, son of German immigrants and a former professor at Bethel College, a pacifist Mennonite college. was written in the antiwar atmosphere of the late 1930s, and the studio was hoping that the message would be relevant during WWII.

They assigned the adaptation of Joseph Kesserling’s black comedy to Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (better known for “Casablanca”), and cast in the lead Cary Grant, then at his most handsome and at the height of his popularity.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a sober theater critic who tries to convince his aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) that they should stop putting arsenic in the wine they are serving to their guests. For their part, the eccentric women don’t understand why Mortimer gets so worked up about it.

Abby and Martha, who live in a secluded area of Brooklyn Heights, have poisoned out of kindness a number of lonely old men. Their nephew Mortimer has just married Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of a minister who lives next door to the crazy sisters. The happy couple is about to leave for their honeymoon, when Mortimer gets too involved with his aunts’ problems, after fining a body in the window seat.

The film is full of mad people. Another crazy but harmless relative (John Alexander) thinks he is Teddy “Roosevelt” and thus digs four-by-six-foot sections of the Panama Canal in the basement, sections suitable for the burial of “yellow fever victims” found by the aunts.

Shortly after, another mad relative, Jonathan, a wanted criminal, and his friend, Dr. Einstein (M’s Peter Lorre), arrive with another body. Later, these two decide to kill Mortimer and Elaine, thinking they know too much. A friendly neighborhood police recognizes Jonathan and asks for help. At the same time, Mr. Witherspoon, superintendent of “Happydate,” arrives to take “Teddy” away, and the two aunts agree to go with him.

Upon hearing Mortimer signed the commitment papers as next of kin, Abby and Martha, concerned they may be null and void, drop a bomb.  They inform Mortimer that he is not a Brewster after all: his mother was the family cook and his father had been a chef on a steamship. Relieved, he lustily kisses Elaine and whisks her off to their honeymoon while yelling, “Charge!”

After a string of commercial successes and Oscar-winners (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Capra’s helming here is overstated and overwrought.  Unable to obscure the theatrical origins of the material–he follows too closely the play’s basic pattern–Capra tries to compensate with a speedy pacing.

To accommodate Grant’s stature, the screenwriters have expanded his role and he dominates throughout.  Capra encourages his star to assume a wild, tumultuous manner from the start. Overacting, Grant performs in a frenzy manner, mugging, overdoing the slapstick part, and firing his lines almost as fast as he did in Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.”

Though the play’s clever lines have been retained, the added dialogue is superfluous and fails to contribute new laughs.

The villains, who are murderers less couth than the murderous mad aunts, are played by Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey, seemingly channeling the mannerisms of horror icon Boris Karloff .

The large supporting cast is impressive, including James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Jack Carson, John Alexander, and Grant Mitchell.

Even so, at the time, the blend of horror and comedy was new, and the old ladies’ sweet, almost innocently matter-of-fact attitude toward their gruesome hobby shocked Broadway audience and also made them laugh.

Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster
Josephine Hull as Aunt Abby Brewster
Jean Adair as Aunt Martha Brewster
Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster
Peter Lorre as Dr. Herman Einstein
Priscilla Lane as Elaine Harper Brewster
John Alexander as “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster
Jack Carson as Officer Patrick O’Hara
John Ridgely as Officer Sanders
Edward McNamara as Police Sgt. Brophy
James Gleason as Police Lt. Rooney
Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon
Grant Mitchell as Reverend Harper
Vaughan Glaser as Judge Cullman
Chester Clute as Dr. Gilchrist
Edward McWade as Mr. Gibbs – the old man
Garry Owen as Taxicab Driver
Charles Lane as first reporter
Hank Mann as Second reporter with camera
Spencer Charters as Marriage License Clerk