Pros:Cary Grant, Peter Lorre
Cons:Over the top story
The Bottom Line: Over the top antics fuel an underwritten story that even fabulously talented Cary Grant cannot make excellent. Worth watching but note the lack of story.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
This story is a screwball comedy by Frank Capra, who probably made the most memorable of them all It Happened One Night as well as several sentimental favorites like Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.
Arsenic and Old Lace is based on a stage play by Joseph Kesselring about a pair of elderly Brooklyn sisters (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) who poison bachelors they perceive to be lonely, feeling they are fulfilling a social good.
There are three male players that are part of this "family" with Cary Grant as nephew Mortimer playing the biggest part. Mortimer has two brothers that are certifiably insane, one believing he is Teddy Roosevelt (John Alexander) and the other a psychopathic killer (Raymond Massey) who escaped from prison and just happens to show up at the old homestead after a twenty year absence. Mortimer (Cary Grant) himself has just come back to visit his aunts bringing his new bride (Priscilla Lane) with him, but their marriage is a secret because he is an author with many best selling books about the joys of bachelorhood.
The two old sisters ply their suitors with elderberry wine spiked with a lethal combination of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide. There are a dozen bodies buried in the basement as the story opens helpfully placed there by Teddy Roosevelt who believes he is digging the Panama Canal single-handedly. If this scenario seems complicated, it is, and requires a healthy suspension of disbelief to swallow the various developments played for comic value.
As the story unfolds, you realize everybody in the Brewster family - that is their name - is insane - except Cary Grant, but even his sanity is questionable given the over the top developments.
Cary Grant does a good impression of a slapstick comedian with pratfalls, rubber-legged movements, and bizarre facial expressions but my belief is, as good as the movie is it has gotten old and was probably funnier years ago - in other words, it has not aged gracefully. I would blame the deficiency on the writing which is thin and relies too heavily on over the top developments that are stacked one on top of the other to the point that it really strains your credulity, despite your laughter. These fantastic developments do not replace a good story, in my view.
There is no way the reaction of the characters ring true given the situation and everyone seems to be playing their part for laughs despite the serious problems that are introduced by the storyline. The plot comes to a head when Massey decides to bury one of his victims in the basement along with the twelve others that are already there courtesy of the serial killing sisters. The sisters will not hear of it because they did not know if the guy was a proper gentleman. !!
Raymond Massey's character is made up to look like Boris Karloff - yep Frankenstein complete with stitch marks - without any real reason other than Karloff was in the stage version - ha ha - I didn't get the connection.
The one actor I thought was really hitting on all cylinders was Peter Lorre, who played the little weasely character that was his trademark. There are a couple of beat cops who stop in several times and one of them is right there when Cary Grant is bound and gagged by Massey who is preparing to kill him. The cop, a would be author, just wants some tips on his writing from author Grant and really takes advantage of his "captive" audience! :o
The movie does finally work its way around to the end and is satisfactorily concluded but I didn't feel it had the impact of some of the funniest screwball comedies like It Happened One Night.
Arsenic and Old Lace seems to be more highly rated here than the three stars I'm giving it but my rating is based on a recent viewing of the DVD; twice, in fact. Don't get me wrong - Cary Grant is among the best actors ever but this story was just too thin for him to carry alone and the other cast was mostly going thru hijinks rather than fleshing out a tale.
The DVD is from Warner Bros and it contains a good copy of the B&W movie with a running time of 118 minutes. No real extras included except subtitles.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV