Arsenic and Old Lace


Directed by Frank Capra. Starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and Peter Lorre. 1944.

Viewed: Saturday, March 23rd.

Who Hadn’t Seen It: Brad and Monica

When we started pulling together the list of of films we wanted to watch for this project, we split our focus between films we’d always meant to see but never gotten around to and those that were recommended from ‘Best Of’ and canon lists. Sometimes they are under the radar things that sound fantastic, and sometimes they are waiting for us, like medicine we feel we should take. Arsenic and Old Lace was one of these frequently recommended titles.

In this dark screwball comedy, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a drama critic who is about to be married after a public life denouncing matrimony. Moments before her plans to leave for his honeymoon, he discovers his two elderly maiden aunts (Jean Adair and Josephine Hall) have just poisoned a man. Things are complicated when Mortimer’s deranged long lost brother (Raymond Massey) returns to the family home unexpectedly.

Monica: I was really excited to see this one. I like Cary Grant and Frank Capra, and I generally find these old Golden Era films comforting. I also had a little bit of history with this one, having worked on a high school production a million years ago. I was ready for it to be a little bit silly with a lot of dark underpinnings.

Brad: Zzzzzzzzzzzz. Huh, what? Oh. The movie’s over? Sorry, I must have dozed off there. Because this movie IS boring. There I said it. Someone had to (though I’m sure I’m not the first). I had a really hard time staying awake through this one. While I also enjoy Cary Grant and Frank Capra, but this one was quaint for my tastes. I found the tone uneven and that most of the jokes (or lack thereof) fell flat.

Monica: I was grinning when this started. I love title cards and swelling musical overtures. But after it was about a half hour in, I lost the thread. I don’t know that its boring exactly, but it doesn’t hold up well. It is also unnerving to see Cary Grant so over the top. He is constantly mugging directly to the camera in a very un-Cary Grant-like way. I read that Capra directed him into this performance, and it was one that Grant was ashamed of and could never watch himself.

Brad: This must make for the hackiest community theater productions ever. I always assumed it was the broadest thing any theater group could perform. At least this viewing confirms that assumption. That’s always comforting to a seasoned Cinematic Idiot. Thank God I never had to watch you in a production of this back in your acting days. I might have had to break-up with you then.

Monica: You’ve obviously never seen some of the things I’ve seen. Arsenic and Old Lace might not be modern, but there are worse things. You should just trust me on that. And my memory is compromised, but I feel like the play is a little darker and more nuanced than the film. I think.

Brad: You know you’re not enjoying a film when you spend much of it daydreaming for a different film. I spent most of this film wishing I could watch Cary Grant in a 1940’s Superman film. That would have been awesome. They could have explained away his accent as Krytonian by the way of Kansas. Hell, almost every movie I’ve ever seen Grant in, he’s played a newspaperman, like Clark Kent.

Monica: It might also be interesting to note that this was actually filmed in eight weeks in 1941, when the play was still playing as a huge hit on Broadway. Because of the deals they had struck, the film did not appear in theaters until 1944. Those three years were important ones for Cary Grant and film in general. I wonder how this would have played out if it was actually filmed in ‘44.


Quick notes:

  • It’s good to see Peter Lorre playing against type as a creepy German. Refreshing really. /s
  • Cary Grant is a real Dapper Dan Man in this one. He refuses to use Fop.
  • One of the aunts gives away a pie to a Halloween Trick-or-Treater. Did they really do that in 1940’s Brooklyn? I want to go to there.


Quick notes:

  • I don’t think this film is terrible at all. It just hasn’t held up in the same way as some others from this period. There also seems to be very little magic in it, and I need magic in my classic entertainment.

It took us a full week to write a lackluster post on this one because we were so mutually underwhelmed. This film obviously has a lot of fans, so its interesting that we both felt the same way here. Here’s to hoping we get excited to share Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid next week.


5 thoughts on “Arsenic and Old Lace

  1. You are right on this one…it’s not great, but there are a lot that are worse. I wonder if we can blame the studio contract system for this. If comedy is what is selling, then the actors have to do comedies even if that is not their strong suit. There are some pretty horrid movies where stars are forced into musicals without any singing and dancing talent.

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