Arsenic and Old Lace was a successful play on Broadway, before Frank Capra made it into a much-loved black comedy film in the forties. Capra retained some the of the original cast from the stage play, with the main role being taken by Cary Grant. This article offers a review of the film.
The perfect blend
Drama critic and author of Marriage: a Fraud and a Failure, Mortimer Brewster (played by Cary Grant) is about to get married to his childhood sweetheart Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Reconciling his opinions on matrimony with his forthcoming nuptials is nothing compared to the secrets lying in his family home, as he discovers on a trip back there.
His younger brother Teddy thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt, while his aunts end the suffering of lonely bachelors by serving them elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Then Mortimer's elder brother Jonathan turns up with some dark secrets of his own. Madness runs through the family, just as it runs through the film.
This is a screwball comedy, laced with a dark theme, all superbly captured by the director Frank Capra. Though most of the action takes place in one room, so much happens that you barely notice the time flying by. If Grant is the big star, it is Josephine Hull and Jean Adair who steal the show as the maiden aunts. Despite their status as murderers, there is an air of innocence about them that adds to the humour.
The fact that that they already played the roles on stage is a bonus. Arsenic and Old Lace's script remains sharp. As Mortimer points out to one aunt that she has admitted to poisoning the 12 bodies in the cellar, she replies: "Yes I did. But you don't think I'd stoop to telling a fib." Conclusion Capra captures the atmospherics of classic horrors of the time, with a lightness of touch that brings out the humour. For a film that was released in 1944, it doesn't feel outdated. The story is high farce, but the execution is outstanding.
Seventy years after it was written, the dialogue still sparkles.
The performances of the leads, particularly those honed in the stage version, are outstanding.
The wonderfully ludicrous nature of the plot seems like something no one could get away with today.
Even in the best DVD transfer, there can be an inevitable grainy quality on a film this old.
As a transfer from a play, it can feel as if the natural home is on a stage.
Cary Grant believed that it was his worst film, even if many people would disagree.