Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – Movie Review

Welcome to the October series of movie reviews on the perfect films for Halloween. This first one is an absolute favorite. Just reading the synopsis might cause you to consider this one a dark and demented movie, but it’s not at all. In fact, the movie is a comedy. Cary Grant plays the role of Mortimer Brewster, a man who finds out that his family is crazy. The faces of Cary Grant are immortal. His shock, disbelief, obstinate attitude, during the whole story is hilarious. And, anyone who has seen a Cary Grant movie (specifically his comedies) will recognize the typical mumbling he does when no one will listen to him.

With the acting talents of Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Jack Carson, and Raymond Massey, looking a lot like “Boris Karloff”, the movie was destined to be a smash!

Brief Synopsis:

Mortimer Brewster is a well known marriage critic but when he falls for the girl next door, Elaine Harper, they elope and prepare to spend their honeymoon in Niagara Falls. While waiting for Elaine, Mortimer decides to find his most recent manuscript and burn it. During the search he finds something he never expected to: a body in the window seat! His innocent aunts admit to having killed the gentleman and what is more shocking, they think they’ve done the man a service. Beside himself with disbelief, Mortimer tries to figure out how to handle the situation without turning his dear aunts in. But matters only get worse when he finds there are more dead bodies, and his malicious brother arrives with another!

Full Synopsis

Despite his well-known outspoken opinion against marriage, Mortimer Brewster falls in love with Elaine Harper, the girl next door, or at least next door to his childhood home where his dear aunts reside. On their way to the train station and Niagara Falls after eloping, Mortimer drops Elaine off at her house and goes to tell his aunts the big news. Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are dear old ladies. They tell him just how happy they are that he and Elaine have decided to marry, and Teddy, his mentally challenged brother who fancies himself President Roosevelt, wishes him well with all the fervor of the president himself.

While he waits for Elaine, Mortimer decides to find and burn his latest manuscript on the downsides to marriage. Mortimer browses the room for the manuscript. Opening the windowseat, Mortimer stands stunned. A body! Shocked beyond belief, Mortimer stares at the contents of the windowseat.  Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha appear and he warns them that Teddy’s condition is worsening and turning to murder. Casually and quite at ease, the two sisters clarify that the body is not Teddy’s but theirs, “Mr. Hoskins”, they say, and go merrily back into the kitchen. Aunt Abby says that she had to put him there since the Reverend Harper, Elaine’s father, was arriving for tea and she didn’t have time to call Teddy to take him down to the cellar. What’s more, the kind ladies tell him that there are twelve other gentlemen buried down in the cellar. Why?! Mortimer asks.

The first man to die, they tell him, had a heartattack and the look on his face was so peaceful that they reasoned if they could assist other lonely old men in such a way as to give them that peace then they would. As simple as that.

Mortimer tries to explain that what they had done is considered murder in the eyes of the law but this only upsets the women. They think he simply doesn’t understand. So Mortimer tries to figure out what to do, all thoughts of Elaine and marriage gone from his mind. Then he comes up with the wonderful idea to put the blame on Teddy, since everyone knows he’s crazy. The former plan was to wait until the two women died to send Teddy to the Happy Dale Sanitarium but Mortimer calls the judge up and has him draw up the papers to have Teddy committed at once and takes off to visit the judge.

While he is away, his aunts get ready to hold services for the man in the windowseat but are interrupted by strangers at their door. When they don’t answer the men enter anyway. To their surprise, he calls himself Jonathan, their nephew. But his face is horrifying and they find it hard to believe.

With him is Dr. Einstein, a small man with a foreign accent. They make themselves at home, helping themselves to supper and rooms for the night. Unfortunately, Teddy returns from digging the lock and invites the doctor to go with him to the Panama Canal, otherwise known as the cellar. The doctor qucickly returns to tell “Jonny” about the grave-sized hole down there. He says it will be just the right size for “Mr. Spinalzo”. Ordering the ladies to an early bedtime, they plan to bring the body of another criminal Jonny killed through the window and bury him in the cellar. But while they are in their rooms, Teddy takes the body from the windowseat and puts him in the “lock”.

Jonathan and Dr. Einstein bring Mr. Spinalzo in through the window and have to stuff him in the windowseat to hide him.

Mortimer returns to find Jonny manhandling Elaine. He doesn’t believe it’s Jonathan either, until Jonathan reminds him of some of the horrible things he did to Mortimer when they were boys. Still bothered about the problem with his aunts, Mortimer tells Jonathan to leave. He then proceeds to call Mr. Witherspoon of Happy Dale Sanitarium to tell him things are in order for him to take Teddy. Hurt and mad, Elaine stomps from the house.

With nothing to do but wait, Mortimer takes another look at Mr Hoskins in the windowseat but sees Mr. Spinalzo instead. Accusing Aunt Abby of the crime, to which she denies, he realizes the body is Jonathan’s when it becomes apparent he is trying to hide it.

Eventually, sounds from the house draw the neighborhood officer, O’Hara who comes to investigate. O’Hara, unfortunately, fails to see the seriousness of the situation but Mortimer tries to use him to scare Jonathan away. When Jonathan finds out what the old ladies have done, Mortimer’s plan is fouled, and he instead has to keep Jonathan from telling O’Hara the truth.

After a narrow escape from Jonathan’s evil schemes, Mortimer sits by in a resigned stupor when his brother gets found out and fights the cops to get away.

Finally, when Jonathan is taken away, Mr. Witherspoon arrives to get Teddy. But Mortimer isn’t out of the clear yet. Before he left he managed to mention the cops going down in the cellar. The dear old ladies don’t deny there are bodies down there, to which Mortimer becomes hysterical. At first the chief of police thinks he’s nuts, but he finally gets the idea Mortimer is trying to “humor” the old ladies. Since it’s obvious the old ladies are as crazy as Teddy, they are all happily admitted to Happy Dale Sanatorium. And Mortimer can breathe at last.

Right before they leave, his aunts come up and tell him that he really isn’t a Brewster but the son a sea cook. Convinced that all Brewster blood is tainted with insanity, Mortimer whoops and hollers. That is, until Elaine ventures into the cellar to see if the story is right. She comes up screaming that it’s true and Mortimer grabs her and kisses her to silence her. He then slings her over his shoulder and runs for her house, all of his troubles over.

Behind The Scenes

First written as a play, Frank Capra adapted the long running broadway show into a film play but wasn’t able to be released until 3 years later after the show had finished. Originally, Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster, but since his name was so big they didn’t dare pull him from the play to do the movie, so they got Raymond Massey instead.

Bob Hope was their first choice for Mortimer Brewster but Paramount wouldn’t release him to do the film. In my opinion, it’s a good thing. Bob Hope couldn’t have pulled off the stunned expressions as well as Cary Grant did. Ronald Reagan was another choice. I think Ronald Reagan would have been a good choice, but I still don’t think he would have been as good at the part as Cary Grant was.

After only eight weeks of filming, the movie Arsenic and Old Lace was finished, and in 1944, released for the world to enjoy. Critics raved then and they still do today.

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