This post is inspired by blog buddy, Sandy, who recently renamed her blog Arsenic and Old Lace, thereby inadvertently enticing me into buying the DVD of the movie of the same name. I had only seen Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) once, years ago, so I decided it was time to revisit it and I definitely wasn't disappointed. Even the Halloween themed illustrations in the opening credits are delightful.
Directed by Frank Capra, the story takes place on Halloween, and begins with the nuptials between drama critic, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), and the girl he grew up next door to in Brooklyn, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Things go horribly awry, however, after the newlyweds make a quick stop home to inform relatives of their marriage before departing on a honeymoon to Niagara Falls. Mortimer stumbles upon a body in the window seat of his old family abode. He soon discovers that the two sweet spinster aunts who raised him, have developed the "very bad habit" of poisoning lonely old men with their homemade elderberry wine.
Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair), who believe they are doing nothing wrong, are aided in performing their little "charities" by Mortimer's delusional brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy buries the bodies in the cellar under the impression that he is disposing of yellow fever victims during the digging of the Panama Canal. Add to the mix the unexpected return of Mortimer's other brother, murderous, bad seed Jonathan (Raymond Massey), and his alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), who are on the run from the police, and you've got a kooky and charmingly macabre farce.
Most of the movie takes place in and around the Brewster's Brooklyn home. The exterior set of the aunts' house, adjacent cemetery, and the church where Elaine grew up with her minster father is stunning. In the background is an incredible painted backdrop of New York with realistic touches like the moving lights of traffic in the distance, smoke coming from chimneys, and even two-dimensional trams/cable cars rolling backwards and forwards.
|Karloff [source] and Lugosi [source] playing the role of Jonathan Brewster on stage.|
Another aspect of the film that I loved was a running gag about Jonathan Brewster looking like "Boris Karloff". It is explained that Dr. Einstein had performed surgery on Jonathan's face to create a new identity for him. Unfortunately, not only had the doctor been intoxicated at the time, but he had also subconsciously been inspired by a certain famous monster movie he had just seen. Boris Karloff actually played the role of Jonathan Brewster in the original Broadway stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace, written by Joseph Kesselring. As Karloff was the star attraction of the play, however, he was unable to be released to do the movie, leading to Raymond Massey taking on the film role instead. Interestingly, Bela Lugosi also played the role of Jonathan Brewster in later stage productions of Arsenic and Old Lace.
It was surprising and amusing to find that Arsenic and Old Lace makes several references to Australia, and to Melbourne (where I live) in particular. Always ones for quoting films and TV shows, my husband, son and I have taken to regularly making references to the "Melbourne method" (in our best Peter Lorre voices, of course), which according to the movie, is a particularly gruesome and slow form of murder.
Jonathan: Tonight, we are taking care of Mortimer. And just for him we'll have something special. I plan on using the Melbourne method.
Dr. Einstein: [cringing] No! Not the Melbourne method, please! Two hours!
As Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” Thank you, Sandy, for unintentionally luring me into buying this adorable movie!