A young man falls in love with a girl from a rich family. His unorthodox plan to go on holiday for the early years of his life is met with skepticism by everyone except for his fiancée's eccentric sister and long suffering brother.
Mortimer Brewster is a newspaperman and author known for his diatribes against marriage. We watch him being married at city hall in the opening scene. Now all that is required is a quick trip home to tell Mortimer's two maiden aunts. While trying to break the news, he finds out his aunts' hobby; killing lonely old men and burying them in the cellar. It gets worse. Written by
John Vogel <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In Frank Capra's autobiography he explains that the reason he wanted to do Arsenic and Old Lace was that he was planning to go into the service, in preparation for the war he was sure coming. He wanted a surefire moneymaking hit that could be done on the cheap.
Arsenic and Old Lace was running on Broadway at the time and authors Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse had sold the film rights to Warner Brothers. Capra negotiated a deal with Jack Warner for a percentage and told him how he would do the film on the cheap, but not cut production values. Years of experience at Columbia had taught him how. The property was perfect since 90% of it is on one set, the Brewster living room.
So the shooting was for four weeks and a big percentage of the budget was spent on getting a name star for guaranteed box office, that of course being Cary Grant. Of course this being 1941 the shooting was interrupted briefly by the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. But the film wrapped up quickly and was not released to the public until 1944 after the show on Broadway closed. It was however shown to troops overseas as were several other Hollywood films before they reached the domestic market.
Of course with a Capra selected cast the film was a great triumph. Only Jean Adair and Josephine Hull as the Brewster sisters and John Alexander as "Theodore Roosevelt" Brewster repeated their Broadway roles. Capra had insisted on that.
I don't think Cary Grant was ever more frantic in his film career than in Arsenic and Old Lace. He's one bundle of perpetual motion as Mortimer Brewster theater critic and member of a family where insanity doesn't just run, it gallops. He's got two daffy old spinster aunts who poison lonely old men to cure their loneliness, a brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, and another brother who is a homicidal maniac. Quite a family tree. Grant's performance is so good, you can see the fevered workings of his mind in his facial expressions as he frantically tries to get his whole family committed before the aunt's deeds are discovered.
Of the supporting cast I think that Raymond Massey as the homicidal brother, Peter Lorre as his sidekick, and Jack Carson as the dense police officer truly stand out. They and the others play parts that seem tailor made for them.
Over fifty years later, Arsenic and Old Lace will still fracture the funny bone in you.
And I wouldn't bet we've still not seen the last Roosevelt in the White House.
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