Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

The President is in the house!

I have to admit that I miss the time when there was such thing as pure comedy. I mean comedy without all that shock value (I’m looking at you, Project X) or political agenda. Just pure, simple comedy.

Enter Frank Capra’s adaptation of the stage play Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). Here we follow newly-married Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) as he visits his aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) only to discover they have been on a murder spree. Things get complicated when Mortimer’s wanted brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) comes back home for a visit.

After seeing spy thriller North by Northwest (1959), I knew Cary Grant had to have had in him the ability to be a comedian, and I saw my suspicions were well-founded after having seen Arsenic and Old Lace. He had a terrific on-screen persona with his facial contortions and his distinct, trans-Atlantic accent.

That being said, it’s fair to say Arsenic and Old Lace’s main strength was in its cast. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair were perfectly insane as both Aunt Brewsters. In the stage play, Boris Karloff played Jonathan, and a running gag was how the character looked like Boris Karloff. For that reason, despite the fact that Massey turned in a terrific performance, I think it is unfortunate the casting staff was unable to get a hold of the real Karloff as he was still performing the character for the stage. However, I thought it was John Alexander who stole the show as Teddy Brewster, a man who was quite convinced he was Teddy Roosevelt.

Clearly, the stage play was successful if the producers were inspired to adapt for the screen, so that point is moot. Aside from a few scenes that dragged a little, I thought the film overall was very well-executed with delivering very uniquely 1940s humor.

Score: 3.5/4

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