Old Ass Movies: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

By  · Published on January 23rd, 2011

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of two women who kill old men for charity, their nephew who wants to get married without being sent to prison, his brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and his other brother who looks like Boris Karloff and has killed plenty of people himself.

Insanity might run in the family, but it’s also the story of the bodies buried in the basement and the one still hanging around the living room.

Yes. It’s a comedy.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by: Frank Capra

Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair

Arsenic and Old Lace proves one thing about classic era Hollywood: that a mainstream studio wasn’t always afraid to go a little off-kilter.

There’s a rightly earned perception that older movies from the 30s and 40s are a bit corny. A bit cheesy. Maybe even a bit too sweet and Golly-Gee-Happy. Sometimes, this is true. Of course, it’s always easy to pull out Tod Browning’s Freaks to show that people making some of the earliest films were just as messed up as we are.

This movie gives an even better example because 1) it’s not horror 2) it’s from Warner Bros. 3) it’s from an incredibly well-known director at the height of his career and 4) it features one of the biggest stars of his day.

However, even though the movie delivers the morbid sweetness of murder served with a cup of chamomile tea, Warners can’t be given total credit for sticking its neck out since it was based on an insanely popular play. Creative content, sure, but it was matched with a healthy economic incentive.

The gist of the play (and the movie) is simple. Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is on the cusp of getting married to the lovely Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) despite being a famous theater critic and outspoken advocate for the bachelor life. He comes home to his Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) – the sweetest women in all of Brooklyn – to tell them he’s taxi-ing away to his Honeymoon and discovers their secret. There are 11 dead bodies buried in the basement and one more stashed in the window seat. They smile. They coo. They ask if he wants something to drink while explaining how they poison each lonely old man to save him from a painful life.

It’s hilarious.

The great thing about this movie is its complete disloyalty to convention. It was made after a decade-long sweep of success from Capra (and just two years before his It’s A Wonderful Life) during the tail end of World War II. Actual, brutal, unspeakable death was happening overseas and all around the news hour, but this play and this film somehow allowed people to safely laugh at it from a distance. This is the same director who had Jimmy Stewart raving about freedom and honor in front of Congress, had Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert sticking their legs out for a ride, and had Lionel Barrymore teaching us to love the people in our lives instead of the possessions we can amass. After all that, he somehow gets possessed by Alfred Hitchcock’s spirit and makes a far better version of The Trouble With Harry.

Old Lace was also uncharacteristic for Cary Grant. He’d been working in Hollywood for around 12 years by that point and had managed to play the dapper gentlemen charming the petticoats off the young women. He’d also managed to get into Hitchcock’s roster as the slightly terrifying dapper gentleman charming the petticoats off Joan Fontaine in Suspicion, but his role as Mortimer Brewster is unlike any other he’d play in his career. Mortimer is frantic, he’s unhinged, a bit of a jerk, and he feels like he’s going insane while surrounded by insanity.

His closest mother figures are both brimming with the complete ignorance as to the dastardly nature of their crimes – seeing them as merciful – and they openly talk about them without much care. As a farce, it works like a slice of fried comedy gold, but if you think about it one minute too long, it becomes almost sickening (like thinking of the way Ed Gein was caught with a bunch of body parts casually lying around the house). Not only do they see nothing wrong with killing old men, they equate it with donating toys to the local orphanage. Just another good deed for the day.

Then there’s his brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt and provides a (literal) running gag of charging up the stairs like they’re San Juan Hill every time he needs to go to his room. Fortunately, there’s also the other brother – insane criminal Jonathan (Raymond Massey displaying the commanding boom that made his John Brown in Sante Fe Trail works so damned well) who shows up at the house in the midst of the chaos with his fake doctor cohort Dr. Einstein (played with creepy subtlety by Peter Lorre).

Of course, with all the body hiding and attempts to commit his brother to the Happy Dale Sanitarium and blackmail is other brother into leaving the house, Mortimer shoves his new bride away at ever turn, making her more and more hurt and suspicious.

It’s difficult to describe the farcical nature of the plot, but in simple terms – Mortimer falls all over himself, Teddy is trying to dig graves in the basement while thinking they’re for the Panama Canal, and the aunts are both being incredibly sweet while talking about burying the innocents they’ve dispatched. It’s dark satire done better than almost all other examples of the genre.

It stands out for feeling totally mainstream while dealing with topics (and dealing with them in a strange way) that seems completely foreign to the way we think of the happy-go-lucky 40s and the movies meant to lift wartime spirits. Yes, Arsenic and Old Lace is unrepentantly funny, but instead of drawing its humor from sex or relationships, it takes it from death.

The flick still holds up today (as do most farces), but it also still stands out as an odd specimen of movie history. It can’t be repeated because there are no modern contemporaries for either Capra or Grant, but imagine a modern director steeped in Americana (even if that means it’s Michael Bay’s star-spangled bluster of explosions) making a movie about a couple of old ladies killing people and laughing about it over afternoon tea, while getting a massive star known for his charm to be considerably un-charming.

It’s almost unthinkable, but that’s exactly what Arsenic and Old Lace is – a movie that uses the brightest smile of the day to laugh in the face of murder.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.