What do you get when you make a Halloween stew of familial madness, dead bodies, and two old spinsters? “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a 1944 classic film directed by Frank Capra with the ever-suave Cary Grant in the leading role. Except here, Grant’s smoothness is set aside for a series of outrageous events occurring in Brooklyn one Halloween night.
Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a famous New York “dramatic critic,” who has written several books on why marriage is the worst thing in the world, a “fraud,” and a “failure.” He has an established reputation as New York’s bachelor, which he is supposed to protect and maintain. So, it is rather odd that he finds himself at the City Hall, getting a marriage license to make the union official with the woman he couldn’t resist—Elaine Harper.
Mortimer’s parents are long gone, and his only connection to the family are his two aunts, Abby and Martha, and a brother who is convinced he is actually Teddy Roosevelt. “Teddy” regularly reenacts various events from the president’s life.
Abby and Martha are sweetness personified. They care for their neighbors, they have a good relationship with the minister (Elaine’s father), and they even offer a room for rent and a good meal for strangers who are passing by. But something wicked lies beyond the door of the house next to the old cemetery, something Mortimer couldn’t ever have imagined.
When he visits his aunts to announce the exciting news of his marriage to Elaine, Mortimer discovers a dead body hidden in the window seat. He’s not quite sure how the corpse made it into his aunts’ house, let alone in the window seat. What ensues is one of the best black comedies, the horrific proportions of which were ever captured on the silver screen. (One can see its influence in such movies as Joe Dante’s 1989 “The ‘Burbs” and John Waters’ 1994 “Serial Mom.”)
As “Teddy” is getting ready to dig for the Panama Canal in the basement of the house (his mental state doesn’t allow him to recognize that his aunts are essentially asking him to dig a grave), Mortimer is trying to get to the bottom of this unusual . . . er . . . problem. Dialogue between Mortimer and his aunts goes in circles, until finally Mortimer realizes that it is his sweet aunts who have committed the murder by poisoning a man in the window seat.
As it turns out, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha have been at this for a while, and in one instance, they even sweetly bicker about the number of corpses that they are responsible for piling up. According to Teddy, the 12 victims are all yellow fever casualties who died during the building of the Panama Canal.
Things start to get more complicated with the arrival of another mad member of the Brewster family: Jonathan (Raymond Massey). He just happens to be a serial murderer. Tagging along is Dr. Einstein (played wonderfully by Peter Lorre, known for his leading role as a child murderer in Fritz Lang’s 1933 “M”), who is a very bad plastic surgeon. He operated on Jonathan while he was drunk and made him look like Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. (This becomes a recurring joke in the film, in which Jonathan is continuously offended that everyone thinks he looks like Boris Karloff.)
Cary Grant’s humor, which is present even in his darker films, is turned up a few notches for this over-the-top performance. Grant was bothered by this and thought that Capra should have chosen Jimmy Stewart for the role of Mortimer Brewster. In his biography, Cary Grant: a Brilliant Disguise, Scott Eyman writes that “Grant spent most of the shoot fretting that Capra was forcing him into a performance that was too broad.” Despite this, “Grant gave Capra what the director wanted: uncontained hysteria, a virtuoso display of popping eyes, whinnies and squeals, violent double and triple takes.”
As usual, Grant was very professional and gave his best, but he always expressed reservations about the role: “I tried to explain to Capra that I couldn’t do that kind of comedy—all those double takes. I’d have been better as one of the old aunts.”
It is tempting to view “Arsenic and Old Lace” as some kind of metaphor for an American way of life. It is even more tempting (especially for academics) to view the film as some sort of reckoning with America’s uneasy past of slavery and freedom. For example, in The Capra Touch, Matthew Gunter suggests that Capra made the film to “tell Americans to learn some way to come to terms with the country’s violent past, and understand both the positive and negative consequences of liberty before protecting the country and its values from its enemies.”
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just a fun movie. There is no evidence to suggest Capra had these intentions. (In Gunter’s defense, he does claim this only as his own theory). In fact, the evidence suggests something quite the opposite. Capra was relieved the film was just good old-fashioned comedy and with just the right amount of horror. Besides, can we really imagine an audience seeing “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and leaving the theater and saying, “My, that was such a great foray into American history. Yes, we are all prejudiced bastards, and we need to correct that behavior immediately. I will also try to be a better husband, and question the patriarchal institution that is marriage. Oh Mabel, don’t you just feel enlightened?”
This illustrates how critics and academics alike have been out of step or quite simply on another planet altogether from the people. Viewing films through a pseudo-intellectual lens is a dangerous business, and the line between intelligent analysis and over-the-top philosophizing is much thinner than Grant thought the line between good comedy and making a fool of himself was. According to Warner Brothers’ records, the film was a box office hit: it earned almost $3 million domestically and close to $2 million in other countries, with a budget of a little over $1 million. Those are big numbers for the time that do not suggest the audience thought it was going to school.
It would seem that classic films today are always in danger of being tinged with one theory or another of our particular time and place. That is inescapable. What ought to be obvious, however, is that such reflections usually say more about us than they do about their subjects. This is particularly true in the case of Capra, who, of all people, would not be offering a morality lesson about the sins of America, given his patriotism and penchant for portraying America in a positive light.
So this Halloween season, let’s watch “Arsenic and Old Lace” and enjoy its great, macabre humor, the silly prejudices of “sweet” old ladies, loads of laughs, and as always, the incomparable Cary Grant.