Insanity runs in Mortimer Brewster’s family that little bit more than it does in an average family, “it practically gallops”… With this in mind, Arsenic and Old Lace is not the portrayal of the common dysfunctional family, or even a slightly crazy one. The Brewsters are out of their mind and they have the bad habit of often killing old men and burying people in the cellar.
Written originally by Joseph Kesselring for Broadway and adapted for the screen by Julius and Philip Epstein, the film was produced and directed by Frank Capra and was released in 1944. The director gave Cary Grant the lead role of Mortimer Brewster, the drama critic who, shortly after getting married and while his taxi is waiting to take him and his wife to Niagara falls for their honeymoon, discovers that his two lovely old aunts are killing lonely old men and using their schizophrenic brother “Teddy Roosevelt”, to dig holes for the victims in the cellar. An utterly insane and unbelievably original premise for any film, let alone one written in the early forties.
Arsenic and Old Lace is hilarious from beginning to end. Not once does it get tiring, not once does it get too much. Although the acting is highly exaggerated, especially when it comes to Cary Grant, it never gets irritating. On the contrary, it maintains a pleasant theatre feel and everything seems dramatic but not in the melodramatic sense, rather in the classic comical sense, with strong facial expressions, magnificent trips and falls and a body language that reminds us of The Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. The main protagonist offers a rather over-the-top, silent-film-like performance, but he also makes us fall in love with him with every overstated move he makes. The rest of the cast is excellent, especially the two maiden aunts played by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, who are so natural and subtly funny that the viewer likes them and sympathises with them although he sometimes remembers that he shouldn’t really…
Simple and effective direction, one main set, hilarious situations that result from misunderstandings and ongoing miscommunication and an overall stage play atmosphere are the core of this classic black comedy that constantly implies violence and feels tremendously dark without ever showing anything slightly disturbing and always keeping its audience laughing. However, the most impressive thing about Arsenic and Old Lace is how much it hasn’t become dated and how well it still plays on the screen today, bringing on possibly the same amount of laughter and respect for its humour, if not more, adding the amazement that comes from watching a film released 70 years ago.
The best way to describe this film is by calling it a “mess”. Throughout its 118 minutes of duration, its characters engage in an entertainingly dark hide-and-seek, with bodies hidden in the window seat, Frankenstein look-alikes, family schizophrenia, murder attempts, successes and all this with the hilarious front that only the Brooklyn family home, tea, berry-made wine and old lace are known to provide. With a rather complicated plot — sometimes slightly implausible, but every step of the way amusing — a very intelligent script, an abundance of funny lines and some unbelievable performances by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair whose scripted parts allowed them to shine the most, Arsenic and Old Lace is hilarious chaos.