Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Arsenic and Old Lace

Brewsters' Dozens

What is it about?

Tonight's Spooky Movie Tuesday pic is "Arsenic and Old Lace" (Warner Brothers, 1944). It's Halloween, and Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is on top of the world;

"Yes, darling, I'm on top of the world with an outrageous made-up accent!"

a professional New York theater critic and author who wrote the book on bachelorhood (literally) has finally succumbed to love and married his childhood sweetheart, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).
Pictured: The saddest woman in cinema.

The two just need to make a stop in Brooklyn: Elaine to her father's to pack for the Honeymoon and Mortimer to tell his family the news. His two aunts Abbie (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair)
The music cues you to how adorable these two are.

are the sweetest, kindest people you'd ever meet, taking care of Mortimer's younger brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who has delusions that he's United States President Theodore Roosevelt.
You have to love Teddy.

So, when Mortimer discovers his saccharinely cute, adorable little aunts are hiding a horrifying secret buried in their basement, his entire life begins to unravel in short order.
"Will you be staying in our basement, Mr. Gibbs?" "What?" "Would you like some wine?"

Now he has to enact a plan to have Teddy committed to a rest home to keep his aunts out of prison, but there are additional complications: The arrival of his estranged criminal psychotic brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey)
Raymond Massey doesn't blink in close-ups, making him even creepier.

and his diminutive accomplice, the alcoholic Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), who are trying to make the Brewster home their base of operations,
Even if you don't know who this is, you've seen portrayals of him elsewhere, I guarantee it.

all while the local police patrolmen Brophy (Edward McNamara) and O'Hara (Jack Carson) stop in to check on the elderly Brewster sisters.
Not quite Keystone Kops, but close.

Can Mortimer figure out how to sort his family in time to save his marriage... Or his life?

Some backgroud

This film by legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra (known for such classics as "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and "It's a Wonderful Life") is based on the 1939 Joseph Kesselring play of the same name, and the film follows a play-like production: It takes place on mostly one set, the massive main room of the Brewster home. This keeps the story focused and the dialogue punchy, which is what you want in a fast-paced comedy film. The Brewster home, in fact, was one of the largest movie sets ever constructed up to that time, even the exterior being filmed on a soundstage with a painting and miniatures acting as the backdrop beyond the Brooklyn Bridge. The effort pays off, with the controlled lighting keeping everything delightfully creepy throughout. I was going to give a bit of trivia that the Bell Telephone Company provided the phones used in the movie to improve awareness for their new "French" handset style phone (where the microphone and earpiece were in the same unit), but I couldn't find any corroborating evidence of this, as the Western Electric Model 102 (which featured the French design) came out in 1929, and the newest one they could have used for the film was the 1937 Model 302 which was essentially an internal redesign.

The phone in question, care of Wikipedia contributor Kbrose  

Don't believe all the trivia you see on IMDB, folks.

A personal breakthrough

Now, there was a time when I was younger (at least three decades ago) where I wouldn't watch black and white movies. I felt that the craft (resolution, sound design, etc.) just wasn't as good as contemporary movies and not worth my time. But I'm telling you: You're doing yourself a disservice if you're not giving these old films a look. Not only is it a window into a different time, but there is a surprising amount of complexity in cinema, even before color film became available. This is the movie that got me to sit up and pay attention to the cinema of the past.

The good

In case you don't know, this film is a black comedy, and an extremely funny one. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their roles of Abbie and Martha from the play and are in my opinion the best part of the film, as they are so sweet and kind while being completely and absolutely oblivious to the abject horror of their "hobby."

That's quite a used men's hat collection...

Cary Grant was apparently dragged for his over-the-top acting in this film, which he was allegedly upset by, but he plays the role of a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck character to absolute perfection in my opinion (who wouldn't be a little crazy given what his character goes through in the production).
"What's so interesting in that window seat," you might ask.

The makeup on Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster is creepy and horrific, but also a bit over-the-top (the running joke in the movie is that he looks like Boris Karloff -- presumedly as Frankenstein's monster -- which is doubly funny when you realize that Karloff actually played Jonathan in the original play). As usual, Peter Lorre gives a terrific performance with his trademark bug-eyed stare and slimy demeanor filling the role of Dr. Einstein perfectly.

The bad

I can't think of one single bad thing about this movie. I guess that if your idea of horror is blood and gore, you're not going to get that visceral punch.

Pretty safe for kids

This film is unrated, but honestly, it's a very soft "PG." I can't think of a more perfect family Halloween movie. It takes place on All Hallows' Eve, it's got a graveyard, scary villains, zero gore, no swearing, and even though dead bodies find their way into the shots, you never quite see them. What's more, the dialogue is fast-paced and funny, the actors are all at the top of their comedic game, and it's great seeing the usually suave Cary Grant overreact to the insanity around him.

Where can you find it?

"Arsenic and Old Lace" is available on DVD, to rent/buy on several streaming services, and available to watch for free (with Spanish subtitles) on archive.org, here.

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