One of my favourite actors, from any country, has been Cary Grant. There’s something about him that brings out the best in his performances. He’s a good looking bloke, confident, excellent with fast paced and witty dialogue and brings an all around charm to his roles. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Grant plays Mortimer Bewster, a play critic who has just married the lovely Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Before they go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, Mortimer stops off at his aunts home to pick up his luggage. With the taxi waiting outside, he’s almost ready to leave when he makes a shocking discovery. His two aunts, Martha and Abby (Jean Adair and Josephine Hull respectively) are killing the homeless and burying them in the cellar with the help of their crazy son, Theodore Brewster (John Alexander), who thinks he’s Teddy R.
Fear not, no more of the plot will be given away. A lot happens in this film that remains to be discovered. The plot thickens as more and more characters become involved, and this turns the heat up. Mortimer loves his aunts, despite their grisly hobby, and would never want to give them to the authorities. However, several misadventures along the way make this rather problematic. Not to mention that his new wife doesn’t understand what in blazes has suddenly gotten into him. And don’t forget: the taxi cab is still waiting outside!
For a film with such a dark subject matter, it’s quite a little wonder that Capra and the writers succeed in keeping the movie as funny as it is. And this is a very funny movie. I’m not the biggest fan of the kind of goofy humour in which the actors are putting on clown faces all day long (and there is a bit of that here), but the dialogue and delivery is so sharp, so ‘right on the money’ that I could not help but laugh out loud on many occasions. When the stakes are raised, so is the quantity of laughs per minute. Few many comedies succeed in retaining their high level of energy as the running length increases, but with the combination of talents involved here, it really doesn’t come as a surprise in the case of Old Lace. The exchanges between Mortimer and his aunts offered some of the funniest lines ever heard. But it’s critical to note how they were delivered. Mortimer is horrified, the aunts see nothing wrong. In fact, they’re positively giddy about the entire ordeal. These two jarringly different moods regarding the same subject matter only heighten the entertainment value of those scenes. The aunts are doing those poor homeless men a favor after all, aren’t they? Or is everybody in this family simply insane?
Acting in comedies must be terribly difficult. How does one ‘act funny?’ Sure the lines have to be good, but qualified actors are a requirement as well. Arsenic and Old Lace is full of them, from Cary Grant, to John Alexander, and even another personal favorite, Peter Lorre, who plays a strange doctor on the run with Mortimer’s psychotic brother.
For those who must have their films with some meat, the movie does tackle, at least a little bit, one issue: what lengths a person might travel to protect a loved one, even if the cost of that protection meant disobeying the law. That theme may not be exactly what the movie is driving at, but it stands to reason that that is precisely the predicament that Cary Grant has found himself in. Any ordinary person wouldn’t hesitate to denounce the atrocities the two old ladies have committed. Whether they behaved like angels or not would be of little consequence, they are guilty of murder! And yet, when family ties are at issue, we tend to behave a bit differently. We’ve all done something for a sibling that perhaps they didn’t merit. In hindsight the act itself may appear as silly or imprudent, but they’re family and one shouldn’t let family down. So there’s a bit of intelligence to the proceedings as well.