A drama critic learns on his wedding day that his beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, and that insanity runs in his family.
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Arsenic and Old Lace is a relatively late Capra film, released in 1944, while he was making war propaganda films. Perhaps this film was a break from reality for Capra and the public; it's a wild romp of a comedy, full of one-liners and ridiculously funny scenes. It was adapted from a popular play by Joseph Kesselring, which was still playing on Broadway when the film was made. It's a return to pure comedy for Capra, without any real dramatic situations or social commentary; it's probably his funniest film, and considered one of the best comedies ever made.
The ridiculous plot focuses on Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a play critic as well as an author of numerous books condemning marriage. But Mortimer has fallen in love and has himself just been married to the reverend's daughter, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). The real action starts when he comes home to Brooklyn in order share the news with his spinster aunts (Josephine Hall and Jean Adair), who raised him. During his visit, he finds a dead body in the window seat, much to his surprise and horror. He assumes his cousin (John Alexander), who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, has finally snapped and killed someone, and tells his aunts that Teddy must be taken to a sanitarium. But he soon learns that it is his kind old aunts who have actually committed the crime—and that it is their hobby and way of “doing good” to poison lonely old men. While Mortimer is trying to find a solution to his aunts' homicidal tendencies, his long-lost brother and criminal Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up with his sidekick Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). They have a stiff of their own, and have come to the house to hide out. Chaos ensues, numerous wonderful secondary characters come in and out of the house to partake in the action, and it becomes unclear just who is the craziest person in the place.
This film, I believe, shows off Cary Grant's comedic talents wonderfully, although he apparently disliked his performance in the film, because he thought it was over the top. It is perhaps, at times, but the character calls for it, as does the plot itself. Everything going on is over the top and zany, so the character of Mortimer must be also. But Grant's priceless facial expressions, his constant movement and the effortless switching between his character's different emotions, display his talent and should make any viewer laugh out loud.
The rest of the cast, too, are a hilarious bunch. Massey and Lorre are great as the dark duo; Lorre especially is wonderfully comedic and odd as the German plastic surgeon. Hall and Adair are reprising their stage roles, as is Alexander, so they make a fantastic trio who are well acquainted with their characters (Alexander's Roosevelt is top-notch). Some of the great character actors in the cast include Jack Carson as the clueless Officer O'Hara, James Gleason as the sleep deprived, no-nonsense Lt. Rooney, and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon, the jovial head of Happy Dale Sanitarium. Lane is the only weak link—she makes for a pretty annoying love interest, and it's unfortunate because she's the only possible heroine, and normally Capra's heroines are quite strong.
The comedy of the film has aspects of screwball, it does portray people making fools of themselves, however, they're not rich, and screwballs usually are about the upper class. It's a somewhat mindless comedy, although it can be very clever, and it is also a dark comedy. It's very theatrical as well, since the characters hardly ever leave the house. It continuously pokes fun at itself, but most of this clever self-reflection is in reference to theater or to the actual play it was adapted from. For instance, Mortimer talks about a character in a play he saw as being completely oblivious to the danger he's in, when he himself is about to being his brother's next victim; and there's also numerous comments about Jonathan's uncanny resemblance to Boris Karloff, when the character of Jonathan was actually played by Karloff himself in the original production.
The fact is, it's very easy to see this film as a play, and the original stage production might have been superior to this film. However, without the opportunity to see the original play, the film is a satisfying alternative. Capra gathered an impressive comedic group, and every other line is a hilarious zinger. From Mortimer's ballistic actions, to the aunts' interaction with fellow criminals Jonathan and Dr. Einstein, to Teddy's many charges up the stairs he believes to be San Juan Hill, it's an extremely wild and entertaining classic comedy.