I can honestly say that Arsenic And Old Lace (1944) is one of most genre-bending of the classic comedies. The sheer volume of ridiculous gags and slapstick situations is enormous, making the film especially pleasurable, considering how very dark it is, stretching the very definition of a ”screwball comedy”, sometimes so ludicrous that it’s hard to grasp.
Arsenic And Old Lace is directed by the great Frank Capra, and stars the delicious Cary Grant. It is faithfully adapted from Joseph Kesselring’s play of the same name.
The screenplay is by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. Julius received his first Academy Award nomination for Four Daughters (1938), and he did the script for The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and Light In The Piazza (1962). And with his twin brother, Philip, won an Oscar for Casablanca.
Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., had a tortuous relationship with the Epstein twins. While he could not argue with their commercial acumen, he deplored their pranks, their work habits and the hours they kept. In 1952, Warner gave their names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). They never testified before the committee, but on a HUAC questionnaire, when asked if they ever were members of a “subversive organization”, they responded: “Yes. Warner Brothers.”
Back to Arsenic And Old Lace: Capra filmed the movie in 1941 because of Grant’s availability, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway.
Grant’s role of Mortimer Brewster was originally intended for Bob Hope, but he could not be released from his contract with Paramount Pictures. Capra had also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before learning that his first choice, Grant, would accept the role. Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster, who “looks like Karloff”, in the original Broadway production, but he was unable to do the film version because he was still appearing in the play during filming. Karloff was an investor in the play and didn’t dare jeopardize a dip in the box-office receipts. Raymond Massey was cast instead. The film’s supporting cast features: Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, and the wonderfully gay Edward Everett Horton.
Josephine Hull and Jean Adair portray the Brewster sisters. Hull and Adair, plus John Alexander (Teddy Brewster), were reprising their roles from the 1941 stage production. Hull and Adair both received an eight-week leave of absence from the stage production that was still running, but Karloff was an investor in the stage production and its main draw. The entire film was shot in eight weeks, and cost just over $1.2 million of its $2 million budget to produce. On time and underbudget, how often does that happen?
Capra insisted that Massey be made up to look like Karloff. The Warner Bros. legal department was so concerned that Karloff would sue over the likeness that they had the studio get him to sign a release.
Let’s see if I can sum up the plot: when well-known drama critic Mortimer Brewster visits his charmingly lunatic family, including two adorable aunts, to tell them the fantastic news about his engagement to beautiful Elaine Harper, he finds out the horrible truth that spins the visit totally out of control. There is a dead man in the wooden box inside the house. But that is not all! There are eleven more buried under the residence. Then, there is also Teddy, who thinks that he is the late president Theodore Roosevelt. And if this was not enough, we meet another member of this peculiar family, Jonathan, possessing a face that provokes a fantastic recurring gag concerning Karloff, who shows up suddenly with his old friend Dr. Einstein, played to perfection by Lorre.
Even though Grant considered this to be one of his least favorite of his projects, his performance is so exaggerated that it’s especially good. Grant’ daughter Jennifer Grant wrote:
”Arsenic And Old Lace made him shudder. I asked him why? It’s a hilarious, sweet, madcap, thoroughly memorable movie. He replied, ‘Egads, all the overwrought double takes, all the gags… I’m way over the top!”
Grant donated his entire $100,000 salary to wartime charities, insisting:
”Jimmy Stewart would have been much better than me.”
Stewart later starred opposite Hull in Harvey (1950) for which she won an Academy Award.
What’s surprising is that Grant’s character is the only normal person in the entire household, and Grant was a not-so-typical comic performer. Trying to resolve all the farcical challenges in film, the hardest one proves to be convincing the aunts that killing an innocent older man by adding a bit of arsenic to his wine is not right, mostly due to the circumstances, the two ladies claim that by killing those men they just shorten their miserable, lonely lives. The two genteel ladies help the old men die happy by feeding them a wonderful meal before poisoning them. Another obstacle relates to the fact that the gruesome Jonathan, wants to torture and kill him on the same exact night. Mortimer desperately wants to protect the two serial murderers he loves and stop them from killing anyone else and keep his bride from discovering how deranged his family really is.
And as with so many comedies of this sort, there is also more action, here involving police officers and locked-up corpses, lots of twists and turns and kooky characters.
The one scene that is the funniest, and the most absurd, is the conversation between the aunts and Jonathan, who try to resolve a dispute about their little competition: who killed the most people! The sides are currently tied, one of them must be the winner!
The original ending of Kesselring’s play, the aunts poisoning the man who’s taking them to a sanitarium was changed in the film at the insistence of Hollywood censors, who also wouldn’t let Grant’s character say: ”I’m a bastard!”
When Karloff left to head up the touring company of Arsenic And Old Lace, he was replaced on Broadway by film director Erich von Stroheim. Karloff’s rival Bela Lugosi played the role in the Los Angeles company.
Karloff reprised his role for GIs in the South Pacific during a USO tour during WW II. He also appeared in television productions in 1955 (with Orson Bean in Grant’s role, and in 1962 opposite Tony Randall. Three months after Karloff’s death in 1969, Fred Gwynne of The Munsters played the role in a television version with Bob Crane, Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes.