Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed by Frank Capra

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Frank Capra usually makes light, screwball comedies… as far as I can remember.  You know, I’ve seen a handful of his films, including the most famous ones like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or his older romantic comedies, but Arsenic and Old Lace is something else entirely.  It’s still a screwball comedy but one that involves serial killing sisters, a man who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, and a light-hearted discussion of mental illness.  It’s a strange movie, a good one, but it feels like this combination of content and style shouldn’t work.  This is a feel-good romantic comedy that is quite unsettling.

The characters in Arsenic and Old Lace aren’t real, not just in the way movie characters are fictional, but these characters are broad and frightening.  This is a story set on Halloween night and in which every character is playing just a part of themselves.  If a person is multi-faceted and defined by a collection of traits, these characters are defined by one trait.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a soon-to-be-married man who has written books on the evils of marriage.  He is embarrassed to be glimpsed by the press at the court house, worried about what his impending marriage to Elaine Harper would due to his reputation.  This is just the first example of someone hiding behind a kind of mask.

Mortimer returns home to see the sisters who helped raise him, Abby and Martha.  He soon learns that Abby and Martha have developed a habit of luring lonely old men into their home and poisoning them.  They argue about whether it’s been 11 or 12 men in total.  Mortimer is appalled to learn this, and it’s a wonder he hasn’t figured this out earlier.  His sisters remain extremely unconcerned with the degree of their crimes, viewing it as an act of kindness on old men who might lament their own loneliness.

Abby and Martha are able to hide the bodies because Mortimer’s brother believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and has been busy digging what he believes to be the Panama Canal in the basement.  This is where the sisters bury the bodies.

This is all news to Mortimer who has apparently been away for quite some time.  He frantically goes about the house trying to hide the bodies and protect his own sanity.  He begins to worry that he shouldn’t marry Elaine because insanity might run in the family, and he himself could very well be breaking from reality.

Most of the film takes place in the Brewster home as characters drop in and out.  In addition to the Brewsters we’ve already met, Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) drops in, unrecognizable because of a series of surgeries performed by an inebriated plastic surgeon who has accidentally turned him into the Frankenstein monster.  This is the source of a variety of jokes, as characters keep mistaking him for Boris Karloff, the actor who originally played the Frankenstein monster.

Oh, and Jonathan is also an avid murderer who lacks the same shame not felt by the sisters.  He soon comes up with a plot to murder Mortimer, and honestly I can’t remember why.  This movie is insane, and the second half of the film becomes a series of meta gags with characters describing what’s happening as if it was in a play or a movie.

In one scene, Mortimer describes how Jonathan might murder him, unwittingly offering suggestions for how he should be restrained.  In another scene, a cop does a similar thing, describing how someone might restrain him.  The film is insane, and it’s easy to miss the overall plot because it becomes just a maze of gags, insanity, over-acting (in a good way) and near-murders.

As this is going on, Mortimer works to get his Teddy Roosevelt brother institutionalized, and soon he finds a way to get his sisters institutionalized as well.  They show no awareness that their serial killing might be a bad thing, freely volunteering this information to the cops who choose not to believe it because of the hassle it might cause them, paperwork-wise.

The movie ends with Mortimer learning that he’s not related to the Brewsters, just an adopted son.  He’s ecstatic and runs off with his soon-to-be-wife.

Up Next: Brazil (1985), Falling Down (1993), King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

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