• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:June 21, 2021

Arsenic and Old Lace: Basement of Buried Bodies


Cary Grant wasn’t too comfortable making this movie. It’s been said that director Frank Capra pushed him to act as broadly as possible, which bothered him; another source has it that Capra meant to do reshoots that would see a more toned-down performance, but the attack on Pearl Harbor got in the way and Capra was eager to get to his military posting. The movie was shot in 1941, but not released until three years later. Having a film sit on the shelf that long usually indicates poor quality, but this was certainly not the case; Arsenic and Old Lace is now one of Capra’s classics. I even like Grant’s constant mugging.

A hasty marriage
New York City drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Grant) was never going to marry; in fact, he’s written books about his opposition to marriage. That’s why it comes as a great surprise that he’s very hastily married Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), who grew up next to him in Brooklyn. Mortimer returns home to the elderly aunts who raised him, Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair), and his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who is delusional and believes that he is in fact Teddy Roosevelt. Mortimer soon learns that his aunts have lost their minds as well, telling him in their cheerful way that they have taken up the habit of poisoning lonely, old men. They’re doing it out of charity and they have just killed their 13th victim. The basement is full of buried bodies.

As if things weren’t bad enough, Mortimer’s other brother, the highly dangerous Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey), is on his way… and he’s also bringing a dead body!

Absurd Halloween tale
Another Capra comedy, but darker than we’re used to. The portrait of a wild and dysfunctional (but still in many ways loving) family is recognizable from the director’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938), but obviously the Brewsters have much more bizarre problems. Set against a beautifully created, autumnal backdrop, with leaves blowing in the wind and the Brooklyn Bridge in the background, this absurd Halloween tale stays true to its stage origins but is still an enormously entertaining film.

Several actors from the Broadway cast repeat their roles and look very comfortable, including Hull and Adair as the sweet but nutty aunts, and Alexander as the equally crazy brother who keeps recreating Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. I previously mentioned Grant, increasingly stressed throughout this farce as he has to prevent his wife from finding out the awful truth. If his performance is too over-the-top for your taste, maybe you’ll like Massey more? He’s wonderfully (and frighteningly) subdued as the psychopathic Jonathan who’s had plastic surgery and now looks like Boris Karloff, which is a running gag – and a reference to the play, where Karloff was cast in the part and still playing it on stage at the time, unable to do the role in the movie. Massey makes a creepy, funny team with Peter Lorre as dr. Einstein, the fidgety associate who’s been operating on him.

The amazing cast is a huge reason why the movie works so well. Capra maintains a brisk pace and the story is full of surprising twists; it even has a few sly jokes about Hollywood and the theater, especially in a scene where Mortimer, ever the theater critic, talks about how it’s impossible to believe in characters who act stupidly in plays.

You can read more into this story than what meets the eye. The Brewsters are descended all the way from The Mayflower, so maybe their descent into lunacy can be interpreted as the fall of America. However, most people have been happy to just enjoy the laughs.

Arsenic and Old Lace 1944-U.S. 118 min. B/W. Produced by Frank Capra, Jack L. Warner. Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein. Play: Joseph Kesselring. Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre, Jack Carson, Josephine Hull.

Trivia: Ronald Reagan, Jack Benny and Bob Hope were allegedly considered for the part of Mortimer Brewster.

Quote: “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.” (Grant)

Last word: “I tried to explain to [Capra] that I couldn’t do that kind of comedy – all those double takes. I’d have been better as one of the old aunts!” (Grant, TCM)



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