Movies I Have Never Seen #22: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

What is it? I’m a movie-loving goof, and I’m still on my post-Oscars coverage high this week. And as a movie goof, I sometimes find myself staring off into space mulling the big questions – such as, who was the greatest movie star of all time? And the answer almost always is, Cary Grant, of course. 

“We had faces,” goes the famous line from Sunset Boulevard, and iron-chinned Grant perhaps had the greatest movie face of all. Less rugged than Bogart, more confident than Jimmy Stewart, a bit harder than Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant could do broad comedy or bold adventure and rarely did a star make it all seem so effortless. Much of the DNA you find in Tom Cruise today comes straight from the Cary Grant foundation. 

Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic stage farce which still gets rolled out for local theatre productions on a regular basis, where two charming little old ladies are revealed to be disarmingly genial serial killers – plus, there’s a criminal on the run, a befuddled newlywed, fumbling cops and a confused fellow who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. It’s a farce with a staggeringly high body count (13 bodies in the basement!) that somehow remains charmingly light on its feet. Frank Capra’s 1944 adaptation of the beloved play was originally going to star Bob Hope, and believe me, we’d barely remember it today if that bland hambone starred in it. Instead, Cary Grant signed on to play critic and playwright Mortimer Brewster (that name!) and it became one of his sweatiest, most frenetic performances. Turns out there’s few things funnier than watching smooth, smooth Cary Grant slowly come apart over the course of two hours. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve loved Cary Grant for decades, from his iconic Hitchcock roles to the early screwball stuff – The Philadelphia Story might be the single most starpower-packed comedy of all time, and surely Bringing Up Baby is the awkward height of the “meet cute” romance trope? His Girl Friday, still one of the best journalism movies of all time? But Arsenic and Old Lace somehow slipped through the cracks for me. Grant’s been gone for coming up on 40 years now, but there’s still gold in that there filmography to be mined for a movie goof. 

Does it measure up to its rep? I’ll make a slight confession – unlike other movies in this occasional series, I actually watched Arsenic and Old Lace twice before writing this up, a month or so apart. Partly that’s because of the bombastic pace of these witty old comedies, where the jokes and puns fly so fast that you barely absorb them all (seriously, if you’ve never watched His Girl Friday some time, it’s like a machine gun barrage of witty verbiage). So on the first viewing Arsenic is an energetic slap to the face, but it’s on a second viewing that the sheer craft of Capra’s stagecraft shows, with Grant’s immaculate comic timing, Raymond Massey’s jarringly sinister calm, Peter Lorre’s invaluable pop-eyed sidekick anxiety and the utterly hilarious Josephine Hull (who looks disarmingly like the late Rip Torn in drag) and Jean Adair as Grant’s dotty, murderous aunties. They’re quite convinced they’re doing the lord’s work by poisoning lonely old men, you see.  

Like most farces, it’s all a jumble of moving parts that somehow barely holds together. There are a few dated and strained comic gags (the Teddy Roosevelt stuff gets a bit much), but most of it still works beautifully. Filmed more than 80 years ago, it’s still stagey and broad (it never really lets you forget it was originally a play) but it’s also a masterpiece of comic chaos with a twisted, dark underbelly that lets it hold up better than some other farces of the era – a scene where Mortimer is about to be tortured by his sinister brother goes into some pretty darned dark places before the comedy kicks in again. 

Worth seeing? The thing with a broad farce is you absolutely have to be on its wavelength and roll with it. The densely silly farces of yesteryear with their rat-a-tat pace aren’t meant to be watched while also scrolling through Twitter and checking your emails. If you abandon distraction and go with the flow, Arsenic and Old Lace is a goofy blast of anarchy, with Cary Grant at his loosest and silliest.

In a week where Hollywood once again lined up to celebrate its stars and stories, it’s not a bad time to take a moment to salute the king, who shockingly never won a competitive Oscar. There was only one Cary Grant, after all. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

2 thoughts on “Movies I Have Never Seen #22: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)”

  1. I remember watching this film with my mother when I was in my mid teens, so that would place it in the mid 60s. I don’t recall if it was in a movie theatre or on TV but I do remember my mother being almost doubled up in agony from all her laughing. Her laughter was so infectious that no matter what others thought of an event, if she started laughing then their mindset followed.


  2. I was just about to go through my computer screen and slap you! Cher style, not Will Smith style. How had you made it to … well, our age… without seeing this masterpiece? My 19 year old son has seen it more than you have now, albeit with lots of eye rolling but appeasing his mom none the less. I’m happy to read you have corrected this abomination, I am appeased yet again.


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