Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE: MY FAVORITE COMEDY

Anyone who reads my blog knows I love to make lists of my favorite things. I can make a list about anything, but that’s a whole other story. I am going to take the time now to proclaim what I feel is the best comedy film of all-time…Arsenic And Old Lace (1944).

I love movies that make me laugh, but often with classic comedies the humor does not transfer through the generations. That is not the case with this 1944 slapstick comedy. The movie is 70 years old now, but I laugh as though it came out yesterday. Sure, I laugh at the modern comedies of Steve Carell and Will Ferrell, and some of them are quite good. There is just something about this Cary Grant comedy that makes me laugh every time I have seen it. I have watched it now at least 20 times! It is not really a scary movie, but for some reason I love to watch it around Halloween.


The director Frank Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941 because of star Cary Grant's availability, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway. The lead role of Mortimer Brewster was originally intended for Bob Hope, but he could not be released from his contract with Paramount. Capra had also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before learning that Grant would accept the role. Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster, who "looks like Karloff," on the Broadway stage, but he was unable to do the movie as well because he was still appearing in the play during filming, and Raymond Massey took his place. The film's supporting cast also features Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton and Peter Lorre. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair portray the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, respectively. Hull and Adair, as well as John Alexander (who played Teddy Roosevelt), 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 did not as he was an investor in the stage production. He really wanted to transfer his stage role to the movie. Karloff later expressed that it was one of the regrets he had in his career.
After making the bold statement that this film was the best comedy of all-time, I better give some pretty good examples, and this film is full of it. It is just wonderful to see the transformation of Cary Grant’s character (Mortimer Brewster) throughout the film. In the first scenes, he seems to be a man who is confident and self-assured. He is getting married to his beautiful girlfriend (played cutely by Priscilla Lane). He returns home to his aunts who have helped to raise him to discover that for years the saintly aunts have been murdering people and burying them in their basement. There is no scene in Cary Grant’s career as great as the scene when he first discovers one of the victim’s bodies in living room storage chest.



Raymond Massey (as Grant’s criminally insane brother) and Peter Lorre (as his meek assistant) are supposed to be horrific criminals, but they add a lot of comedy as well. When they discover the aunts are murderers, they give huge astonished looks like Grant did. However, what is even funnier is Massey and Lorre are trying to count the total number of men they murdered, and the aunts have beat them.
John Alexander is another scene stealer as the uncle who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. There is some funny historic humor. When the director of  a mental hospital (Edward Everett Horton) comes to evaluate the uncle, Alexander gives him a dirty look. Cary Grant asks his uncle what is wrong and he sticks out his tongue and says “That’s Taft!” (William Taft was a protégé of Roosevelt, who later had a falling out with him). The aunts have used “Teddy” to help bury the bodies by telling him that their murder victims died because of the Yellow Fever in Panama.
I think what makes me laugh at Arsenic And Old Lace so much is that the movie shows us a family that seem normal as the movie opens, but they turn out to be genuinely crazy. Everyone’s family is like that. Everyone has a crazy uncle or a brother who is the black sheep. After Grant discovers his aunts are serial killers, and his brother is completely deranged, Cary does not even want to get married. He’s afraid he will go crazy too, and by the end of the movie it seems like he will go completely nuts. The aunts though have one more secret to tell Cary before they are taken away…literally. Cary Grant was adopted. He is not part of the Brewster family! The movie did not depend on topical humor like the war so the laughs are not dated. Basically, the jokes are about the absolute absurdity of this family. When you think the family is as crazy as it gets, it just gets crazier. I don’t think I would have laughed at the film as much if Cary Grant had not been in it. His slapstick approach to the role, his facial expressions, and his decent into insanity himself is just hilarious. There are a lot of comedies, old and new, that make me laugh, but Arsenic And Old Lace is my favorite of all-time…




2 comments:

  1. I also love this film; it's one of those films that I never tire of watching ... and I've seen it many times! Cary Grant is great, but I really love the aunts, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair - they're hilarious in their mad normality.

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  2. I just watched this gem a few week ago. Each viewing offers some little line, expression or a bit of business that confirms how good "Arsenic and Old Lace" really is, and how talented and fun the players were. They just don't make them like this anymore. Thanks for the homage one of my favorites.

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