Sunday, April 11, 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) - Respect Your Elderberries

On the Menu: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944)

Ingredients: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, John Alexander, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. Directed by Frank Capra. Run time: 118 minutes. Rated: Not rated.

At First Bite: This DVD came in the mail last Saturday, and it was a pleasant surprise since I hadn't checked my Blockbuster queue in a couple weeks (at least). I've yet to see a Cary Grant movie I didn't enjoy. The same thing goes for Frank Capra. This will be #13 and #6, respectively.

Mortimer Brewster (Grant) is a well-known drama critic and bachelor. He's even written a couple of anti-marriage books. So, it's a big deal when he decides to marry the preacher's daughter, Elaine (Lane). Before setting off on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, they want to make a quick trip home to tell their families the news of the marriage.

Mortimer goes to see his aunts, Abby (Hull) and Martha (Adair), who live across the way from Elaine's father. Actually, they live on opposite sides of a cemetery.

While searching his aunts' house for notes for his next book, Mortimer discovers a dead body hidden in the drawing room. He suspects his loony uncle, Teddy (Alexander), who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt.

But, then he finds out about his aunts' charity work involving a room for rent and some noxious elderberry wine.

As if the house wasn't already full of crazies, Mortimer's brother, Jonathan (Massey), who is wanted for murder, decides to use his childhood home as a hideout. He is accompanied by his alcoholic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Lorre).

Things get even more complicated for Mortimer when the local police decide to stop by to check up on his aunts, and he becomes aloof with Elaine while trying to sort out everything out and prove he's not crazy himself.

Second Helping: I ended up watching it three times in one calendar day (four times within a 24-hour period). That's how funny it is.

Tough to Swallow: The film is set during Halloween, but there is a Brooklyn Dodgers/New York (Yankees) game taking place as the movie opens. Postseason baseball never made it to October 31 until 2001.

As Jonathan is looking for Mr. Spenalzo, he tells Elaine that Dr. Einstein is "somewhat of a magician," but Jonathan's lips aren't moving.
There are a few continuity problems, but the only noticeable one is where Mortimer closes the door after showing Officer O'Hara out, and then the door is open again as Mortimer goes to leave.

The toughest thing to swallow is the lack of features on the DVD. I mean, this is a classic Capra film after all.

Something to Chew On: The movie is based on the Joseph Kesselring play of the same name.

Capra got permission from the play's producers to direct the film adaptation, but wasn't allowed to release the film until the play's run on Broadway was finished. Capra finished the film in 1941 in only 8 weeks, but the play ran from January 10, 1941 until June 17, 1944 (1,444 performances).

The play's producers agreed to give Hull and Adair an 8-week leave from the play in order to do the film. Alexander was also allowed time off for the movie, but Boris Karloff, who had the role of Jonathan in the play version, was denied permission to leave the play. Karloff was an investor in the play, but he was also the star attraction. Producers feared losing him would cause the play's attendance to drop. In the film, Massey was made to look like Karloff, and references to that resemblance are a running gag.

Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan were all offered the role of Mortimer. Benny and Reagan turned it down. Hope was under contract with Paramount, who wouldn't let him be in the Warner Brothers picture.

Grant donated his $100,000 salary to the United States War Relief Fund. Capra enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during filming in 1941, but was given an extension so he could finish editing. He reported for active duty in January 1942.

Censors demanded one of the film's last lines be changed. The line initially included the word "bastard." The change includes the words "sea cook." Censors also had a role in reworking the fate of Mr. Witherspoon, the caretaker of Happydale Sanitarium.

I've read that one of the tombstones in the cemetery has the name Archie Leach on it, which is Grant's real name. After watching the movie four times, I still didn't see it.

The film currently has an 8.1 user rating on (28,476 votes). It ranks at #246 on the Top 250 list.

Sides: The DVD has a cast list and a short, text-only background on the making of the film entitled "Stage to Screen."

Aftertaste: It takes a second or two to get used to Grant constantly pulling faces and doing double-takes. Sure, it's over-the-top, but this is a ridiculous, and dark, comedy where stuff like that only helps.

Personally, I think the supporting cast is a riot, and they really upstage Grant.. The aunts are so genuinely sweet, yet see nothing wrong with their "bad habit." The character of Uncle Teddy is so outrageous it's brilliant, and Alexander does a wonder job playing it straight. And, it's hard not to smile or laugh whenever Lorre gets started, especially opposite Alexander. The Karloff gag is also a stroke of genius.

I normally don't laugh out loud during movies, but this one got me a couple of times. And, I'm pretty sure I've never watched a movie 4 times within a 24-hour time period.

I suggest you give this movie a look when Halloween rolls around this year. It's not going to scare you, but you'll die laughing.


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