Frank Capra has become hallowed in film history as the director of films that champion the average American and the common cause. Of course, that’s only if you haven’t seen his film version of the Broadway black-comedy hit Arsenic and Old Lace, one of the funniest farces ever.
Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who’s newly married after having lived with his doting aunts all of his life. At first glance, this family seems as sunny as any in a Capra comedy. Mortimer’s eccentric uncle has delusions of being Teddy Roosevelt, and there are references to Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan. But his aunts are as doting as aunts can be. And Mortimer, newly married, is preparing to go on a Niagara Falls honeymoon with his loving wife Elaine (Priscilla Lane).
This happy domesticity unravels the moment Mortimer happens to open his aunts’ wooden chest and sees a corpse inhabiting it. At first, Mortimer jumps to the logical conclusion that crazy Teddy has committed the murder. Then he discovers that his sweet aunts were responsible for that corpse and 11 others who are buried in the cellar.
The aunts regard their work as mercy killings. After all, they poison only lonely old men whose lives have no meaning — unlike Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who heartlessly kills anyone who gets in his way and who happens to pay a return visit to his old home on the same night that Mortimer uncovers the unwelcome houseguests.
As with most farces, Arsenic and Old Lace requires a certain suspension of disbelief. In particular, this story is quite obviously a remnant of the 1940’s, when mental illness was a lot more frivolously regarded. And the ever-opening door, a staple of farces, seems awfully overused — especially when Jonathan, a convicted murderer, seems rather unconcerned about so many people (including cops) traipsing in and out of the house.
If there’s any glue that keeps the story together, it’s Cary Grant. Just watching him do wacko double-takes or muttering under his breath like Popeye the Sailor is worth the watching. There’s a great moment when he and Massey try to protect their secrets at the same time, and then some major plot points play across Grant’s wondrous face for about ten seconds. It’s far funnier and more effective than a page of expository dialogue could be.
Besides enjoying the movie as a major black comedy, film aficionados can only wonder how a comedy about murderers (a) became such a hit during World War II and (b) how it ever made it past movie censors intact.