Cary Grant-Mortimer Brewster
Priscilla Lane-Elaine Harper
Raymond Massey-Jonathan Brewster
Jack Carson-Officer O’Hara
Edward Everett Horton-Mr. Witherspoon
Peter Lorre-Dr. Einstein
James Gleason-Lt. Rooney
Josephine Hull-Aunt Abby
Jean Adair-Aunt Martha
John Alexander-Theodore Brewster
Grant Mitchell-Reverend Harper
Edward McNamara-Officer Brophy
Garry Owen-Taxi Cab Driver
John Ridgely-Officer Saunders
Vaughan Glaser-Judge Cullman
Arsenic and Old Lace is a delightful movie that was based on Joseph Kesselring’s stage play of the same name. Cary Grant liked this 1944 movie the least of any he’d done because of the overacting.
Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who has written books against marriage and has just married Elaine (Priscilla Lane) who is the girl next door. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair play his loving and caring Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha. They also had the same roles in the stage play.
Mortimer discovers, while he’s getting ready for his honeymoon, that there’s a body of an elderly gentleman in the window seat. He assumes that his eccentric brother Teddy, who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, has killed the man. John Alexander plays Teddy and he, also, had the same role in the stage play.
While speaking with his aunts, Mortimer finds that they’re the ones who conspired to poison the man in the window seat. It is one of their “charities” to poison old men who are lonely and miserable and have no family. They got started in this endeavor when the first of their “gentlemen friends” had a heart attack and died while he was there seeing about a room the aunts had for rent. They thought he looked so happy and peaceful that it would be nice to make more lonely men just as happy and peaceful.
By the time Mortimer finds out about this, the body count is up to twelve. The aunts had allowed Teddy to dig the Panama Canal in the basement so they decided that this would be a perfect place to bury the bodies. They told Teddy that the men were yellow fever victims and they’d have to be buried. Every time they poisoned another one with their elderberry wine with the special additives, they’d send Teddy “down to Panama” to dig another lock for the canal. Then they’d give the victim a decent Christian burial.
Mortimer spends the rest of the movie trying to get Teddy committed to a sanitarium. He figures if the bodies are discovered, they’d blame Teddy since everyone knew he was crazy, what with his bugle blowing and charging up the staircase and all. Teddy thought the staircase was San Juan Hill.
While Mortimer is off trying to get commitment papers signed, his psychotic brother Jonathan, who has escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane, shows up. Along with Jonathan is a plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein. No one recognizes Jonathan because Dr. Einstein has changed Jonathan’s appearance but he did it while under the influence and after he’d seen a particularly scary horror movie. Everyone claims Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff, which makes him angry. The gag would have worked better if the character had been played by Karloff as it was in the stage play.
Dr. Einstein is played by Peter Lorre and he does a great job portraying the nervous doctor. Raymond Massey is also good as the sinister Jonathan.
To further complicate matters, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein have a body in the rumble seat of their car. This is the body of a man that Jonathan killed because he knew too much and because he said that Jonathan looked like Boris Karloff.
The aunts arrange to have Teddy remove their body from the window seat and take it to the basement after they turn out the lights. Afterwards, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein bring their body in through window. Elaine shows up at the door so Dr. Einstein hides the body in the now empty window seat. While Elaine is there, Jonathan searches for the body, wondering what Dr. Einstein did with it. He explains to Elaine that Dr. Einstein is an eminent surgeon and something of a magician.
Mortimer comes home and discovers that there’s a different body in the window seat. He soon learns that the new body is one of Jonathan’s victims. Mortimer threatens to call the police unless Jonathan leaves with Dr. Einstein and their cold companion. After Jonathan finds out that his aunts have killed twelve people, the same number that he’s killed, he refuses to leave. He plans to murder Mortimer so he has a higher body count than his aunts. His plan doesn’t work. The police show up because of Teddy’s bugle blowing and arrest Jonathan.
Mortimer has told Elaine that they couldn’t be married because of the insanity in the family. His aunts tell him, after he’s signed the commitment papers to send them to the sanitarium with Teddy, that he’s not really a blood relative so we assume that he and Elaine live happily ever after.
This is a wonderful old movie.
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