FILMS… Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)



A newly wed learns that his maiden aunts have a deadly profession and this runs in the family…


A Halloween tale with Cary Grant, serial killers, baseball, two sweet little old ladies, romance, Peter Lorre and a man reminiscent of Boris Karloff.


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) Official Trailer – Cary Grant, Peter Lorre Movie HD, Movieclips Classic Trailers and photos © Warner Bros


From the men who brought you 1946’s heartwarming Its a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra and the feel good title track of 1959’s A Summer Place, Max Steiner comes Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). This 1944 black comedy movie with Cary Grant in the leading role playing drama critic, Mortimer Brewster.

Brewster is not the marrying kind and an author who advocates the single life. But he’s in love, hoping for a happy, uncomplicated marriage with the girl next door (and daughter of the local vicar). But you can’t always get what you wish for. After hearing some home truths, newlywed Mortimer Brewster hopes to keep it in the family.

After Brewster takes the plunge, he sends his new bride, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) home to pack for their honeymoon. To Mortimer’s shock, he discovers his two elderly aunties Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) – although seemingly sweet on the outside – are a couple of serial killers. The pair killing lonely old men in “mercy killings” with a deadly concoction served up in wine.

These killings, however, are accepted by Brewster’s brother (John Alexander), ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ Brewster (as seen in the film credits). Teddy – who lives with his aunts –  is floridly unwell with delusions he is US President Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy believes other people are significant others from this time in history.

Teddy is an unwitting accomplice in his aunties’ crimes, as he buries the bodies in their cellar. He accepts his aunties’ word the dead bodies are “yellow fever” victims. With these genteel ladies “helping” a dozen men meet a “better” end.

Things become further complicated by the arrival of their other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) who with his friend Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre) come to stay.  Jonathan has been a bit of a bad lad since childhood. Now he’s a serial killer who has escaped from prison and hoping to dispose of his most recent victim.

He and his accomplice are notorious worldwide, and Johnathan often undergoes plastic surgery (as performed by Einstein) to evade the police. Needless to say, in this film many of Brewsters have comic scenes with non-family members. These including doctors, the police and a vicar. This Halloween horror tale is more of a treat with the trick to make you laugh throughout…

This is a wonderful dark comedy with Cary Grant and the ensemble cast. It’s a joy to watch this witty script unfold on screen. This creatively written and beautifully constructed script was brought to life in black and white. This lack of colour adds to the chilling tale and I feel strongly this film should not be colourised as this would certainly dampen the ambience.

I urge you to watch this film in one sitting to follow the intricate plot with every moment weaved into the ongoing story.  The plot was executed with fantastic comedy timing by this well chosen cast. The timing was often to precise detail and this was necessary to the ongoing plot. There are many running gags, beautifully set up scenes with credible immediate and long term payoffs.

It was a great showcase for Grant’s talents, and it was surprising to learn this was a film he hated. Here Grant is seen as both a romantic lead and also shows his comic skills. Grant’s rapport with his on-screen romance was sweet and touching, as was his concerns for his brother Teddy and his aunts. His fear of his other brother, also seen in delightfully set up scenes. Grant showing a wonderful on-screen rapport with all.

John Alexander’s portrayal of his delusional brother, Teddy was a respectful and non-patronising one.  His thoughts not based in reality were accepted by his family, although these beliefs were exploited by his aunties! The scenes showing his character’s unwavering reality as this US President throughout the film. His mental health difficulties adding to the plot, with Grant’s concern for his brother’s well being.

The eccentric aunts both appeared to have a lack of insight into the true nature of their crimes. Both appeared very well-meaning, caring and even at times seen to have strong morals. These actresses’ performances showed their on-screen killings were carried out with the best of intentions. Both aunts believing these mercy killings are for their victim’s best interests and the pair even dressing up in black and then providing their victims with a good religious funeral.

The arrival of Massey and Lorre led to darker moments. With these actors appearances well suited to their roles. Massey’s imposing height and physical appearance and Lorre’s strong accent added to the fear factor. The use of shadows and silhouettes with these villains added to the already eerie setting. These made their scenes more chilling. However, despite this, all these moments had a strong undercurrent of black comedy.

Watching this film really led me on a rollercoaster of emotions.  This family having moments of the romantic, crime, comic and frightening kind, reminded me of another famous on-screen family. This film and TV family is remembered for more macabre and comic moments in The Addams Family (1964-66).

The show and film with a theme that could easily be adapted for the final credits of Arsenic and Old Lace. The theme’s lyrics are adapted here…

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky
Mysterious and spooky
They’re all together ooky
The Brewster family”.

Weeper Rating:   😦/10

Handsqueeze Rating: :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-) :-)    /10

Hulk Rating: ‎ mrgreen   ‎/10



Made in 1944 Blogathon 2019 No 37

For Pop Culture Reverie‘s Made in 1944 Blogathon, I’m adding this post on Arsenic and Old Lace. Other films with this cast included Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet and My Golden Hollywood Greats. Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre and James Gleason appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents.


16 thoughts on “FILMS… Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

  1. Fun review, Gill! Lorre almost steals the show in his brief screen time, and Grant is always a joy to watch. I enjoyed this.

  2. This movie is a joy, Gill! Cary Grant at his best, surrounded by some of the best character actors who ever graced the screen. Did you notice a young Jack Carson right before he became famous in Mildred Pierce? He was dreamy, too.
    – Chris

  3. Nice review! I actually thought Grant overdid some of his facial reactions a little bit but otherwise, he was great (as always). The real treat for me here was Raymond Massey. He usually plays such serious characters, often times the bad guy, so to see him play a “serious character” but with a humorous twist was a nice change.

    Tam May

  4. I have a soft spot in my heart for Arsenic and Old Lace having played Aunt Abby in a community theatre production of the play. I really get a kick out of Cary Grant as Mortimer and think he is too hard on himself. After all, this is Arsenic and Old Lace where everything is a littel out of whack.

    Like most Boris Karloff fans, I wish he had been able to repeat his Broadway success in the movie, but I have no complaints about versatile Raymond Massey tackling Jonathan. He and Lorre were a hoot. It is grand that the original ladies from Broadway, Josephine Hutchison and Jean Adair, along with John Alexander as Teddy, were able to make it to the screen.

    Thank you! All these years I thought Percy Faith did the music for A Summer Place, but that was only because of his hit record. Max Steiner is the man! Love learning something new.

    – Caftan Woman

    • Thanks for your lovely comment Paddy – this must have been amazing to act in, as so much to remember. You must write about this experience it would be a wonderful read. I reviewed the movie A Summer Place recently, its a lovely theme.

Love your thoughts... but only if they are spoiler free!

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