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1944 motion picture starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Jack Carson.

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Yet another zany 1940's "screwball" comedy from Frank Capra.

  • Feb 9, 2010
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The more Frank Capra films that I sample the more I appreciate his genius.  I have yet to see one of his films that I have not thoroughly enjoyed.  Case in point is Capra's 1944 comedy classic "Arsenic and Old Lace" starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.  Much like Capra's rollicking 1938 comedy "You Can't Take It With You" this is a  film will keep you roaring with laughter throughout. 

As the film opens the popular stage critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) returns to his childhood home to tell his dear old aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) about his recent marriage to Elaine (Priscilla Lane).  The happy couple is supposed to head right out on their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls.  In fact,  the cab is waiting out front and the meter is running.  But not so fast!   As he is telling his beloved aunts all about his beautiful young bride Mortimer discovers that there is a corpse in the window seat!   As you might expect he is quite taken aback (his facial expressions are priceless) and he  immediately suspects that this might be the work of his brother Teddy (who thinks he is "Teddy" Roosevelt) who lives in the house with his aunts.  But when he confronts his aunts he discovers the shocking truth:

Mortimer: But there's a body in the window seat!
Abby: Yes, dear. We know.
Mortimer: You know??
Martha: Of course.
Abby: Yes, but it has nothing to do with Teddy.
Mortimer: But, but...
Abby: Now Mortimer, you just forget about it. Forget you ever saw the gentleman.
Mortimer: Forget?

His inquisitiveness forces them to reveal their own "little secret".  This rather unassuming pair has been poisoning unsuspecting old men who let rooms in their home with their special homemade elderberry wine (a gallon mixed with a teaspoonful of arsenic, a half-teaspoon of strychnine and a "pinch of cyanide").   They claim to do this as an act of mercy - to end their loneliness and to help them find ultimate peace!  Furthermore, they reveal that there are a dozen bodies buried in the basement!

Well as you might expect all hell breaks loose.  With the taxi still waiting in front of the house Mortimer forgets all about the honeymoon and for all intents and purposes his brand new bride as well.  Now to complicate matters even further Mortimer's long lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) who can only be described as a psychotic murderer decides to show up with yet another stiff in tow as he attempts to elude the police.  Jonathan is accompanied by his accomplice in crime, a plastic surgeon named Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre).  Throw in the neighborhood beat cop, and a few other crazy charactors and you have all the ingredients in place fora full two hours of rip-roaring comedy.  

In my humble opinion Cary Grant's charactorization of  Mortimer Brewster in "Arsenic and Old Lace" ranks among his finest performances in a long and very distinguished career.  His frantic attempts to make sense out of the bizarre events unfolding all around him make for numerous belly laughs throughout this film.  They just don't make comedies like this anymore folks.
Kudos also to Josephine Hull and Jean Adair for their unforgettable portrayal of the Brewster Sisters.  At the time of its release back in 1944 "Arsenic and Old Lace" drew rave reviews.  And in 2000 the American Film Insitute ranked this film #30 in its list of  "100 Years....100 Laughs".   You don't want to miss this one!    This is one hilarious movie from start to finish.    Very highly recommended!
Yet another zany 1940's Yet another zany 1940's Yet another zany 1940's Yet another zany 1940's

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November 06, 2011
While I do love this movie I actually prefer "My Favorite Wife". What is your take on that one?
November 06, 2011
I have read a lot of luke warm criticism of Grants performance in this movie. I have read articles saying he was too frantic, too over the top, etc. But I agree with you I think its one of his best performances. The movie is so fast paced his timing is perfect. One of my favorites.
August 21, 2010
Great review, every time I see this movie my sides hurt from laughing so hard. Cary Grant had great comic timing, what a talent!!!
More Arsenic and Old Lace reviews
review by . November 06, 2011
What's the film about?   Based on the hit play of the same title, the story is about two sweet elderly sister who also happen to be serial killers.   When their nephew brings home the preachers daughter to announce their engagement he stumbles upon his two aunts planning their next poisoning.  Filled with wild slapstick antics and screwball subplots this classic is still popular today with high school and community theater productions.        Who …
Quick Tip by . August 13, 2010
This is my favorite Cary Grant movie. He could do it all! This movie showed off his expert comic timing.
Quick Tip by . June 24, 2010
Classic Cary Grant. A must see!
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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About this movie


Frank Capra made this film in 1941 before he went off to make films for America's war effort, but it wasn't released until 1944. Adapted from the hit play by Joseph Kesselring, this frantic black comedy shows Capra at his best as a master of mood and timing. Actresses Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their Broadway performances as two gentle old ladies who poison men with elderberry wine to put them out of their misery. Cary Grant plays one nephew, a normal guy who just gets wind of their little hobby and tries to get them to stop, while Raymond Massey plays another, a villain just escaped from jail. Capra encourages the cast, especially Grant, to give a somewhat more outsized performance than one might expect. But made during the war years as it was, this overstated comic approach to killing was probably cathartic. --Tom Keogh
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Director: Robert Scheerer
Genre: Comedy, Action, Frank Capra, Adventure
Release Date: September 23, 1944
MPAA Rating: Unrated
DVD Release Date: August 29, 2000
Runtime: 1hr 58min
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