A Change of Pace for Mister Capra
Quick, when I say "Frank Capra", what's the first thing that pops into your mind? Depending on your point of view, you probably answered, "Heartwarming Americana" or "cornball hokum." Because Capra was the man who brought us Mr Smith Goes To Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.
And in 1944, with Arsenic and Old Lace he treated us to this heartwarming screwball comedy about...
As Arsenic and Old Lace opens, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is getting married. A red-letter day for most men, it is a source of considerable angst and embarrassment for Mortimer, since he is a writer who achieved fame through his diatribes against the married state. But the girl next door Elaine (Priscilla Lane) finally got to him, and they've slipped off to the courthouse and gotten married.
Now he just has to break the news to the dear old aunties who raised him and be off on his honeymoon.
An Eccentric Family
Mortimer is the white sheep of the Brewster family. His older brother, Jonathan, is in prison. Another brother, Teddy (John Alexander), is crazy. Teddy believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. But he's harmless, surely, and dear old Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) and Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) take good care of Teddy. Or so Mortimer believes.
That was before he found the body in the window seat. Convinced that Teddy has finally slipped over into homicidal mania, Mortimer has to put off his honeymoon departure to arrange for Teddy's commitment to an asylum, all the while trying to keep Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha from discovering the dead body.
It turns out that Abby and Martha don't need to be shielded from the knowledge of the body in the window seat; they already know. They know because they put it there. They're planning to bury the body in the basement, just like all the others.
All the others? Yes indeed. It seems that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha have developed the habit of poisoning lonely elderly gentlemen that they have in for tea, as an act of charity to put them out of their lonely misery. Teddy digs the graves for them, convinced he is digging the Panama Canal.
They're All Crazy!
Dismayed, Mortimer realizes that his sweet old aunts are as crazy as Teddy. They need to be locked up, too. But locked up in a nice asylum, not standing trial for murder - he still wants to protect them.
In the midst of all this confusion, as if Mortimer weren't frantic enough, brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives with his henchman, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). Fresh from a jailbreak and some disguising plastic surgery, Jonathan comes with a dead body of his own to dispose of.
Confronted with the fact that every member of his family is insane, most of them dangerously so, Mortimer has to rethink his marriage, once he gets all these commitments and bodies sorted out.
A Long Trip to the Screen
Arsenic and Old Lace had an unusually long gap between filming and release. The movie was actually filmed in 1941, shot in four weeks before Capra left for military work. But the stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace was still running on Broadway, so the film version was not released until the Broadway show closed. The stage production was a hit and didn't close until 1944, at which point the movie was finally released.
Directed by Frank Capra, the screenplay of Arsenic and Old Lace was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, based on the stage play by Joseph Kesselring.