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Arsenic and Old Lace

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has a problem — or rather, he has several. The author of such books as "Mind over Matrimony" and a public champion of lifelong bachelorhood, he's finally succumbed to the charms of a woman and married fetching Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) in secret. But as they visit his boyhood home in Brooklyn on the way to their honeymoon, Mortimer discovers his spinster aunties Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), proper women in local society, have been performing certain "charitable services" for elderly men who are lonely — offing them with a potent cocktail of arsenic, strychnine, and elderberry wine, and then giving them funerals in their cellar (they've already buried a dozen when Mortimer learns of their secret charity). Having murderous aunts is bad enough, but a long-lost psychotic brother is even worse — enter Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey), who arrives on Mortimer's wedding day at the family homestead after several years absence with a nervous plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) in tow and a body of his own to dispose of. When Frank Capra saw the stage play of Arsenic and Old Lace during its Broadway run he lobbied hard to make a film version, which he shot in 1941. Unfortunately contractual obligations kept the film from being released until the play had closed, which was in 1944, after 1,444 performances. Capra also was unable to secure Boris Karloff, who had been playing the creepy, hack-faced Jonathan Brewster, as the producers weren't willing to let their star attraction go for the eight weeks of filming (although they were nice enough to loan out Hull and Adair, who reprise their roles here). Grant, a newcomer to the material, is in top form, drawing on the same sort of exasperated hysterics that made His Girl Friday one of the greatest screwball comedies of all time. Unfortunately Capra — never a subtle one when it came to humor — fails to rein his star in for the sake of pacing, which could have given the film a more dynamic texture. But when it's funny, Arsenic and Old Lace is very funny, and the numerous supporting players fill out the cast well. Always worth watching come Halloween. Warner's DVD edition of Arsenic and Old Lace features a solid transfer from a good black-and-white source print (1.33:1) that has strong low-contrast details, with audio in the original mono (DD 1.0). Production notes, snap-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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