Monday, December 21, 2020

Key scenes from a movie nerd's life: Jonathan Brewster comes home in Arsenic and Old Lace

The first image here – the two shadowy figures entering a darkened room – is from a scene, and a film, that is very special to me; I watched it many times as a 13/14-year-old, having somehow procured a VHS cassette, and whenever this sequence began I felt the thrill that comes with knowing that a dark (but basically cosy and reassuring) comedy is about to move into slightly edgier terrain. That new twists and revelations lie ahead. This is the moment when two outstanding character actors make their first appearance in the 1944 Arsenic and Old Lace: Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, an escaped convict returning to his family house (and displeased that inept plastic surgery has made his face resemble the Frankenstein Monster’s); and Peter Lorre as the scared little Doctor Einstein, the one who bungled the surgery. 
What these two practitioners of crime don’t realise is that some very strange (and unlawful, to say the least) things have been happening in the house where they are seeking sanctuary from the law. Their two sweet old aunts have been (this is not a spoiler) poisoning elderly gentlemen – with the best of intentions, of course. Meanwhile one of the other nephews thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and has happily helped the old dears to bury the bodies in the cellar, believing them to be Yellow Fever victims. And yet another nephew Mortimer (played by Cary Grant) has only just discovered these subterranean secrets – on the very day that he is supposed to be heading off for his honeymoon.
This is a stagy film in some ways – being a very faithful adaptation of a popular play – but a lot of fun if you get into the mood. It also has one of Cary Grant's most deliriously over-the-top comic performances – one that I love, though it will definitely not be to all tastes. Watching this film now, I wonder if Grant was on some of the LSD that he later supposedly introduced Tim Leary to.
I have a print with me now, so if anyone wants to watch it, mail me at (I don’t think I will be having a film-club conversation around it, but maybe as part of something on black comedies soon.)

1 comment:

  1. Jai, by some coincidence the weekend after you posted this I read a piece by Terry Teachout, the respected theater critic of the Wall Street Journal, on Grant's performance in A&OL in a story on good plays turned into bad films.

    When Frank Capra got his hands on “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Joseph Kesselring’s long-running 1941 stage comedy, he cast Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, the drama critic whose little old maiden aunts are mass murderers. So far, so good—Grant was Hollywood’s premier farceur—but Capra instructed Grant to give an exaggerated performance full of whinnying, rubber-faced mugging that killed the charm of the original play. “I was embarrassed doing it,” Grant admitted years later. “I overplayed the part.”


    The other examples were Lubitsch's version of Noel Coward's Design For Living with your favorites Frederick March & Miriam Hopkins (Gary Cooper being the third point of the triangle), Sam Wood's version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town & finally Irving Rapper's version of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.