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Arsenic and Old Lace (April 23, 2009)

Arsenic and Old Lace was a hit play on Broadway that opened in January, 1941, written by Joseph Kesselring. The film was shot from October to December, 1941, but was not released by Warner Brothers until September, 1944, nearly three years later. Frank Capra directed it. He got an extension on his date to report for active duty with the army to finish editing the movie. Warners was contractually obligated to wait for the Broadway play to finish its run before releasing the film. The play ran until June, 1944.

So this movie was filmed before both The Talk of the Town and Mr. Lucky, which were released before this one was released. Billy Stevenson, in “A Film Canon”, referred back to the discourse in Capra’s great movies of the 30s like Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith when he wrote that this movie “explicates Capra’s cacophonous conversation-space as a madhouse. . .this produces a fairly original combination of comedy and horror.” Several people have commented that the film doesn’t break out of the stage play’s straightjacket. Cary Grant reportedly named it the least favorite of his performances. Mr. Stevenson wrote, “his performance feels like little more than a series of hyperbolic double-takes, and is never far from explicitly acknowledging the camera.”

Still, this comic movie about serial killing is remembered fondly. The two maiden aunts, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, actresses from Boston and Hamilton, Ontario, respectively, provide a lot of its charm. Hull later won a supporting actress Oscar for her role in Harvey opposite Jimmy Stewart. Adair had nursed a very young and ill Archie Leach (Cary Grant’s original name) back to health twenty years earlier when they both played in vaudeville.

Hull and Adair, along with John Alexander, who played Teddy, took time off from the Broadway play to make the picture. Jonathan was played on the stage by Boris Karloff, hence the comic reference in the script to his plastic surgery making him look like – Boris Karloff. The role in the movie was played by the great Canadian actor Raymond Massey, and he looks a little like Karloff, but maybe not enough to make the laugh a big one. Peter Lorre is always memorable and he makes the most of it in his role as the gangster plastic surgeon. Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason, two veteran comic character actors, take on supporting roles. Please sit back and enjoy all these comic actors’ work in Arsenic and Old Lace with me.