I have a bit if a thing for 1940s black-and-white films. Not all of them, and it’s a mixed bag of drama and comedy, but I think what I like them for are qualities that itr’s impossible to bring to filming nowadays, and indeed for decades since. For want of a better word, I call that ‘innocence’.
These are films being made at a time when films were the biggest form of mass entertainment. They were being made on Hollywood sound-stages and sets with a degree of artificiality that the technology of the time couldn’t render natural, in an era when censorship and the twin forces of public taste and morals heavily restricted what could and couldn’t be said and done. As a direct consequence, the writers, directors and performers had to use a higher degree of wit, intelligence and skill to convey things that couldn’t openly be said or shown.
It was a time when films set out to invoke the imagination of an audience that was in on the act and was open, indeed wanted, their imaginations stirred, instead of today when colour, screen-trickery, CGI and changed mores see the audience’s imagination satiated whilst being ever more blatant about how they are being tricked by unreality.
We can’t make films like Arsenic and Old Lace any more because nobody in the film business believes the audience will take them seriously, even as comedies. But this film is a classic and it will go on being one for a generation or two yet. What will happen to it when people lose the ability to see in black and white, I shudder to think.
Arsenic and Old Lace was first released in 1944, though it had been shot a couple of years earlier, over the winter of 1941-2. It was based on the very successful Broadway play of the same name, and included several of the actors from the long-running hit, but was not allowed to be shown until the play ended its run. Cary Grant stars, after Bob Hope and a couple of others were unavailable, and Priscilla Lane is co-billed with him, though her role is considerable smaller. Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre are the villains, Massey playing the role Boris Karloff played on stage, which explains the in-joke of several references to his character looking like Karloff.
In modern parlance, the film/play is about a pair of serial killers, and a most unlikely pair at that. It’s based on a real-life incident that dramatist George Kesselring was originally planning to treat seriously, before he was persuaded to turn it into a black comedy, at which point it becomes a brilliantly pitched farce that enables Cary Grant to show off an incredible range of double-takes, delayed reactions, slow burns and plain hamming it up that sails the story onwards without stress through a near two hours.
Basically: Grant is Mortimer Brewster, dramatic critic and anti-marriage disparager, and he’s just getting married to the lovely blonde girl-next-door, Elaine Harper (Lane, looking wonderfully, innocently lovely). Elaine’s a minister’s daughter, who lives just the opposite side of a small graveyard from the Brewster house, where Mortimer was brought up.
The Brewster’s are a long-established Brooklyn family, who came over on the Mayflower. The house is owned by spinster sisters Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair from the stage version) who look after Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander, ditto). Teddy believes himself to be President Theodore Roosevelt, but the Misses Brewster are sweet, helpful and utterly sane.
Or so you think.
Mortimer’s had the taxi stop off so Elaine can pack her bags, he can tell his aunts (who’ve seen it coming) and then it’s off to Niagara Falls, the great big soppy cliched romantic husband. There’s a lot of kissing already going on and from the look in Mortimer’s eyes there’s going to be a lot of other stuff rapidly following on (from the mock-suspicious way Elaine’s treating that look, she can’t wait). Patrolman Brophy’s handing his beat over to rookie Patrolman O’Hara, and it’s the nicest beat in Brooklyn, and introducing him to the Brewster sisters. O’Hara’s a would-be playwright who’s going to be so delighted to meet Mortimer, he’ll be oblivious to everything else. Oh, everything’s entirely rosy.
Until Mortimer discovers the dead body in the window seat.
That’s Mr Hoskins. Aunt Abby did that one herself. Teddy’s informed that there’s been another death from yellow fever so he goes off to ‘Panama’ (the cellar) to dig another ‘lock’. Later, they’ll hold a service. It all started with a worn-out, lonely old man who had a heart attack whilst eating a meal with the Misses Brewster. Ever since, they’ve regarded it as their mission of mercy to give that kind of restful happiness to all other old friendless, family-less men. They drink elderberry wine. One gallon of elderberry wine, with one measure of arsenic, half a measure of strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer can’t believe it, even through the entirely matter-of-fact manner, and slightly self-congratulatory air, his aunts adopt. At first he thinks it’s Teddy, in fact he’s convinced of it, but he has to believe them and that makes it worse.
Mortimer’s got to control this situation, which means pushing Elaine out of his mind (and the house and, possibly, his life: after all, he’s a Brewster too, and madness runs in the family). Got to get Teddy committed and off to Happydale Sanatorium!
Unfortunately there’s a fly in the ointment, if you didn’t already guess at the number of flies already buzzing. Mortimer has another brother, Jonathan, who takes it into his mind to turn up now, dragging in tow his partner, Dr Einstein, a small, cowering, permanently drunken plastic surgeon. Jonathan’s an evil, sadistic killer, by the way, also an escapee from an asylum for the Criminally Insane, and Einstein periodically alters his features. Just before the last operation, he’d seen this film with Boris Karloff in it…
Oh, and they’ve got a dead body with them that requires burial, a Mr Spinalzo.
Put everything together and watch it fizz. And boy, does it fizz.
Grant is simply brilliant, overplaying everything gleefully (I really cannot imagine Bob Hope is the part: well, actually I can, and he’d have made a god job of it in his own manner. But not like Grant). Raymond Massey is equally brilliant as Jonathan, underplaying in contrast and using his face and his sense of sinister presence to underlay things with a genuine frisson of unpredictabilty. Lorre plays a looser role, perpetually snatching snifters till his schnapps runs out, and cowering helplessly, to the point where you can’t begrudge him his miraculous escape at the end. And Hull, Adair and Alexander bring an inner and natural conviction to their daffy parts that keep you from ever doubting the story’s black premise.
At no point does the film ever treat the Brewster sister’s murders as anything other than a joke. Jonathan’s equally long history of murder (Dr Einstein has a good giggle over how the old ladies, without ever leaving Brooklyn, have exactly matched his globe-trotting score) is treated in exactly the opposite manner. We even see this onscreen: a Mr Gough responds to the ladies’ ‘Room for Rent’ notice before being chased off by an appalled Mortimer, much to their petulant dismay, but when Jonathan binds and gags Mortimer and plans to spend a little creative time with him, before the oblivious O’Hara interrupts, it’s creepy as hell: Massey makes it plain that Jonathan is going to enjoy this…
In the end, in a frantic ending, everything is resolved in true farce fashion: no, it isn’t: there are still thirteen bodies in that body, but nobody resents the flim-flam. Mortimer discovers he’s not a Brewster after all, by blood that is (he’s the son of a sea-cook, a joke that will shortly be impenetrable). Of course, the concerned Elaine nearly blows it all by discovering the bodies for herself, and as she’s the only witness to the graves who might be believed, Mortimer has to shut her up by kissing her, to which, after things have gone on for a sufficiently long time, she surrenders most willingly.
Arsenic and Old Lace was apparently taken pretty directly from the play, and it’s pretty much stage-bound in its set, with the one big room accounting for most of the action, and a few, short excursions to other settings, most of them scenes external to the house. It makes a virtue of this artificiality, further delinking its morbid subject from any strict response. I must have watched it a dozen times, especially on Sunday afternoons and now it’s taken its place in a Sunday morning Film 2018, and I’ve still laughed my head off.
We will have lost something indeed if we ever forget what makes this funny.