Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Toronto Film Society presented Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) on Sunday, May 5, 2024 as part of the Season 76 Fall Series, Programme 6.

Producers: Frank Capra, Jack L. Warner.  Director: Frank Capra.  Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring.  Cinematographer: Sal Polito.  Editor: Daniel Mandell.  Music: Max Steiner.  Released September 23, 1944.

Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Jack Carson (O’Hara), Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon), Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster).

What a rare treat it is to enjoy this delightfully weird, screwball black comedy; keep your eyes and ears open to catch all the snappy dialogue and zany performances.

At the time, Director Frank Capra was well known for movies with a social commentary, such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Lost Horizon (1937), and Meet John Doe (1941), but he hadn’t made a straight-up comedy, sans social commentary, since It Happened One Night (1934). He shot the film in 1941 in just nine weeks, finishing in October, before he left to serve in the Signal Core in February 1942.

Originally a three-act play, Arsenic and Old Lace is set in real time, all taking place on Halloween eve. The play was a huge success on Broadway, opening on January 10, 1941 and playing for a stunning 1,444 performances. Although the movie was filmed in 1941, the contract for the rights stipulated that the movie couldn’t be released until the Broadway run of the play ended. No one thought that Arsenic and Old Lace would become one of the longest running plays on Broadway at that time, delaying the film release until 1944 after the play closed on June 17, 1944.

At the time, the film’s set, comprised of the house, yard, cemetery, and street, was the largest soundstage on the Warner Brothers lot; completely indoors with large fans blowing the leaves around to get an autumn in Brooklyn feel to the film. This gave Capra total control of all aspects of the set as time was tight…Nine weeks to shoot! In a nod to Cary Grant’s real name, apparently the name ‘Archie Leach’ appears on one of the tombstones in the studio cemetery (we couldn’t see it, but apparently, it’s there).

In the role of a sane man in an insane world, Cary Grant plays the role of Mortimer Brewster. Capra wanted Cary Grant’s performances to be broad and over-the-top, often breaking the “fourth wall” and mugging to the camera, reminiscent of vaudeville or pantomime performances. However, Grant felt some of his antics were a little too much, so Capra promised to re-edit the film and re-shoot some of the more exaggerated scenes. Alas, Capra ran out of time before leaving for WWII; he had time to re-edit but no time to re-shoot. All those great scenes of Grant acting hilariously had to be left in, much to Grant’s disapproval, but to our delight!

Three original cast members reprised their Broadway roles, including the sweet old Brewster sisters, played by Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, and their nephew, Teddy “Roosevelt” Brewster, played by John Alexander. If you’re a fan of Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, you can see that the cartoon characters ‘Granny’ and ‘Witch Hazel’ must have been inspired by the Brewster sisters, including the way they speak, the giggling, the dresses, and the weird hippity-hop walk.

Although not part of the original cast in the play, Peter Lorre was fantastic playing the sniveling Dr. Einstein who enjoyed his schnapps. He endured the description of “pop-eyed,” something that was clearly written into the movie script just for him, as it doesn’t appear in the original play (yes, we checked). The film also enjoys a uniformly great supporting cast, including Jack Carson (a Canadian-born actor), James Gleason (Meet John Doe, Rain or Shine), Edward Everett Horton (Lost Horizon), Charles Lane (Meet John Doe, Broadway Bill, You Can’t Take it With You, It’s a Wonderful Life).

Poor Boris Karloff couldn’t get released from Broadway in order to reprise his role as Mortimer’s sinister brother, Jonathan Brewster. He was contractually obligated to perform in the Broadway play and, as the “headliner,” the producers wouldn’t let him go; even saying “no thanks,” when Warner Brothers offered Humphrey Bogart to temporarily replace him. Although he was bitter about missing out on starring in the film, Karloff proved to be a good sport; after much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair by studio lawyers, Karloff signed a release allowing his name to be used repeatedly in the film.

Perhaps Karloff would feel a bit of schadenfreude though, if he knew that Raymond Massey, who played Karloff’s role in the film, had to endure five hours each day in the makeup chair to get his creepy “Boris Karloff” look.

As you should know, Raymond Massey was born in Toronto and was a son of the wealthy co-owner of the Massey-Harris tractor company. He served in the Canadian Army in both World Wars, ending his time in the military as a Major in 1943. Raymond Massey became a US citizen in 1944. He was known for playing archetypal American roles, such as Abraham Lincoln; he only played a Canadian on-screen once, in the 49th Parallel (1941). His brother, Vincent Massey, was Governor General of Canada from 1952-1959.

Notes by Carol Whittaker


John Elmer Carson, better known as Jack Carson, was born on October 27, 1910 in Carman, Manitoba.

If you think you spot him on TCM every time almost you turn on your TV, you’re not wrong. He appeared in dozens of films over a career that lasted from 1937 to 1962, including classics like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Destry Rides Again (1939), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and three films with Doris Day, including It’s a Great Feeling (1949), My Dream is Yours (1949) and Romance on the High Seas (1948). (Side note: Carson and Day had a romantic relationship in 1950–1951, but she left him for Marty Melcher, who became her third husband.)  Day wasn’t his only regular scene partner; he appeared seven times with Ginger Rogers. In the first six, his character lost Rogers’ character to a rival. In the seventh, Lucky Partners (1940), his character finally got the girl.

All those films between 1937 and 1958! But what made him such an in-demand actor? He had a charisma about him, described sometimes as a friendly character who couldn’t be trusted, such as the character he played in A Star is Born as Norman Maine’s handler. And at 6’6, he was a formidable presence with a sardonic wit who performed equally well in comedy and drama. As a well-recognized character actor, he brought something special to each film he appeared in.

Despite his schedule, he managed to find time for some extra-curricular activities – he was married four times. As well, Carson had a reputation for disappearing for weeks at a time, and only his wife knew where he went. According to IMDB: Years later Carson revealed the secret: he had joined the Clyde Beatty circus as a clown and was traveling with their show. Audiences never knew it was him.

Notes by Mark Brodsky

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