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ARSENIC AND OLD LACE ($25) is a true cinematic gem- a movie that is as funny today as it was when it was released nearly sixty years ago. Despite the laughter the film induces, I sometimes wonder how ARSENIC AND OLD LACE made it to the screen. After all, the plot involves at least a dozen murders that go unpunished- something that was almost unheard of during the days of Hollywood censorship. Perhaps the Hayes office was willing to overlook such immoral matters in the name of comedy.

Based upon the hit Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring and brought to the screen by legendary director Frank Capra, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE combines elements of black comedy, slapstick and the shameless mugging of Cary Grant to create one of the greatest laugh-fests to ever come out of Hollywood. The plot of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE takes place in the genteel Brooklyn of yesterday; a place of tree lined streets and beautiful old homes, churchyards and cemeteries. On one such street is the home of the elderly Brewster sisters, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who are two of the kindest, most charitable women on the planet. Also in the home, lives their nephew Teddy (John Alexander), a harmless eccentric, who thinks he’s President Theodore Roosevelt. 

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE opens on Halloween, with the arrival of nephew Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), who has just married Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the girl who lives next door to his doting aunts. While delivering the good news to Abby and Martha, Mortimer discovers a dead body hidden in the window seat of his aunt’s home. Mortimer immediately jumps to the conclusion that his brother Teddy has finally gone completely crazy and has committed murder. However, Mortimer quickly discovers that Teddy is not the culprit. It turns out that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha have launched a new charitable cause, in which they bring everlasting peace to lonely old men by means of adding arsenic to elderberry wine and serving it to the gentlemen in question. Of course, Mortimer is shocked and dumbfounded to discover that his sweet old aunts are serial killers, with a dozen bodies buried in the cellar of their Brooklyn home. Figuring that he can pin the crimes on Teddy, who everyone knows to be crazy, Mortimer starts making arrangements to send his brother off to a sanitarium. All that is left is for Mortimer to do, before he can leave on his honeymoon, is to get his aunts to give up their latest charitable cause. Unfortunately, Mortimer’s other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up after a twenty-year absence, adding another stumbling block Mortimer’s honeymoon plans. Where Teddy is only mildly crazy, Jonathan is a true homicidal maniac, arriving with his very own dead body in tow. Also along for the ride is Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), Jonathan’s personal plastic surgeon, whose latest efforts have left Jonathan looking just a little too much like Boris Karloff for everybody’s comfort.

As grim as the proceedings may sound, there isn’t a moment that goes by in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE that doesn’t generate a laugh. Director Frank Capra applies just the right touch, keeping everything moving rapidly and never allowing the atmosphere to become weighed down by the darker aspects of the material. Capra gets fine performances from a superb troop of actors, as well as allowing his star to get away with cinematic murder. Grant is given enough leeway to take his character just slightly over-the-top, reaction hilariously to the insanity all around him. Grant masterfully performs double and triple takes, as well as providing some of the most screamingly funny facial expressions ever captured on celluloid. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair recreate their Broadway roles for the screen and are absolutely are wonderful; never has such sweet innocence been so brutally funny. Raymond Massey does a great job filling Boris Karloff’s shoes, since dear old Boris wasn’t allowed to leave the stage production to participate in the movie. Additionally, Massey’s makeup has a very Karloff/Frankenstein monster quality that proves an effective punch line to the film’s running joke. Even Peter Lorre gets his share of laughs as the disreputable doctor traveling with the insane killer. The cast of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE also includes Jack Carson, James Gleason, Grant Mitchell, Edward McNamara, Garry Owen and the ever-delightful Edward Everett Horton.

Warner Home Video has done a terrific job of bringing ARSENIC AND OLD LACE to DVD. The black and white film element used for the transfer is in marvelous shape, or has been digitally cleaned up for this presentation. Either way, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE displays very few blemishes, although film grain does become noticeable from time to time. Pre-dating wide screen, the movie is presented in its proper 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio, without appearing over-matted. The image is crisp and very highly detailed, displaying the pores in the actors’ faces, as well as the richness of fabrics and set dressings. Blacks are a perfect velvety black and are shown off to astonishing effect during a sequence in the film that is played completely in silhouette. Contrast is excellent and the image faithfully renders all of the shades of gray up to bright white. Digital compression artifacts never distract one from the beauty of this presentation. 

For a film approaching the sixty-year mark, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE features a Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack that is very clean and free from distortion. Dialogue is crisp and is reproduced with absolute clarity. Frequency range has the expected age limitations, however the track is well worth amplifying for Max Steiner’s truly delightful musical score. Unless one turns up the volume up to an excessive level, background hiss remains relatively unperceivable. Subtitles are provided on the DVD in English and French. The basic interactive menus provide access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as some modest extras, which include production notes on the film’s journey from stage to screen.

Despite the passage of time, ARSENIC AND OLD LACE remains one of the funniest films ever made. This classic film is well served by Warner Home Video’s sparkling presentation on DVD. Absolutely recommended.


Arsenic and Old Lace


DVD reviews are Copyright © 2000 THE CINEMA LASER and may not be copied or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.
THE CINEMA LASER is written, edited and published by Derek M. Germano.



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