There’s an argument to be made that dark comedy is one of, if not the, hardest genre to pull off successfully. While many are lauded (i.e. Dr. Strangelove, Kind Hearts and Coronets, much of the Coen Bros. oeuvre, etc.) most have their detractors, as well.
The 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace is a case in point. It’s usually a love it or hate it proposition. Possibly one of the reasons is its star, Cary Grant, was so debonair and adept at a subtler variation of physical and screwball comedy. Here, he is full-on slapstick, mugging, doing exaggerated double-takes, entirely lacking in subtlety. That puts some of his fans off.
For me, it’s a daring and sublime performance that makes me laugh until my stomach hurts.
Based on the hit Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring, the film (directed by Frank Capra) concerns drama critic and famous detractor of the institution of marriage Mortimer Brewster (Grant). He’s even written books on the evils of marriage, so it is no surprise he doesn’t want to the press to catch him at the marriage license bureau with his fiancée Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).
Mortimer has two darling spinster aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). They look after his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy disturbs the neighbors with bugle-playing and by yelling “Charge!” as he runs up the stairs (he thinks it’s San Juan Hill). Mortimer is very fond of his eccentric relatives, who happen to live next door to Elaine and her father, Reverend Harper (Grant Mitchell).
When he arrives to tell them the news of his marriage, he finds someone has stashed a dead body in the window seat. He thinks it was Teddy, but his aunts willingly and cheerfully “confess” to the deed. Or rather, deeds, as there are eleven more bodies in the cellar. In their minds, they are performing a service by poisoning lonely old men via homemade elderberry wine.
Frantically (VERY frantically) Mortimer tries to keep anyone from finding the body, while arranging for Teddy to go to a sanitarium. Neglecting his puzzled fiancée, he has to keep the overly friendly neighborhood cops (Jack Carson, Edward McNamara) from discovering the murder.
As if this isn’t enough, Mortimer’s sadistic brother Jonathon (Raymond Massey) and his henchman Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) arrive at the house because they are on the run from the law and need a hideout. They also have a dead body they need to dispose of. Jonathon is almost unrecognizable to his family because of repeated plastic surgery that has given him a remarkable resemblance to Boris Karloff.
Grant’s daughter Jennifer revealed in her memoir that her father loathed his performance in Arsenic and Old Lace, that he shuddered any time the topic came up, insisting he played it way too over-the-top. There are those who agree, of course, but the movie is one of the beloved films of the 1940s. It’s also unusually dark, even for a dark comedy. The idea of two little old ladies poisoning old men and burying them in the cellar while remaining sweet and kind to the rest of the world around them is pretty chilling.
Grant wasn’t the first choice for the role (which was originated by Eddie Albert on Broadway). Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan were all considered first. The film was shot in 1941 but not released until 1944 when the Broadway run was completed. (Interestingly, Boris Karloff originated the role of Jonathon, but couldn’t leave the Broadway show to do the movie because he was the major box office draw.)
Claiming Jimmy Stewart would have done a much better job in the role, Grant donated his $100,000 salary to wartime charities.
I think he was too hard on himself. One of the things I like most about the movie is how Grant conveys Mortimer’s genuine affection for his aunts. His frantic machinations are all in service of saving them and his brother Teddy from prison or worse.
He blamed himself and Capra for the over-the-top nature of the film, but it still went on to great success and has been designated as one of “The Essentials” by TCM. I think the hammy nature of his performance is perfect for the material, and still enjoy it during every viewing.