Halloween Movie with the Family: Arsenic and Old Lace

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Pinned down at home and riding out the Frankenstorm battering The East Coast, we decided to watch a Halloween movie the three of us could enjoy, as my wife didn’t join us for the Horror movies we just went through. Emboldened by how much my son liked the Universal Monster movies, I suggested we watch Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s screwball comedy set on Halloween night in the wilderness of Brooklyn.

For those who haven’t seen this classic (and shame on you if you haven’t) Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a confirmed bachelor who’s just eloped with the minister’s daughter. Arriving back home to tell his spinster aunts, he learns they have been keeping busy by killing lonely old men with no families and burying their “gentlemen” in the basement. Or, to be more precise, having their nephew Teddy (who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt) bury “yellow fever victims” in the locks of the Panama Canal. Now Mortimer begins rushing about to get the lot of them committed, avoid being murdered by his long lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and Jonathan’s partner (Peter Lorre), and not lose his new bride (Priscilla Lane).

Between the slapstick and pratfalls, and the razor sharp dialogue, this was a hit. My wife and I have loved this movie for years, and my son completely fell for it. He thought Peter Lorre was hilarious as Dr. Einstein and the broad mugging from Cary Grant elicited some real belly laughs. Grant tied to the chair as Massey bears down on him has as much, if not more tension, as any scene from the Universal films, and O was stock still, waiting to see how Mortimer would get out of his predicament. It’s a shame Boris Karloff couldn’t reprise his portrayal of Jonathan from the original Broadway show, but Massey is just as menacing with his zig-zag scars and stentorian delivery. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are gems as the dotty aunts, and Considering how rarely Lorre appeared in comedies, I am really impressed with his timing and delivery. He underplays, but still holds his own amongst all the broad performances around him.

This was a pitch perfect pic for a stormy evening, and as we move on to bedtime, O wants to know what other old movies we can watch. I’m still pondering that, but I’m leaning towards something in color. He definitely appreciates the atmosphere of these old black and white movies, but I don’t want to push too hard with this brand of classic. If we do stick with black and white, classic comedies will most likely be the next genre we go through. Any recommendations?

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