best films: #26: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944)
I’m quite the sucker for 30s and 40s screwball comedies, and you’d be hard-pressed to find such a great example as 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, a zany, high-spirited glimpse at insanity in the family. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, the drama critic nephew to a pair of batty old aunts (played with great comedic skill by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), who are hiding a well-meaning but altogether fateful secret in their basement. When he visits to get to the bottom of the situation, he’s met with his cousin Jonathon (Raymond Massey), a notorious murderer who resembles Boris Karloff, and his older cousin “Teddy” who’s convinced he’s President Teddy Roosevelt. All in all, the film is entirely about the antics that ensue as a result of all of these people descending on the aunts’ house. And that’s the beauty of screwball comedies – they’re screwy. This is probably Cary Grant’s greatest performance. He’s able to capitalize on his greatest talents, which are surprisingly not being a smooth-talker or a casanova; they are in fact physical, over-the-top humor. This movie, as well as #29 on my list, solidifies for me that Frank Capra was a true artist, despite the often light nature of his films. Arsenic and Old Lace is a brilliant showcase for the art of laughter, and Mortimer’s scenes with the hilarous Hull show that the best screen chemistry need not come from romantic inclinations. The Brewsters are a bunch of insane, mercy-killing, sweet-natured, off-their-rockers loonies, and they signify the epitome of slapstick.
Standout Performance: Though the supporting players are great fun (particularly Hull and Peter Lorre, as Jonathon’s semi-nuts face surgeon), it’s Grant that comes out the gem.