Review of “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944)

“modern” trailer from YouTube

It’s Halloween, 1941, in New York. Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a drama critic and author of such books as Marriage, a Fraud and a Failure, waits in a long line with the girl literally next door, Elaine Harper (Pricilla Lane). A sign above them reads “marriage licenses.” A couple of gentlemen of the fourth estate notice him and try to get pictures.

Meanwhile, back home in Brooklyn at the Brewster home, elderly Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull)  entertains the Reverend Harper (Grant Mitchell), Elaine’s dad. Mortimer’s brother, Teddy Brewster (John Alexander), plays the piano. He yells, “Charge!” and runs up the stairs, convinced he is President Teddy Roosevelt.

After Reverend Harper leaves, Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) comes home. They tell Teddy he’s going to Panama to “dig another lock for the canal.” This delights Teddy. The two sisters also seem delighted, sharing some secret. They are about to open the window seat when they see Elaine looking in the window. She winks at them. That can only mean—she and Mortimer have gone and gotten married! Well, this changes things!

Mortimer is telling his aunts about a play he’s recently seen—a murder mystery—“When the curtain goes up, the first thing you see is a dead body.” On cue, he opens the window seat. At first, he suspects his delusional brother Teddy, who has just gone down the cellar with a shovel.

But his aunts tell him, oh, no. Teddy had nothing to do with Mr. Hogkins winding up in the window seat. They have their own recipe for elderberry wine for lonely, elderly men.


This is one of the weirdest mass murder movies you’ll ever see. Two sweet elderly ladies—who give repaired toys to police charities—poison old men because they think it’s kinder than letting them live lonely lives. They have their standards, though. They refuse to let a foreigner be buried with a Methodist.

There are a lot of in-jokes. Arsenic and Old Lace was originally a play with Boris Karloff as sinister Brewster brother Jonathan. It ran from 1941 to 1946. In the movie, the character Jonathan (Raymond Massey) becomes enraged when told that he looks like Boris Karloff.

Many of the jokes stand up. This is farce and quite silly. Grant overacts but does so deliberately. The corpses are never shown, but they don’t need to be. The strength of the story comes from Mortimer’s realization that his sweet aunts are mass murderers. Later, his long-lost brother, Jonathan, returns. The police are looking for him. There is serious menace from Jonathan, but there’s also farce.

One of the inspirations for the story is thought to have been the real-life murders committed around 1907-1916 in a nursing home run by Amy Archer-Gilligan. She was charged with five killings, convicted of one, and sentenced to death. At a second trial, she pleaded insanity and was again convicted but sentenced to life imprisonment.

While the style of the movie is dated and the subject matter rather gruesome, this is a fun and funny flick. The fun is in the irony. Mortimer is trying to protect his aunts and Teddy but also trying to keep them from committing more harm. He’s also worried about going nuts himself. He tells his new bride, “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”

There are no booms and certainly no boobs, but this is a lot of fun.

The movie can be watched here:

Title: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Directed by
Frank Capra

Writing Credits
Julius J. Epstein…(screen play) and
Philip G. Epstein…(screen play)
Joseph Kesselring…(play)

Cast (in credits order)
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

Released: 1944
Length: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Published by 9siduri

I have written book and movie reviews for the late and lamented sites Epinions and Examiner. I have book of reviews of speculative fiction from before 1900, and short works in publications such Mobius, Protea Poetry Journal, and, most recently, Wisconsin Review and Drunken Pen Writing. I'm busily working away on a book of reviews pulp science fiction stories from the 1930s-1960s. It's a lot of fun. I am the author of the short story "Always Coming Home," a chapbook of poetry titled "Sotto Voce," and a collection of reviews of pre-1900 speculative fiction, "By Firelight."

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