Sunday, May 18, 2008

Crazy berry aunts, part 2

After yesterday's discussion of ants invading Houston, and their cinematic brethren, it's time for a "related" movie: Arsenic and Old Lace. Only this time, it's not crazy ants, but crazy aunts.

Cary Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic who's surprised everybody by getting married to Elaine Harper (played by Priscilla Lane), despite being a confirmed bachelor. He's about to leave with her on his honeymoon, but has decided to see his two elderly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) first. Unfortunately for Morty, he's in for a surprise: his aunts inform him that they've been "helping" lonely old men by inviting them to rent one of their rooms, and then serving them poisoned elderberry wine. Needless to say, Morty is shocked by this, but it's only the beginning of his world being turned upside-down. The idea sounds morbid, but the movie is actually a wild comedy, so we should expect that there's ever more strangeness going on.

First is the fact that Mortimer is going to have to keep the latest dead body hidden from his wife, which leads to several scenes of Grant acting in the zany mold of his earlier portrayals in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. (To be honest, though, at times, I find it a bit too zany. However, there's also the problem of how to dispose of the dead bodies; the vitim Mortimer sees is actually the 13th. But it just so happens that the aunts have another nephew, Teddy (John Alexander) who's insane, and believes he's Teddy Roosevelt. The aunts manipulate him into believing his digging the Panama Canal, when in fact he's digging graves for the old men in the basement. And to make matters worse, Mortimer's brother Jonathan (played by Raymond Massey) shows up, too. He's on the run from the law, with a dead body in the trunk of his car, and having gone through plastic surgery at the hands of Peter Lorre (shades of Mad Love here) that's left him looking like Boris Karloff's portrayal of Frankestein's monster. (Ugly, but I suppose it'll keep the police from recognizing you.)

In addition to the well-known stars playing in the leads, Arsenic and Old Lace is filled with wonderful character actors. I've mentioned Jack Carson a number of times; he plays one of the police officers. James Gleason has also been given significant mention in an earlier post; he too plays a police officer. Edward Everett Horton plays the manager of the insane asylum to which Mortimer plans to have Teddy committed after the aunts die, and Grant Mitchell, who appeared in dozens of great movies in the 30s and early 40s plays a man of the cloth who stops by the aunts' house.

Arsenic and Old Lace was based on a popular Broadway play; in fact, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprise their roles they originated on Broadway as the crazy aunts. Also, in a bit of happy news for movie buffs, Arsenic and Old Lacy is available on DVD.

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