Jean Adair, left, and Josephine Hull talking to Cary Grant in a scene from the film “Arsenic And Old Lace,” 1944. Getty Images

Cary Grant, who starred in over 51 movies in America, and became the most-beloved actor in movie history before he was an angel in “The Bishop’s Wife,” an ex husband in “Philadelphia Story” or a spy in “Notorious,” and became the most-watched, beloved actor in movie history.

Grant was hired in 1944 to play a double-take clown in the great Frank Capra’s screwball comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace,” set in Brooklyn, New York. The screenplay was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, the brothers who wrote the screenplay for “Casablanca.”

In this 1944 comedy, Mortimer Brewster (Grant) played a controversial New York columnist who had just married Elaine (Priscilla Lane) and introduced her to his delightful, comic aunts, Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) on Halloween day. That’s why, of course, I’m taking the opportunity to review it this week.

As it opens, the famous Mortimer and Elaine get married at city hall in a desperate attempt not to be recognized.

Elaine goes to her father’s house to break the news, and get ready for their honeymoon.

Mortimer goes to Abby and Martha in the old family home, delightfully located next to a historic graveyard, which Capra cleverly filled with the detritus of autumn blowing wind, early darkness and eerie music.


Mortimer’s brother, Teddy, (John Alexander) who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, lives with the aunts, is driving the “living” neighbors nuts with his nightly charges up “San Juan Hill.”

Here comes the unfolding: The very nervous Mortimer, while looking for the notes for his next book, finds a corpse hidden in the window seat, and assumes that the lovable but nutty Teddy killed him.

Abby and Martha charmingly explain, with a bizarre explanation, that they are the “serial murderers.”

“When we rent a room to some lonely old bachelor, we’re ending theirsuffering by serving a nice glass of elderberry wine.”

The punch line. “It’s spiked with arsenic strychnine and arsenic and strychnine and cyanide.”

Mortimer, in a panic, rushes to the head of the asylum (Edward Everett Horton) to have Teddy committed.


That night Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey “East of Eden”) suddenly arrives on Halloween with his crazy partner, Dr. Herman Einstein (the wonderful Peter Lorre, “Casablanca”) who botched Jonathon’s face, making him look like Boris Karloff’s monster. (In the Broadway 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring, Karloff played Jonathan, and turned down the part in the movie.)

No more can be said. The last 15 minutes of this brilliant comic melodrama are the best. Stick with it and screen it on Halloween after dark. You’ll love it and your kids will as well. It’s clean and corny and harmless.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” streams on Roku. It runs on Spectrum TV, Watch TCM, DIRECTV, The Criterion Channel, Prime Video, Apple TV or Vudu on your Roku device.


J.P. Devine of Waterville is a former stage and screen actor.

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