Skeletons Underneath the Closet
Twins Julius and Philip Epstein had actually adapted Joseph Kesselring’s popular play before turning to Casablanca, but, held until after its Broadway run, Arsenic and Old Lace was not released for three years. Black humor of the non-self-directed variety is difficult to do, and even when well done does not necessarily wear that well.
Today the stellar cast comes across as overacting, mugging into predictable pratfalls, blustering obtuseness and telegraphed laff lines. This comedy creaks; faint praise “madcap” cannot excuse the two minutes shy of two hours. The saving grace lies in whispery Peter Lorre and Raymond Massey, villains whose understatement and ironic menace would not disgrace Rick Blaine and Louis Renault.
As movies could do, and do well, years ago but seem largely incapable of nowadays, a few frames excepted everything here occurs within a set room and, just a bit, the adjacent seventeenth-century Brooklyn cemetery. Much talk about the cellar and its contents to the contrary, the camera never ventures down those steps. If it had, it would have seen the “Panama Canal locks” dug by bonkers “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster (fresh from the stage version, John Alexander), filled in with the bodies of lonely old gentlemen killed out of kindness by his aunts Abby and Martha Brewster (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, both also from the play). The elderly ladies rent rooms and, with a recipe of arsenic and cyanide in elderberry wine, mercifully nudge friend- and family-less lodgers out of this world and hold Sunday hymn services for their departed souls.
Permanent resident “Teddy” has an unneighborly habit of blasting a trumpet charge up the staircase San Juan Hill, while brother Mortimer (Cary Grant), a regular visitor, of late comes even more frequently. A celebrated drama critic and enemy of marriage whose works include Marriage, A Fraud and a Failure, nephew Mortimer is trying to shield his reputation by covering up his visits and imminent marriage and Niagara Falls honeymoon, to neighbor the Rev. Harper’s (Grant Mitchell) daughter Elaine (Priscilla Lane), who can whistle “Here Comes the Bride.”
He has been ignorant all these years of his gentle old-lady aunts’ activities, until he happens on a Mr. Hoskins, dead in the window seat awaiting his place in the basement. As Mortimer struggles to take this in, “Dr. Einstein” (Lorre) -- 1916, Heidelberg -- sneaks in behind long-ago-departed sadistic older brother Jonathan Brewster (Massey). “Jonny’s” pop-eyed face is crisscrossed by sutures and scars from the doctor’s alcohol-botched plastic surgery, his stone-hard body impervious to jabs with forks. Nursing grudges, dangerous, highly indignant when likened to Boris Karloff, jealous that his spinster aunts may have killed as many people as he, he decides to add one more corpse to the mix downstairs, that of “foreigner” Spenalzo who had tried to squeeze him. Whether only from Indiana or from around the world or both, he glowers menacingly. (More than one movie review has misidentified actor Massey as actor Karloff.)
Bantam James Gleason plays cocksure but wrong Irish Captain Rooney, Jack Carson the bumbling Irish cop and would-be playwright O’Hara, and as Dr. Witherspoon Edward Everett Horton runs funny farm Happy Dale. Hamming to the hilt and beyond, Grant rolls eyeballs and stumbles over furniture. Hoping to avoid the letter of the law on Miss Abby and Miss Martha and, sacrificing marital bliss, also save Elaine, he cites a strain of inherited madness in the family. It is a given, however, that all will work out for the good.
We read and are then told that strange things indeed happen in this Borough of Churches. In a reversal of sorts but similar, better more subtle stuff awaited in London, in Ealing Studios’ The Ladykillers, rather less so in the Coens’ Southern Gothic reboot. Drier, less look-at-me -- even to visuals like Alec Guiness’ best screen teeth ever -- the Brits’ drollery beats black humor such as this Frank “Capra-corn.”
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)