Classic Cinema #25: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) – By Jason S. Lockard

Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year a time for watching monster movies and eating candy, but for me it’s not always horror movies at Halloween I like to break out my copy of one of the funniest Halloween movies ever. You want proof? It scored the #30 spot on AFI’s 100 Years 100 Laughs; it’s 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace. In which our star of the month John Alexander small but pivotal role.

Not Much is known of our star of the month John Alexander. He was born in Newport Kentucky on November 29, 1897. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 with Shakespearean company and by 1917 was on Broadway on The Merchant of Venice. He played many roles on the stage, but in 1934 he made his film debut in the Shirley Temple vehicle Baby Take a Bow which he was not credited.

John Alexander would go on to be in many films over the years including Mr. Skeffington [1944], A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [1945], The Horn blows at Midnight [1945], The Jolson Story [1946], Fancy Pants [1950], and Winchester ’73 [1950]. But he is most remembered as the crazed Teddy Brewster, a lunatic who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt in our film for this month 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

Arsenic and Old Lace was based on Joseph Kesselring’s stage play and directed by the great Frank Capra. The film is about Mortimer Brewster played with gusto by Cary Grant who wrote several books against marriage falls in love with a Preacher daughter Elian Harper and they get married on Halloween day. Immediately after the wedding Mortimer visits his bizarre relatives. His aunts Abby and Martha and his brother Teddy who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt; who each time he goes up stairs yells, "CHARGE!" and take to the stairs running, imitating Roosevelt’s famous charge up San Juan Hill.

Still this is ok as he will soon be far away on his honeymoon that is until he finds a corpse hidden in a window seat. Mortimer believes Teddy has committed murder and wants to have him committed that is until he finds out that His aunts are responsible. His aunts end suffering of lonely old bachelors by serving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and "just a pinch of cyanide". They call it one of their "charities."

Now if that isn’t enough Mortimer’s brother Jonathan arrives at the family home with his alcoholic plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein. Jonathan is a psychotic murderer trying to escape the police. Jonathan’s face was altered by Einstein while drunk and now looks like Boris Karloff in his makeup as the Frankenstein monster. When Jonathan finds out about his aunts little "charities" he threatens to blow the whistle on them. What can Mortimer do?! If he turns in his brother Jonathan he will in turn blow the whistle on his favorite aunts sending them to prison or worse and what about Elaine her honeymoon all these questions and more are answered when you watch this hilarious comedy gem Arsenic and Old Lace.

After Watching this film it’s hard to believe that Frank Capra ever wanted anyone else but Cary Grant but his first choice was Bob Hope, but he couldn’t be released from his paramount contract. He also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan. Also Boris Karloff who played Jonathan in the play could not be in the film cause he was still appearing in the play! This film was shot in 1941 in eight weeks time for $1.2 million of it’s $2 million dollar budget, but was not released until 1944 after the stage production finished it’s run on Broadway.

John Alexander died in New York City on July 13th 1982. Though John only worked on film for a little less than 30 years he left some memorable performances generation will enjoy for years to come.

So this Halloween when your watching the creepy, scary and terrifying; get a copy of "Arsenic and old lace" and have a laugh. You won’t regret it! Until next month this is Jason Lockard reminding you if you want to see a good movie, check out a classic!

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Moral Rating: Talk of murder
Audience: Teens and Adults
Genre: Comedy
Length: 110 min.
Released: 1944
Our Rating: A