It's Halloween, and top theatre critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has chosen this day to get hitched to his fiancée Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), but is nervous he might be recognised, thanks to him railing against the institution of marriage in print. News he is doing what he warned others against is going to be big, so he wants a secret wedding as he applies for a marriage licence with Elaine at his side, but naturally he is indeed recognised and tells her that this means the union is off - then changes his mind straight after. But he might have a very good reason not to get married, to do with his relatives...
Arsenic and Old Lace was a smash hit Broadway play before it was a hit movie, something director Frank Capra wanted to make money for his family while he was in the U.S. Army, though as it turned out it was not released until the Second World War was almost over, around three years after filming had begun. It was a decidedly macabre bit of fun at the expense of many things people at the time found in bad taste: madness, murders and marriage, yet by the time it arrived in the cinemas audiences were desperate for a good laugh and such had been the darkness falling across the globe that this came as light relief.
One man who remained far from a fan nonetheless was Cary Grant, called on to keep the craziness at a high tempo in his performance leading him to incredibly manic acting, which he looked back on as an embarrassment and possibly his worst performance. He was over the top, that was for sure, but enjoyably so as he sought and usually found a fresh way to look dumbfounded with every successive scene of shocking revelations. Mortimer's first bad news arrives when he is told by his aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, both from the original production) that they perform mercy killings on the old gents who show up to lodge with them.
Up until now Mortimer thought they were sweet old dears, but now he is reassessing a lot of things, as a running theme is of the secrets we hide from one another to keep the wheels of life running smoothly, implying that if you blabbed about some apparently out of character behaviour you'll suffer the consequences, perhaps something more relevant that a world at war where many unsavoury choices had to be made could relate to. That the aunts were so inoffensive otherwise - they truly believe they're doing the right thing - is what the humour stems from, but there's more menacing developments to come when Mortimer's murderous older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) makes an unwelcome entrance, his cringing plastic surgeon pal Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre) in tow.
Lorre had been part of the hit theatrical staging as well, but it's a source of regret that his co-star there Boris Karloff was not allowed by his contract to appear in the movie; Massey is very good, they all are, but the addition of the great horror star would have been the icing on the cake, and made more sense of Jonathan's umbrage at being mistaken for Karloff thanks to the doctor's drunken surgery. John Alexander, another original, resumed his brother Teddy (as in Teddy Roosevelt) role with style, and the impression was of a collection of players who had been plucked from the touring version of Joseph Kesselring's play, such was their comfort with their stylings. Necessarily stagy, Capra got around the limitations by using clever closeups and lighting, even shooting in near darkness in one scene where a body is taken to the cellar, yet again proving his corny reputation was undeserved as he took society to dark places, here under cover of black comedy. If an apopleptic Grant wasn't your cup of tea, then the excellent support, including the delightful Priscilla Lane in one of her last movies, made up for him. Music by Max Steiner (also having fun).