‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and the Incomparable Comedic Talents of Cary Grant

Cary Grant was a one of a kind actor and Frank Capra’s bonkers dark comedy illustrates why.
Best Comedy Movies Arsenic And Old Lace
By  · Published on June 12th, 2019

Famously, when an interviewer remarked that “Everyone would like to be Cary Grant,” the man himself replied, “I’d like to be Cary Grant, too.” Throughout Grant’s career, there was a tension between his affable and suave constructed persona and the possibility of who the real person was underneath. Born Archibald Alec Leach, Grant’s on-screen persona was created and utilized by renowned directors such as Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. But, it was also something the actor himself worked with and manipulated according to the role he was in.

Watch even a handful of Grant’s films and you’ll get the sense that he was always playing a version of himself: charming without being smarmy, confident without being pompous, handsome without being smug. From what we know about Grant, this persona was built over his background of economic struggle and personal strife; an enchanting surface that masked a genuine person. And yet, Grant’s lack of pretention, his ability to laugh at himself, and his willingness to acknowledge the limits of his persona only makes him all the more endearing. There are few actors from any point in history as skilled as he was at revealing just enough of the real person behind the facade of Cary Grant.

Grant worked in dramas and comedies and appeared to have a natural ability for both and an understanding of how to use his persona to suit the character he was playing. Think of Walter Burns in His Girl Friday always being sure he had the ability to win back ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell) but not being overly cocky about it to the point that his assuredness becomes a turn-off. Think of his portrayal of Devlin in Notorious, a man who carries with him the sense that, for all his conviction and stiffness, he’s concealing a hopeless love for Ingrid Bergman’s Alicia. His moments of harshness in this role could be challenging to sell as a romantic lead, even more so than many of Hitchcock’s leading men, but Grant’s undeniable charm brings out Devlin’s ability for tenderness.

Frank Capra‘s 1944 dark comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace, while not being one of Grant’s most famous films, is one that perfectly captured the tension created by his persona and gave him the ability to display some of his greatest talents as an actor. Grant stars as Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic famed for his disbelief in the institution of marriage. He falls in love with and marries Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the minister’s daughter who lives next to his childhood home where the two aunts who raised him still live. While packing for his honeymoon, Mortimer discovers that his aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), have spent years poisoning lonely old men and burying them in the basement with the help of Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt. While processing this information, Mortimer finds that his psychopathic brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) has returned to the house with his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

While some of Grant’s most notable comedic turns have him keeping a cool head when those around him start to bounce off the walls — think His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story — in Arsenic and Old Lace he becomes entirely enveloped by the chaos that surrounds him. He begins the film fitting into the mold that we expect from one of his characters — suave and self-assured — but we can see the cracks already forming. Mortimer is marrying the woman he loves, and yet has anxiety about it as he’s built his career around his disbelief in marriage. As Mortimer, he’s undeniably endearing as Grant so often is, but he is also visibly possessed by a sense of insecurity that we rarely see. One doesn’t need to reach far to draw a parallel between Grant and Mortimer each being concerned with the divisions between their personal life and public persona being revealed.

When Mortimer finds a dead body in his aunts’ window seat and learns of their secret, Grant’s comedic abilities are put on full display for the remainder of the film. He is placed in a position of trying to reconcile this knowledge with his understanding of his family and himself, while also dealing with Jonathan’s return and the fallout from this. His signature expression in the film is one of wide-eyed incredulity, and it’s borderline frustrating that he manages to be as handsome as he is while also mugging for the camera. Grant also showcases an incredible talent for physical comedy; he bounds across the furniture, trips over himself, and jerks to and fro with surprise as if staging a full-body double-take. Somehow, against all the odds, this performance isn’t hammy. It’s understandably theatrical as the film is adapted from a play, but it never teeters over the edge. The snappy dialogue is also served by Grant’s natural wit and his talent for making any remark, no matter how heightened, feel correct for that character.

The film also plays on the ideas of public and private personas and inherited and developed traits that speak to our collective understanding of who Grant was. Mortimer remarks on his fear that he’s destined for madness along with the rest of his family and this begins to dissuade him from his marriage to Elaine. It isn’t until the end when his aunts reveal that his mother was the family cook and he is not biologically a Brewster that Mortimer feels confident committing himself to Elaine once again. Ironically, he adopts Teddy’s recurring habit of shouting “CHARGE” à la Roosevelt at San Juan Hill when he whisks Elaine away. It is only when Mortimer feels that he is at a comfortable distance from being a Brewster that he is able to embrace the quirks that characterize his family.

While Grant was often cast as someone who keeps cool no matter the situation, Arsenic and Old Lace takes the inverse position and reveals the chaos that can so quickly become unleashed in the right circumstances. This serves dual purposes by both showcasing Grant’s talent for absolutely bonkers comedic roles and utilizing a common conception of the Cary Grant brand to help us form an understanding of Mortimer as a character and his fears of his constructed persona failing.

While many have speculated on this matter, it’s safe to say that none of us will ever know who the real Cary Grant was — if there was a real Cary Grant at all. What is certain is that the man possessed an astounding ability as an actor. With the career he had, it’s impossible to select just one film, or even one comedy, as his best. But the unique qualities of Arsenic and Old Lace and his brilliant performance in it ensures that the film is fundamental to understanding the talent and mythos of Cary Grant.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.