• Andy Ross

Arsenic and Old Lace



“Arsenic and Old Lace” has been an enduring part of American pop culture for close to 80 years. The original play opened on Broadway in 1941 and became a massive hit, one of the long-running shows of the era, and still holds as one of the longest-running non-musical hits. The success was bound to mean a movie adaptation, and under the direction of Frank Capra, the 1944 film of the play has also become just as enduring.


The film version of “Arsenic and Old Lace” was shot in late 1941, to release in the Fall of 1942. That didn’t happen though, as a stipulation in the contract to the film version was that the movie couldn’t be released until the Broadway show had concluded its run. That was to be a thorn in the side of Warner Bros. President Jack L. Warner since the stage show kept right on selling out to massive crowds.


The story is centered around Halloween at a home in Brooklyn where the Brewster sisters are living. They’re both sweet, kind, adorable ladies who look after their nephew who thinks he’s Teddy Rosevelt. When their other nephew Mortimer shows up to announce he’s happily married, things are going well until he finds a dead body hidden in a window seat. Complications arise when Mortimer’s criminal brother Jonathan shows up—a character who is said to be a dead ringer for Boris Karloff.


That gag was funnier in the original Broadway show as Boris Karloff himself played the role. Karloff was considered to be the play’s main draw and as such the producers weren’t comfortable letting him take an eight-week break to make the film version. Though the actresses who play the two aunts and the actor who is “Teddy” are from the stage play. Karloff was dismayed he didn’t get the part, it went to actor Raymond Massey.


I am dismayed as we missed out to have both Karloff and Cary Grant in a film together. Grant plays Mortimer in this and though Grant considered his over-the-top performance to be one of his least favorites, he’s masterful with a cartoon, manic energy that is a joy to watch. “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a great macabre screwball comedy.


I hadn’t seen the film in several years till I checked out the new blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. It holds up and then some. I’d fathom most movie collectors, especially those who focus on the classic Hollywood era own a copy of this, and seeing it’s been over 20 years since the last home video release, the film was well overdue a big upgrade.


Last released on home video 22 years ago, on DVD in a “flipper case” (remember those?), “Arsenic and Old Lace” has at long last come to blu-ray in a truly exceptional edition from Criterion. Let’s start with the most surprising part of this release. To my great surprise, the restoration notes included state that this new 4K restoration was sourced from the original nitrate camera negative. Nitrate is a highly volatile film stock and can sometimes turn to dust. We are so lucky when a film’s negative still exists.


So what are the results? Well, compared to the old DVD this is a night-and-day experience. The film looks arguably the best it ever has. The film has such a rich and deep image. I recall the film looking good, but I don’t recall it looking so “deep and shadowy” in places. The amount of fine detail that comes out on the new blu-ray is astounding. During some of Grant’s wonderful face exercises, you can see fine little patterns on the tie he’s wearing.


The audio is clear and crisp too, taken from the original optical source. I’d argue that maybe the movie didn’t look this good on the day it opened in theaters in 1944. The bonus material on this disc is light, but not without weight. First, we have an audio commentary with author Charles Dennis, who wrote a book on the history of the play and movie. It’s a well-informed, scholarly commentary. Rarely are there quiet spots, and the amount of information given is solid. It’s a great listen.


For those of us who have always wondered what Karloff was like in the role of Jonathan Brewster, Criterion has your back with the inclusion of a 1952 radio adaptation with him reprising his Broadway role. The original trailer and an essay by David Cairns round things out. Criterion always does a great job and those of us who have longed for an HD upgrade to “Arsenic and Old Lace” has gotten our wishes and then some. It’s a must-own disc as far as I’m concerned, and perfect viewing for this time of year. See you next week.