Losing My Religion: Arsenic and Old Lace
Every Friday during Lent, Sean will be writing about a different movie from a Catholic (or at least, Catholic-raised) director, and how their religious upbringing influenced the film in question. Each movie has at its core that most Catholic of all sentiments: heaping loads of internalized guilt. For this first Friday of Lent, he's starting off relatively light, with Frank Capra’s classic stage-to-screen adaptation, Arsenic and Old Lace. Spoilers ahead for a 70+ year old movie that's well worth watching.
Famously eligible bachelor Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has taken his fiancée, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) to the city courthouse to get married in secret. He does so to protect his personal brand as the man who literally wrote the guide to being a bachelor in the city; his reputation would be marred if he were to be found out. After sneaking out of the courthouse with his new bride, Mortimer heads home to tell his Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, respectively) the happy news and then he prepares for his honeymoon to Niagara Falls.
Then he finds a body in the window seat in the main living room. His perfectly polite and proper, elderly aunts nonchalantly describe how they’ve put out a “Room for Rent” sign to invite wandering gentlemen into their home. And then they poison them.
Luckily for Aunts Abby and Martha, Teddy Brewster (John Alexander) believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, digging the Panama Canal in the basement, and believes his aunts’ victims to be yellow fever casualties to be buried.
It’s the perfect crime, y’see. There's no way in the world this could become an issue.
Especially not when Mortimer’s murderous older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey, who looks like Bill Moseley combined with Willem Dafoe comes home for the first time in twenty years, with his plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre, in a hallmark role), and a body of his own in tow. Which he also stores in the window seat.
Any person in the audience would think, “Call the police and get the lot of them put away.” But that would not be taking into account a familial sense of guilt over having put them away without making sure they’re cared for. A guilt no one in the Catholic tradition could deny by any means.
The guilt Mortimer deals with in knowing what he knows about his family, but trying to hide it from society at large is what imbues Arsenic and Old Lace with its comedic sensibilities. A key scene in the play-turned-film has Mortimer, a theater critic himself, Chekov’s gun-ing his way through exactly how his own brother Jonathan is going to ensnare him using the curtain ropes in that very living room. He describes the cliché character in a play ensnared in the same fashion as a smart man, but an idiot in the moment for the purpose of making the scene make sense. His description both gives Jonathan that very idea, and takes the stance that the character, in essence, deserves to be punished for his foolery, and meta-textually, himself as well. The idea that any character would do something to deserve being assaulted in such a manner is emblematic of the very guilt for which Catholicism is so well-known.
Mortimer tries to navigate his family’s psychological issues and societal norms out of a sense of duty and obligation to do right by them, despite the insurmountable stress it causes him, and no small amount of mortal threat. He’s also in no small way navigating the guilty sense that he’s possibly inherited the very same Brewster family insanity that hasn’t yet come to the surface in himself. Through all of it, Grant’s Mortimer juggles taking care of each family member in an appropriate way while coming off as feeling like he’s done something to be so put upon, just by virtue of being born into it. Though by the end of the story he all but cracks, trying to tie up whatever loose ends he can before taking off for Niagara with his new bride, screaming, “I’m not a Brewster! I’m the son of a steamer cook,” as though that somehow absolves him of the very twisted environment in which he grew up.
He may have escaped a natural predisposition for insanity. But we’re certainly left feeling that perhaps through Mortimer’s own sense of duty to family despite an inability to truly help, that he’s in some way doomed to have a little of the old Brewster way about him. After all, he borrows Teddy’s call to “CHARGE!” as his final line.
Next week's Losing My Religion takes a look at Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead...