by Douglas Messerli
Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (screenplay, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring), Frank Capra (director) Arsenic and Old Lace / 1944
It has always been my contention that if you stare at the screen of a Cary Grant movie long enough you’ll spot a naked limb—poking out of a closet or from under the bed—of some other man living in the same house where the actor has just married or is about to marry his female co-star. That other man may be a secondary figure in the plot or perhaps another version of our hero, one that looks very much like him but behaves in an entirely different manner, a kind of inverted doppelgänger. But in either case he is dangerous force ready to destroy the couple’s conjugal life as soon as the credits scroll to the film’s end.
Of course, most people don’t spot the arm, the leg, or even the penis of the “other,” and if they do by the time they’ve returned home after seeing the film, they’ve forgotten all about it. And no one I know imagines the film as having a life after the screen has declared “The End.” But I’m queer that way, always wondering how he’s going to explain the other man living in his house to his wife the next day or the day after when she opens the closet door or attempts to run the vacuum cleaner under the mattress.
Given her own sexual interests, Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance would probably have never given it a second thought; and if Irene Dunne playing Ellen Wagstaff Arden might have been a little surprised to see her former companion Adam (Grant’s real-life lover Randolph Scott) swimming in their family pool, she’d probably be happy to have such an intimate friend hanging around, and besides she already knew “the awful truth” way back in 1937; given her beauty, Grace Kelly as Frances Stevens could easily find herself another man than the former cat burglar she still suspected of stealing her mother’s jewels; Joan Fontaine’s Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth was already on her way to her mother’s house in terror the man she married; Eva-Marie Saint pretending to be Eve Kendall, was accustomed to duplicity and had herself lived a morally suspect life; and after all those marriages to Rock Hudson, Doris Day portraying the hard-to-get Cathy Timberlake was perfectly at home with the idea that there might be another man in her husband’s life.*
But poor Priscilla Lane after all that waiting around for hours and hours for her husband Cary to settle his family affairs in Arsenic and Old Lace. I worry about her. She’d not only be disappointed, but, as a preacher’s daughter, probably quite shocked, even if by film’s end she knows he’s left a fairly large number of buried bodies in his path to the marriage altar. But I’ll talk about that later.
Lane, playing Elaine Harper, Mortimer Brewster’s (Grant) next door neighbor, has the deck stacked against her, sexually speaking, from the very first frame. Elaine and Mortimer have escaped the wild woods of Brooklyn—where even the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball game quickly devolves into a violent donnybrook—in order to get married, as the early intertitles proclaim, in the United States “proper,” Manhattan. But once there, we see Mortimer, still hiding in the closet or, at least, trying to cover up his identity, not because he might be recognized as a gay man but because he’s waiting in the line to register his marriage with Elaine. It’s an odd twist, but it establishes from the very beginning of the work that there is something definitely queer about him. In this case, we discover, the noted drama critic has also penned several volumes arguing against marriage and has become, as he puts it, “the symbol of bachelorhood,” and he’s terrified of the press reporting his perfidy to the cause. When, despite his dark glasses and attempts to whisper his name to the wedding clerk, reporters catch a glimpse of who’s behind the “cheaters,” he grabs Elaine and bolts, joining another unsuspecting man in a suddenly overcrowded telephone booth.
As he attempts to explain to his about-to-be-wedded wife: “How could I marry you? Me? ...l’ve written four million words against marriage. ...Marriage is a superstition. It’s old fashioned. ....I can’t go through with it. I won’t marry you and that’s that.” In short, Mortimer seems to represent, as they used to describe homosexuals, a man who is “not the marrying kind.”
But it is at the very moment that things begin to go awry. Just as I described in the first paragraph of this essay, bodies, although in this case apparently completely clothed ones, begin to appear. Mortimer discovers the first stashed away in his aunt’s window seat. It’s a Mr. Hoskins, they explain, who Abby entertained while Martha was out on an errand. He’s a Methodist Abby announces. As the aunts scold Mortimer “We never dreamed you’d peek.”
“It’s one of our charitable endeavors,” the women calmly explain to their astonished nephew. Apparently when elderly gentlemen ring their doors in response to their “room for rent” sign, they serve the generally unhappy, lonely men without families—translated from the polite parlance of the day into what we now might describe as elder homosexuals—a delicious homemade elderberry wine, with Martha’s recipe of a few spoons of arsenic and strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide” stirred in.
Calling upon the help of their delusional brother, Teddy (who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt) to take these suffering men to the basement and bury them in the locks of the Panama Canal he digs for the occasion, they have provided peace to twelve such men, “a baker’s dozen,” marking their graves with flowers and praying over them.
Needless to say, the previously excitable would-be lover now suddenly develops the ticks of a hysteric, forcing his eyes to nearly pop from their sockets, and dropping his jaw with the regularity of his stuttering incredulity for the rest of the film. Indeed, Grant’s new tics grow so severe that the first time I saw this film decades ago, I thought the actor was undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown from which I feared he might never regain his formerly suave surety. But Capra often has had that effect upon his actors, and Grant, fortunately, regained consciousness two years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, where his film-studio-intended bride promptly marries another man. (Regarding Capra’s effect on his leading actors, if you recall Gary Cooper was ready to hurl himself off the top of the city’s highest skyscraper in Meet John Doe and the suicidal James Stewart jumped into the local river in It’s a Wonderful Life.)
But then what is a character to do upon discovering that his beloved aunties—who almost raised him during what we soon discover was an abusive childhood—are serial murderers? He does what any good nephew might do, accept the bodies as his own responsibility (after all, as I declare above, male bodies have always been left behind as evidence of Grant’s sexual interests in his films so he’s a pro), and to deflect Abby and Martha’s terrifyingly good intentions by locking away their more obviously mad brother in the institution they’d already agreed upon, Happydale, a kind of pretend therapeutic retreat.
Mortimer spends much of the rest of the film looking after the details about Teddy’s (John Alexander) incarceration: a call to the director of Happydale (the always implacable Edward Everett Horton), and signatures from a lawyer, a doctor, and Teddy himself, all of which lead to further frustration as the lawyer attempts to burst into various cliché-ridden speeches, the doctor fusses over his meeting with the mad President who elevates him to the position of an ambassador, and the patient signs as Roosevelt, needing to be convinced that Brewster without the ‘b,” rooster and a forthcoming coming trip to the African veldt is code for the 26th President’s name.
Clearly the newlywed no longer has time to attend to a wife. When Elaine calls, Mortimer answers “Not now! Not now! Whatever you do, keep your shirt on!” When she finally storms over for a showdown she’s met with complete rejection: “What are you doing here? You better go home. Will you get out of here!” Their love seems as dead as the first syllable of his name.
Throughout Joseph Kesselring’s play, skillfully adapted by the noted screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, people keep transforming into other beings: the uncle has permanently become Roosevelt (when his sisters suggested another identity, they tell us, he crawled under his bed and “refused to be anybody”), the sweet Brewster aunts become murderous villains, and now Mortimer himself becomes more and more unhinged, as he mistakenly wears the dead man Hoskin’s hat, and reverts to his pre-martial self, a harsh critic of marital bliss. As one of the aunt’s observes, “Mortimer doesn’t quite seem to be himself today.”
Jonathan and Herman are also a kind of queer couple who together commit murders, having racked up by traveling throughout the world twelve male victims of their own. Accordingly, the aunts, as Einstein observes, are just as good as Jonathan, the quartet having together done in 24 men, one for each hour of day. The sadistic Jonathan and his passive cohort are clearly more into sadomasochism and torture, and their love making, so it appears, consists mostly of Einstein lovingly practicing plastic surgery upon Jonathan’s face. The scene in which Lorre, hovering closely over the scarred Frankenstein-like creature he has created as he sensuously describes what he plans for Jonathan’s ears, nose, eyes, and chin is far sexier, I’d argue, than Grant’s languid kisses of Lane.
Indeed, Lorre may be the most loveable figure in the entire work, as he shyly pleads for another drink, a little sleep, and less torturous methods of the murder than Jonathan is planning for his brother. When late in the work, Einstein sneaks away from his former companion, escaping arrest and imprisonment through the miracle of the absurdly unobservant police chief, it is with such an appreciative smile of delight that we almost want to applaud him as he closes the otherwise endlessly opening door of the Brewster house.
The sudden arrival of Jonathan along with the window seat appearance of yet another body not only heightens the sense of chaos but forces the now hysterical dramatic critic to turn into a silent observer of the very story he has helped to concoct, including his own being gagged and hog-tied to a chair as the police, through mere happenstance, save the day by almost accidentally arresting Mortimer’s mad brother. By coincidence, the two guilty sisters suddenly get a hankering to join Teddy in the sanatorium to where he’s about to be whisked off. It’s a perfect solution to Mortimer’s problems, particularly since the aunts are now even admitting to the police that there are 13 bodies in their basement.
Once he is finally released from his gag and bindings, and—through his aunts’ confession that he is actually the son of a sailor married to the family cook—freed from his previous blood-links to the Brewster ancestors, relieving his fear of insanity which seems to gallop through the family genes, Mortimer now needs only to establish the unreliability of his two aunts as well, hoping without calling them insane to their faces, he can prevent the chief of police from investigating their claim of all those buried bodies.
In a grand acting out of a charades-like game, Mortimer goes charging up the stairs like his uncle, and when the aunts once more claim the burial of the 13 men, he ludicrously insists he himself has hundreds more in the attic. The dense-headed police chief still can’t quite make sense of his extravagant camp-like message, Mortimer takes up a new tact; when Abby and Martha insist all the graves are marked with flowers, their nephew argues that his graves feature neon lights. When the sisters claim that, despite the one intruder put there by Jonathan and Einstein, that the other twelve are all their “gentlemen,” Mortimer minces in the manner we’ve become accustomed in Hollywood films’ portrayal of faggots, “Oh, you’d like mine better. None of mine are gentlemen!” If we ever wondered what Mortimer Brewster was doing between shows all those years he covered Broadway, we now have the evidence.
Finally, of course, the chief decodes the message, realizing that it might be better to send off the Brewster women to Happydale and leave the cellar to myth and exaggeration. Yet anyone who can read gay code realizes the true message is that Mortimer clearly does have all sorts of male bodies in his attic—or at least locked away in his head if not in his actual past. And now that he is freed to become his “real” self, the son of sailing cook, who knows on what voyage his mind might take him?
Meanwhile, the completely ignored and almost forgotten Elaine has snuck into the basement through the storm cellar door only to discover the truth. Her claim that “There really are 13 bodies in the basement” must be silenced by Mortimer’s long kiss, as he carries her off to her own bedroom where presumably he will demand his spousal rights and restore the film to the normalcy of its first quarter.
Yet the wife, at film’s end, still knows the truth. And the bodies her husband has been trying so hard to cover up won’t simply go away. How will Mortimer deal with her questions the next morning? Who are all those men and where did they come from? His aunts and uncle will surely never have answer for them since Mortimer has freed them from suspicion by assuring they are safely locked away.
You see what I mean? In this film there’s not only a few male limbs to account for but an entire crypt full of skeletons in the closet which Grant’s character has worked so hard to keep others from checking out. Given all the queer goings on in both the film and stage version of Arsenic and Old Lace (although the Epstein’s clearly added the juicer tidbits) it’s a wonder that high school students and amateur actors keep putting new flesh on this work’s old bones. But then, as I recall, when my high school presented this play, I acted the role of one of the dense-headed cops without imagining anything unusual at all might be going on.
*For those acquainted with Cary Grant’s oeuvre, I am referring obviously to the films Bringing Up Baby (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940), Suspicion (1941), To Catch a Thief (1955), North by Northwest (1959), and That Touch of Mink (1962). I’ve written about the first two films within the LGBTQ context as well as both Hepburn’s and Grant’s sexually ambiguous roles in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Grant and Dunne’s divorce and reunion in The Awful Truth (1937). I’ve also discussed Grant’s confused sexuality in regard to Kiss and Makeup (1934) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949).
Los Angeles, February 24, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).