Framing a Movie: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Sometimes one frame of a movie totally arrests your attention. Today, Java's Journey examines an inanimate object's brief appearance in a film and how it symbolizes the personalities of the characters.

The Story
In Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), two sisters of a certain age have become insane and cheerfully murder men who inquire about renting a room from them. They consider it their service to humanity to kill old men who are "all alone in the world." So they spike a gentleman's wine with an arsenic cocktail and bury him in the basement.

The Frame
Here, one of the sisters - Martha Brewster (Jean Adair)-  gingerly places the hat of their latest arsenic victim into a cupboard. These are the hats their dead visitors last wore as they came into the house. The movie begins after Abby Brewster (Josephine Hull) has poisoned their 12th "charity case." ("That makes an even dozen," she proudly says.)

Otherwise innocuous rows of hats stand as frightening reminders of Martha's and Abby's delusion. These hats are a clever substitute for the corpses that the characters talk about but the audience never sees.

A bowler, a pageboy, several fedoras, a straw hat - there's quite a variety-  hinting at the personalities that the ladies have snuffed out. The sisters are consciousness, even brushing off the hat before placing it on the shelf. It's almost like a trophy case or butterfly collection.

As she puts away the hat, note the look of pleasure on Martha's face (noticeable even from the side), the heirloom ring on her left hand (reiterating her commitment to family and her genuine pity for those who haven't a family), the apron, the tchotchkes and bowls on the table underneath the cupboard.

These remind you of how utterly nice, homey,  familiar, even saccharine sweet, the ladies appear to everyone. It gives you a chill that you might know someone just like this.

A nondescript cupboard holds a lot of violent secrets,  not unlike the Brewster sisters themselves.


  1. Give me arsenic or give me death! Oh, wait, that didn't sound right. ha ha
    Who doesn't love this film? I can't imagine anyone discussing it negatively. Well, I don't think they would within ear shot of me. Even now writing about it I think of the 'bugle playing chaos' and giggle.As well as the other personalities you've listed here.

    Enjoyed getting your take on one of my favorites, Java.
    I hope the New Year is treating your well so far.

    1. This film is a hoot! I love it. It keeps a perfect balance of merriment and menace. Happy New Year to you too!


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