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Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace(1944)

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

SYNOPSIS

Drama critic and notorious anti-marriage columnist Mortimer Brewster sneaks off on Halloween and weds Brooklyn girl Elaine Harper despite objections from her father, a preacher. He soon finds a runaway wedding is the least of his concerns. Back at the Brooklyn home where he and his two brothers were raised by their kindly spinster aunts, Martha and Abby, Mortimer discovers a dead body in the window seat. Thinking at first it's the work of his off-kilter sibling Teddy, who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, Mortimer is stunned when he learns his sweet elderly aunts have been poisoning sad, lonely old men for years. The two sisters consider their murderous acts mercy killings and can't understand Mortimer's panic. Matters are complicated further by the arrival of Mortimer's other brother, the long-lost Jonathan, who as a child tied Mortimer to the bedpost and shoved needles under his fingernails. Jonathan, a cold-blooded murderer with as many corpses to his credit as his aunts, arrives with his creepy little partner in crime, Dr. Einstein, a plastic surgeon who while intoxicated transformed Jonathan into the spitting image of Boris Karloff. In comparison, Mortimer appears to be the craziest of the bunch, running around desperately trying to cover for his aunts, protect his confused bride, commit one brother and have the other arrested.

Director/Producer: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper Brewster), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein).
BW-119m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

Why ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is Essential

By the early 1940s, director Frank Capra was in a position to produce and direct practically anything he wanted. He already possessed more Academy Awards than any other director - for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take It with You (1938) - and his movies were very popular with audiences. In such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), Capra had built a solid reputation for his unique blend of gentle humor, social commentary, and a fondness for the common man and old-fashioned American values that had come to be labeled "Capra-corn." But in 1941 he was looking for a project that provided complete escapism - a purely unpretentious entertainment. "No great document to save the world, no worries about whether John Doe should or should not jump; just good old fashioned theater," he said. He found it one night at Broadway's Fulton Theater, where Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace was playing to a full house.

This was just the kind of rollicking good time Capra had in mind, a black comedy that moved at a breakneck pace and featured characters who were not who they appeared to be: not the timid elderly ladies who slipped lonely old gentlemen elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide; not their delusional nephew who dug basement graves for their victims thinking he was Teddy Roosevelt constructing the Panama Canal; not the murderer who was a dead ringer for Boris Karloff (played on stage, in a delicious theatrical twist, by Karloff himself); not even the cop on the beat, who fancied himself a playwright, or the one supposedly sane family member, a newlywed who had made a reputation writing diatribes against marriage. Capra was determined to bring it to the screen, intent on making what he called "an anything goes, rip-roaring comedy about murder." Opening the story up only slightly for the screen, he preserved and even heightened the play's zany pace, letting "the scene stealers run wild" in his cast, creating a box office bonanza for Warner Brothers and "a mugger's ball" for his actors. In some ways, Arsenic and Old Lace works as a comically grotesque vision of the American family and shares many similarities with the macabre humor of cartoonist Charles Addams.

The film version was produced in 1941, but Warner Bros. delayed its release for three years until the stage version finished its run. Frank Capra, famous for films such as It Happened One Night and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was chosen by executive producer Jack Warner to direct the film. Because of the Production Code in Hollywood, a few scenes and dialogue present in the stage version had to be changed or omitted for the film. Mortimer's famous line in the play, "Darling, I'm a bastard!" was changed to "I'm a son of a sea cook!" The film ends with the cab driver's declaration, "I'm not a cab driver. I'm a coffee pot", rather than retaining the final scene from the play. The latter showed the two aunts giving an unhappy, lonely old man a glass of elderberry wine laced with their special blend of poison. But the Production Code only allowed acts such as murder to be shown if the perpetrators were punished by the end of the film.

According to authors Charles Higham and Roy Moseley in their biography, Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, Arsenic and Old Lace was written to Grant's specifications for the screen, which included shooting the film in sequence. Even so, he was often irritable during production, complaining constantly about the set, the props, and the wardrobe of the cast members. At one point he admitted he would rather have starred in a film version of Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit. Of course, tensions on the set weren't helped any after Japan staged its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. The crisis halted production briefly and caused the film to run over budget.

Not everyone involved in the making of Arsenic and Old Lace was thrilled with the over-the-top results. Grant, a brilliant comic actor and no stranger to wacky screen hi-jinks, found Capra's style in this picture too excessive. "I tried to explain to him that I couldn't do that kind of comedy - all those double takes. I'd have been better as one of the old aunts!" he later said, explaining why it was his least favorite of all his films. Grant also believed the movie would have been better served by the original actor from the stage, Allyn Joslyn, or even James Stewart, and that its great success was probably due mostly to the play's reputation. True, the play continues to be one of the most popular, translated into dozens of languages and still performed regularly at community theaters everywhere. But although Grant thought he was overplaying and considered his performance "dreadful" and embarrassing (a sentiment echoed by some critics), the movie-going public didn't seem to mind. According to Variety, audiences at New York's Strand Theater punctuated the screening with both screams and laughter, drowning out some of the dialogue. And not too long ago, actor Robert Wagner contradicted Grant's own assessment of his work: "Cary was the best ham in the world. He had a wonderful sense of the joy of the moment. Cary took risks. Look at the things he did in Arsenic and Old Lace." Even those critics and film analysts who consider this movie insignificant in Capra's body of work tend to admit it's great fun. The movie continues to be as popular with viewers today as it was for those at the Strand more than 60 years ago.

by Rob Nixon, Sara Heiman & Jeff Stafford

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Pop Culture 101 - ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

The play on which this film is based is one of the most popular in the world theatrical repertoire, particularly among local community theaters. Russell Crouse and Harold Lindsay, producers of the original Broadway production, never allowed the show to get stale. They frequently visited even road productions to see if laughs were being missed through sloppy timing or a shift in emphasis or tone.

Joseph Kesselring's source material has been adapted many times and in several languages for filmed productions, including TV versions in Denmark, Spain (in Catalan), Belgium, Yugoslavia, and a mini-series in Turkey.

The play was also adapted for American TV in 1954 (for The Best of Broadway series) with Orson Bean as Mortimer, Helen Hayes and Billie Burke as the Brewster sisters, and Boris Karloff reprising his stage role as Jonathan. John Alexander once again played Teddy, as he had done on both Broadway and film, and Peter Lorre and Everett Edward Horton recreated their screen roles as Dr. Einstein and Mr. Witherspoon. A 1969 TV production featured Hayes again, this time with Lillian Gish as her sister, Bob Crane (of Hogan's Heroes fame) as Mortimer, and David Wayne as Teddy. The role of Jonathan was played, appropriately, by Fred Gwynne, who was famous as the Karloff/Frankenstein-inspired Herman Munster on TV.

Joseph Kesselring wrote one other play that made it to the screen, Aggie Appleby Maker of Men (1933), starring Charles Farrell, Wynne Gibson, and Zasu Pitts.

One of the tombstones in the cemetery next to the Brewster house bears the name "Archie Leach," Cary Grant's real name. Grant also made an attempt to "bury" his old identity in an earlier movie, His Girl Friday (1940), when he refers to a horrible fate suffered by the last person who crossed him, Archie Leach.

In her other most famous screen role, Harvey (1950), Josephine Hull is on the opposite side of an attempt to have a relative committed, this time her brother (James Stewart), who she tries to put away when he claims to have an invisible rabbit for a friend. Hull also created that role on stage.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Trivia and Other Fun Stuff on ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

After completing Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra, up to this time one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, spent the next four years making a series of acclaimed war-related documentaries and training films. His first entertainment feature after the war, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), has become an enduring American classic and perennial holiday TV favorite. But none of the nine films he made in the remaining 45 years of his life ever achieved the commercial and critical success of his greatest pre-war work.

Although Capra jumped at the chance to do this film because it held no deep meaning or message, his biographer Joseph McBride notes some odd connections between the movie and his life. Capra's mother, who like the Brewster sisters made her own wine (albeit not lethal), had her own dual image: beloved figure to those outside her family but a much darker person to those who knew her well. Like Mortimer, McBride says, Capra felt estranged from his family at an early age and had a brother who, like Jonathan in the story, tormented the young Frank and grew up to become a criminal.

The Epstein brothers called their brief work on this project "abnormally such a good situation." Together the twins were responsible for the scripts of nearly 30 films, including the narration for several of Capra's wartime "Why We Fight" propaganda film series. They won an Oscar for their screenplay for Casablanca (1942). Valued members of the Warner Brothers team, they also wrote scripts for Bette Davis (The Man Who Came to Dinner, 1942; Mr. Skeffington, 1944), James Cagney (The Strawberry Blonde, 1941; Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and the two stars together (The Bride Came C.O.D., 1941). After Philip's death in 1952, Julius continued writing for the screen, receiving an Academy Award nomination for his last work, the screen adaptation of Peter De Vries' novel Reuben, Reuben (1983).

Like Capra, cinematographer Sol Polito was born in Sicily, but this was their only collaboration. Polito was Oscar®-nominated for his work on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Sergeant York (1941), and Captains of the Clouds (1942).

Along with his salary for this film, Cary Grant also donated his pay for The Philadelphia Story (1940) to the British War Relief fund.

Jean Adair, who played Grant's Aunt Martha in the movie, had helped nurse him back to health twenty years earlier when he came down with rheumatic fever while they were both touring with a theatrical troupe.

The National Arts Club gives an award every year to a promising playwright; it is named for Arsenic and Old Lace author Joseph Kesselring.

Famous Quotes from ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

MORTIMER (Cary Grant): Don't you understand? How can I marry you? Me! The symbol of bachelorhood. I've sneered at every love scene in every play. I've written four million words against marriage. Now I'll be hooked to a minister's daughter. And not only a minister's daughter but a girl from Brooklyn.

OFFICER BROPHY (Edward McNamara): I'm turning over to you the nicest, the best beat in Brooklyn. This whole neighborhood just stinks with atmosphere.

REVEREND HARPER (Grant Mitchell): Have you ever tried to persuade him that he wasn't Teddy Roosevelt?
ABBY (Josephine Hull): Oh, no!
MARTHA (Jean Adair): Oh, he's so happy being Teddy Roosevelt.
ABBY: Oh, do you remember, Martha, once a long time ago, we thought if he'd be George Washington, it might be a change for him, and we suggested it.
MARTHA: And do you know what happened? He just stayed under his bed for days and wouldn't be anybody.

ELAINE (Priscilla Lane): But Mortimer, you're going to love me for my mind, too?
MORTIMER: One thing at a time.

ELAINE: We were married today. We were going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Your brother tries to strangle me. A taxi is waiting, and now you want to sleep on a window seat. You can take your honeymoon, your wedding ring, your taxi, your window seat, and put 'em in a barrel and push 'em all over Niagara Falls!

MORTIMER: Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.

MORTIMER: Aunt Abby, how can I believe you? There are twelve bodies in the cellar and you admit you poisoned them.
ABBY: Yes, I did. But you don't think I'd stoop to telling a fib.

MORTIMER: I am not throwing you out of the house, I am not throwing you out of the house, I am not throwing you out of the house. Will you get out of here?

ELAINE: But, Mortimer - Niagara Falls.
MORTIMER: It does? Well, let it.

OFFICER O'HARA (Jack Carson): I'm a playwright. I'm working on a play right now.
MORTIMER: You are? Well, well, maybe I can help you.
O'HARA: Oh would ya? What a break! I get wonderful ideas but I can't spell them.
MORTIMER: Oh, I can spell like the dickens!

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

The Big Idea Behind ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

Although previously produced as a playwright, New Yorker Joseph Kesselring didn't have a huge success until he at last hit on a winning formula with an insane frolic he called "Bodies in Our Cellars." Kesselring managed to get the script into the hands of Broadway star Dorothy Stickney in hopes of enticing her into playing one of the dear, demented old sisters. The play caught the attention of Stickney's husband, producer Howard Lindsay, who sent a copy to his partner and collaborator, Russell Crouse, with a note: "Shake your head, take a cup of coffee and read further. Have just read play about two charming old ladies who go around murdering old men. Very funny. How would you like to be a producer?" Russell quickly wired back: "Buy it." Although Kesselring's name was kept as full author, by the time it reached the stage of Broadway's Fulton Theater in 1941, it included a great deal of Lindsay and Crouse's contributions and had even been renamed by them Arsenic and Old Lace. Reviewers and drama critics raved, and the play was a huge commercial success. It ran for more than three years. br>
In the early stage of the play's opening run, Hollywood director Frank Capra caught a performance and saw the chance to make a movie that was purely for pleasure and not a social commentary like his more recent films. "Hell, I owe myself a picture like this," he said, reasoning that he had been "preaching one thing or another" for several years and hadn't had "a really good time" since It Happened One Night (1934).

By later that year Capra also had a more mercenary motive: having accepted an offer from the U.S. Army Signal Corps to make training films, he knew he would need some quick money to support his family while he labored for military pittance. He also reportedly owed taxes on his independent production of his previous hit Meet John Doe (1941). He saw Arsenic and Old Lace as a project he could complete quickly and cheaply while pocketing an easy $100,000 for himself. But when he went after Lindsay for the film rights, he found Warner Brothers had already purchased them.

Capra had previously made an offer to Lindsay and Crouse for the film rights to their long-running play Life with Father but negotiations failed over his insistence on script control. That play was eventually brought to the screen by director Michael Curtiz in 1947. There has been speculation that part of Capra's enthusiasm for this project stemmed from trying to get on the producers' good side for the rights to Life with Father.

Lindsay and Crouse were hoping French director Ren Clair, working in America at that time, would direct the movie version. But they went along with Warner's eventual choice of Capra because he had a more commercial reputation.

Although Capra had made most of his successful pictures at Columbia (it was those films that brought the studio from relative obscurity into the ranks of the major Hollywood players), his last film, Meet John Doe, had been successfully distributed by Warner Brothers. Because of that, he had a good reputation at the studio that owned the stage property he wanted. He prepared a relatively cheap $400,000 budget for it (including his expected $100,000) and promised to complete shooting in four weeks. The art director assigned to the project thought he was nuts, but Capra explained he planned to shoot it all on one set and offered sketches showing the old Brooklyn mansion designed for both interior and exterior filming. As for costs, Capra reasoned there would be no extras, no locations and no transportation beyond round-trip fares for the actors he hoped to import from the stage production and fifty dollars a day each for living expenses while in Hollywood.

There was another reason for the fast shooting schedule. Capra decided it was essential to have both the actresses who were playing the old sisters on Broadway, Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, as well as a few others from the stage production. The play's producers didn't want to hurt their box office by letting their hit cast take a leave for very long, but Capra eventually got Adair and Hull, at a cost of about $25,000 each, and John Alexander, so memorable as "Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster. (The director's first choice was actually character actor Andy Devine). But Lindsay and Crouse said no when it came to loaning out Boris Karloff, their star attraction (and an investor in the play) in the role of Jonathan, the murderous brother. Capra settled instead for distinguished actor and Warners contractee Raymond Massey in Karloff make-up.

Even with the addition of Warner players Jack Carson and Priscilla Lane, who had scored opposite James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties (1939) and in several movies with John Garfield (Four Daughters, 1938, Dust Be My Destiny, 1939), the project still needed a box office name. Capra considered Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and even Warners contractee Ronald Reagan. But the studio had recently contracted Cary Grant to play the title role in the film version of the hit play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Grant had signed on with the intention of contributing his salary to the British War Relief fund, but the casting choice was resoundingly criticized by the press. Those who loved the stage production couldn't imagine anyone but Monty Woolley in the part, and even many of Grant's fans agreed. So Warners had to find something else for him and offered Grant Arsenic and Old Lace. The part of Mortimer Brewster, however, was just one of the stage ensemble, so rewrites had to be made to give the star a more major part. Grant was paid $100,000, which he donated to the fund (although some accounts claim he got $60,000 more than that, which he kept for himself).

To adapt the script, the studio brought in its star writers, and twin brothers, Philip and Julius Epstein, who had very little contact with Capra while writing. They added several scenes, including an introductory riot at a Dodgers baseball game (merely to show the comically unorthodox behavior of Brooklynites) and Mortimer and Elaine applying for a marriage license and dodging the press (in the play, her preacher father's objection to Mortimer was that he was a drama critic, a very Broadway in-joke touch; in the film he was also shown to be a vocal opponent of marriage and author of "The Bachelor's Bible"). The screenplay also added the running gag about a cab driver waiting outside the mansion with his meter running while Mortimer tries to sort out the whole crazy mess, eventually presenting him with a sizable tab.

Two bits were eliminated from the stage script. After Mortimer finds out he was adopted and therefore not prone to the obvious madness that plagues his family, he declares delightedly to his bride: "I'm a bastard!" The Epsteins changed the line to "I'm the son of a sea cook," which still managed to get sizable laughs. At the end, when the sisters have been admitted into happy Dale Sanitarium, the play closes on them pouring their deadly wine for the sanitarium director, Mr. Witherspoon. This final macabre touch was not used in the film.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Behind the Camera on ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

Although he planned to do the entire production on a single set, Capra had to make exceptions for the scenes added to the story in the script adaptation: the baseball game, the marriage license office, and the sanitarium. For the most part though, Capra and cinematographer Sol Polito confined themselves to the set designed by art director Max Parker, following Capra's sketches. The house was constructed so they could shoot both interiors and exteriors in the same place.

Low-key lighting was used throughout, to give the film its spooky Halloween tone.

To add to the funny-creepy mood, Capra ordered a backdrop with wispy clouds in front of a full moon and countless bags of autumn leaves blown around the exterior house and cemetery sets by three wind machines.

The city backdrop was achieved with two-dimensional models of the Manhattan skyline and, in front of that, a foreshortened three-quarter-angle miniature of the Brooklyn Bridge. The tall buildings were covered with a scrim to make them appear farther off, and a glow was projected around the distant city. In front of the bridge were Brooklyn buildings, with a glow of lights in the windows, and still closer, the cemetery next to the Brewster home. From the front tombstone to the Manhattan skyline the 3-D perspective effect was done in 40 feet of studio space.

Capra planned the shoot for two cameras with one always attached to a Chapman 20-foot boom for crane and dolly shots and the other designed as "wild," to be set up anywhere.

Capra cut corners wherever he could and worked swiftly and cheaply to bring the picture in on budget and within its short shooting schedule. He later said production manager Steve Trilling asked him if he was "going back to your Poverty Row quickies" where he had started his career. Capra said, "Yes, for a refresher course."

Capra pushed his actors to the broadest comedy takes, a fact that did not sit well with Grant. As a result, his (and Carson's) performances were singled out by reviewers for going dangerously over the top, while Massey and the stage performers managed to look rather restrained by comparison. Grant hated working this way, although in his more generous moments he credited Capra with helping him to get the comic effect he was unable to do on his own (it may have been his subtle way of blaming the director). Actor Gregory Peck later gave his assessment of the direction: " Capra was a very strong, determined, hands-on director, and he had Cary doing a lot of squirrelly things. When a director imposes on an actor or persuades or cajoles the actor to do something that doesn't feel right, that's not good direction." Julius Epstein also thought Grant mugged too much. He later said Capra intended to go back and rein in the broadest scenes, but near the end of principal photography, the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and Capra was eager to move on to his military assignment, so retakes were never done.

The film actually took closer to eight weeks to shoot, not the four Capra had planned, and the $400,000 initially budgeted was eventually set at just over a million, a far more realistic figure considering the salaries for Grant and Capra alone.

Because he had joined the Army shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, Capra asked for a six-week leave of absence to finish, edit and ready Arsenic and Old Lace for a January 30, 1942 preview.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

The Critics' Corner on ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

Arsenic and Old Lace was kept in the vault and not released until late 1944 because of a clause in the film rights contract stipulating it could not open while the hit play was still running. When it finally went into release it was a commercial success. Nevertheless, because of the delay, the picture missed the most lucrative box office years of World War II, a fact that Capra complained about to Warner Brothers through his lawyer. For its part, the studio had to absorb interest charges on the production while the film sat idle for three years.

"Arsenic and Old Lace, which recently closed a run on Broadway that ran 3 1/2 years has, in the highly capable hands of producer-director Frank Capra, become riotous screen entertainment...It is definitely in the higher brackets as a money-getter." - Variety, September 1944.

"Maybe the success of the play rubbed off on the movie, because it has always been inexplicably popular...The director, Frank Capra, has Grant performing in such a frenzied, dithering manner that during much of the action he seems crazier than anybody else. His role was shaped as if for Fred MacMurray, and Grant was pushed into overacting prolonging his stupefied double-takes, stretching out his whinny. Capra's hick jollity turns Grant into a manic eunuch." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (Henry Holt and Co., 1982).

"As transferred to the screen by Capra, it's dusty but ferocious...Best value is given by Massey and Lorre (playing two wandering criminals), who don't struggle to get laughs and just act macabre." - Geoff Brown, Time Out Film Guide (Penguin Books, 1989).

"Your enjoyment of the film may depend on your mood. The performances are all good except for Grant, who is as out of control as Pinky Lee - he's truly annoying...The worst part of the film is that so much humor comes from characters being frustrated when trying to get information or give information." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic (Fireside).

"A model for stage play adaptations, this famous black farce provided a frenzy of hilarious activity, and its flippant attitude to death was better received in wartime than would have been the case earlier or later. The director coaxes some perfect if overstated performances from his star cast, and added his own flair for perpetuating a hubbub." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"A wonderful, fast-paced ghoulish comedy..." - Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

"I would never say Cary was faking in that picture, but I understand why he was not comfortable. I think Capra pushed him too far in the direction of old farce - the kind of farcical playing that was a bit strained." - Gregory Peck, quoted in Evenings with Cary Grant by Nancy Nelson (Citadel Press, 2002).

Compiled by Ron Nixon

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teaser Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Cary Grant often said that his role in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) was his least favorite because of the overacting, but many people who see the film think that his numerous double-takes and frantic behavior are part of what makes it so hilarious. Grant was not known previously for doing such physical comedy, but in this role he goes at it with a manic energy. Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who writes books criticizing the institution of marriage in his spare time. The film begins with Mortimer and his fiancee, Elaine, getting married secretly, then the couple rush home to pack for their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Elaine lives next door to Mortimer's aunts, so he stops off to tell them his good news while Elaine prepares for their journey. While at his aunts' home, he discovers their awful secret: they have been seeking out lonely, elderly men, poisoning them, and burying them in the basement.

This black comedy originated as a play written by Joseph Kesselring. The film version was produced in 1941, but Warner Bros. delayed its release for three years until the stage version finished its run. Frank Capra, famous for films such as It Happened One Night (1934) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), was chosen by executive producer Jack Warner to direct the film. Because of the Production Code in Hollywood, a few scenes or dialogue present in the stage version had to be changed or omitted for the film. Mortimer's famous line in the play, "Darling, I'm a bastard!" was changed to "I'm a son of a sea cook!" The film ends with the cab driver's declaration, "I'm not a cab driver. I'm a coffee pot", rather than retaining the final scene from the play. The latter showed the two aunts giving an unhappy, lonely old man a glass of elderberry wine laced with their special blend of poison. But the Production Code only allowed acts such as murder to be shown if the perpetrators were punished by the end of the film.

According to authors Charles Higham and Roy Moseley in their biography, Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart, Arsenic and Old Lace was written to Grant's specifications for the screen, which included shooting the film in sequence. Even so, he was often irritable during production, complaining constantly about the set, the props, and the wardrobe of the cast members. At one point he admitted he would rather have starred in a film version of Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit. Of course, tensions on the set weren't helped any after Japan staged its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. The crisis halted production briefly and caused the film to run over budget.

Yet, Arsenic and Old Lace works as a comically grotesque vision of the American family and shares many similarities with the macabre humor of cartoonist Charles Addams. Among the memorable eccentrics are Theodore (John Alexander), Mortimer's young brother, who truly believes he is Teddy Roosevelt at the height of his presidency; the sweet but homicidal duo of Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) who clearly do not recognize the nature of their wrongdoing; Mortimer's older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who "looks like Boris Karloff" and also turns out to be murderous; and the alcoholic Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) who serves as Jonathan's sidekick and co-conspirator. And regardless of Grant's low opinion of himself in the film, Arsenic and Old Lace remains a favorite among his fans.

A final bit of trivia: The Bell company was trying to promote a new kind of phone - the "French Phone" -where the microphone and the earpiece were part of the same unit (on most of the phonesat the time, the were separate). In this film and in many others, Bell provided advertisingin exchange for the use of the kinds of phones they were trying to promote.

Director: Frank Capra
Producer: Frank Capra and Jack L. Warner
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip Epstein, based on the play by Joseph Kesselring
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster).
BW-119m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Sarah Heiman

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