Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic play and film, a slightly macabre mix of black humor and irony. Written by Joseph Kesselring, its original run on Broadway was 1,444 performances, and it still holds up today. The story initially seems very simple, but it likes to grab the viewer with lots of gotchas, done so humorously that the viewer doesn’t know whether to be scared or laugh their head off.
The film opens at a New Jersey county clerk’s office, where couples are lining up to get married by a justice of the peace. Among the throng is a man, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) in dark sunglasses, a trench coat and a fedora. Beside him is a beautiful blonde, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), serenely waiting her turn. It’s a wonderful occasion, except that Mortimer is trying his hardest to keep a low profile, and he knows there will be photojournalists lurking around. He has good reason to be anxious, as he’s not only a famous theater critic, but Mortimer’s built his reputation around his adamant dislike of marriage. In fact, he’s written books about it. Not surprisingly, he feels like the biggest hypocrite on the Hudson. Unfortunately, the clerk is hard of hearing, and after accidentally shouting his name, Mortimer grabs Elaine’s elbow and hides from the photographers in a photo booth. However, he soon loses his nerve about losing his nerve, and rushes Elaine right back into the office, where they again wait to get hitched.
Across the river in Brooklyn, two police officers, Brophy and O’Hara (Edward McNamara and Jack Carson) walk down the street, Brophy telling O’Hara what a great beat this particular neighborhood is. They come upon a stately old house next door to the parsonage, and Brophy brags a little on the two maiden sisters who live there, Martha and Abby Brewster, who are the kindest ladies in the neighborhood. “They’re like pressed rose leaves,” he says. There’s a “Room for Rent” sign outside the house, but it’s not because the ladies need money. “That’s just their way of digging up people to do good to,” says Brophy.
Inside, Abby Brewster (Josephine Hull) is busy entertaining the Reverend Harper from next door, telling him about Mortimer taking Elaine to the theater every night. The good reverend isn’t too happy about it, because he thinks someone with Mortimer’s view on marriage shouldn’t be squiring anyone’s daughter anywhere. Meanwhile, a guy who looks suspiciously like Teddy Roosevelt (John Alexander) plays Mozart on a spinet. Hmmm.
Just then, the doorbell rings, and it’s Brophy and O’Hara coming by to collect some toys for a charity drive the police department is putting on, and O’Hara is mystified by what he sees there, namely, Teddy. The dude not only looks like Teddy Roosevelt, but he thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. Everyone has to salute him, he goes around saying things like “De-lighted!” and “Bully, that’s bully.” He also runs up the stairs yelling “CHARGE!” as if the stairs are San Juan Hill.
Before O’Hara can get too weirded out, though, Martha (Jean Adair), the other Brewster sister comes home and meets everyone. After the guests leave, Abby tells Martha that dinner’s going to be late before letting Teddy know he’s off to Panama. Teddy changes into an explorer’s outfit complete with pith helmet before toting a shovel down into the basement.
Yep, just a typical evening at the Brewster house.
Mortimer and Elaine drop by in a taxi so Elaine can grab her luggage and the newlyweds can speed off via Pullman to Niagara Falls. They leave the cab waiting while they blissfully part. Since he’s got some downtime, Mortimer goes to tell his aunts, of course, who are both overjoyed even though they could see it coming a mile away.
The ladies bustle off to make a cake and fix a special dinner even though Mortimer and Elaine can’t stay. Aunt Abby rummages in a drawer for something and finds a picture of Mortimer’s brother, Jonathan, who was famous for scaring grownups. Mortimer tells Aunt Abby Jonathan reminds him of a play he just saw about a lunatic called Murder Will Out. While he’s casually mentioning the first thing the audience sees after the curtain goes up is a dead body, he happens to open the window seat…to find a dead body.
Understandably, Mortimer freaks. He races into the kitchen, where his aunts are busy with dinner and tells them about the body in the window seat. “Yes, dear,” they reply, as if Mortimer is four, “We know. It’s Mr. Hoskins.”
Mortimer says they can’t leave him there, and his aunts reply, just as casually as you please, “Of course, dear. Teddy is down in Panama digging another lock for the canal. That’s where we put the others.”
Now Mortimer is really floored. Others? Others? More than one others?
Yes, indeed. Try about a dozen others, give or take a few.
Mortimer jumps to the conclusion that Teddy killed Mr. Hoskins, but his aunts soon set him straight, and what they tell him knocks him for yet another loop. That sign outside their house advertising the room to rent? It’s really their way of luring men into the house. Sad, lonely, elderly men with no family or friends. These two kindly ladies offer these fellows dinner, followed by a glass of elderberry wine. That just happens to have strychnine, arsenic and cyanide in it. “Should have a mighty kick,” Mortimer remarks dryly.
Mortimer still starts the ball rolling to get Teddy committed to Happy Dale Sanitarium, but the surprises aren’t over. His long-lost brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up, along with his accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). Jonathan is a serial killer looking for a place to hide out, and it just so happens that he and the doctor have their own dead body in tow. As if that weren’t enough, Jonathan has the unfortunate distinction of looking like Boris Karloff. Dr. Einstein operates on his face periodically so no one can get a bead on Jonathan, and the last time he did it, he had Karloff on the brain and alcohol in his system. Jonathan wants the doctor to operate again, but the two of them haven’t slept in days.
Meanwhile, poor Elaine wonders what happened to her husband. Brophy and O’Hara wonder what it will take to get Teddy to stop blowing his bugle. The cab driver wonders how high the two lovebirds are going to run up the meter. One thing’s for sure, there are plenty of tricks in store until the finish. The irony is wall-to-wall, and there are one-liners galore.
There aren’t a ton of differences between the film and play in terms of dialogue and story. In the play, Mortimer proposes to Elaine in the Brewster living room instead of showing up already married to her. He also isn’t a marriage hater. In fact, his aunts both think Mortimer is bored with just being a theater critic and should move on to criticizing something bigger, like the human race. Another gimmick that was changed was Jonathan’s looking like Boris Karloff. In the play, Jonathan really was played by Karloff, but he couldn’t get away to do the movie because he was a major investor in the play. That’s why Raymond Massey played Jonathan in the film. The play also mentions Hitler and “doing your part,” even though America wasn’t yet fighting in the Second World War when the play premiered. Other than that, the adaptation keeps all the little twists and turns and “gotcha” elements.
Well, there is one major difference, but I’m not going to give too many specifics. Let’s just say, one of the other characters has a liking for elderberry wine, and spies some on the table just before the curtain falls.
The play was adapted for the screen and directed by Frank Capra. I have to say, I actually prefer the play to the movie in some ways, because tension is allowed to build gradually, giving the gotcha moments more punch. The pacing of the movie was frenetic, and while it’s crazy fun, there’s no let-up. I think that was probably due to the time limits of the day–if Arsenic and Old Lace was part of a double feature, as was typical of films in that time, they liked them to be around ninety minutes or two hours at the most. Seeing as the play was such a big success, the filmmakers probably felt the need to cram in as many of the gags as possible. On the other hand, the play could have done more to up the tension. There’s one point when Mortimer has to take a break from the intrigue to review a play, which deflates things a little.
The rights to the play were acquired on the condition that Warner Bros. would hold the film back until Arsenic closed on Broadway. Ergo, Arsenic And Old Lace wrapped up filming in early 1942 but wasn’t released until 1944. In the meantime, Priscilla Lane had temporarily retired from moviemaking, moving from one Army base to another with her husband and entertaining the troops. She liked acting, but she liked home life more, and would only make a few more films. Cary Grant, of course, was as busy as ever, starring in such wartime movies as Destination Tokyo. I wonder if by the time Arsenic and Old Lace premiered, the actors had forgotten all about it.
The public certainly hasn’t–Arsenic and Old Lace is still produced today by various theater companies all over the United States and around the world. The original play might be slightly dated, but its story doesn’t get old, and is just as enjoyable as ever.
Thanks for reading, and check back on Friday, because another post is on deck. See you then… 🙂
Sherwin, Mary, editor. Comedy Tonight! Broadway Picks Its Five Favorite Plays. New York and Garden City, New Jersey: 1977.