Arsenic and Old Lace (film): Wikis


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Arsenic and Old Lace

Theatrical release poster.
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Jack L. Warner
Written by Play:
Joseph Kesselring
Julius J. Epstein
Philip G. Epstein
Starring Cary Grant
Josephine Hull
Jean Adair
Raymond Massey
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Editing by Daniel Mandell
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) September 23, 1944 (USA)
Running time 118 min.
Country  United States
Language English
Budget $1,120,175 US (est.)

Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1944 film directed by Frank Capra based on a play of the same name by Joseph Kesselring. The script was adapted by Julius J. Epstein. Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway. The lead role of Mortimer Brewster was originally intended for Bob Hope, but he couldn't be released from his contract with Paramount. Capra had also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before settling on Cary Grant. Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster, who "looks like Karloff", on the Broadway stage, but he was unable to do the movie as well because he was still appearing in the play during filming, and Raymond Massey took his place.[1]

In addition to Grant as Mortimer Brewster, the film also starred Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, respectively. Hull and Adair as well as John Alexander (who played "Teddy Roosevelt") reprising their roles from the 1941 stage production. Hull and Adair both received an eight-week leave of absence from the stage production that was still running, but Karloff did not as he was an investor in the stage production and its main draw. The entire film was shot within those eight weeks. The film cost just over $1.2 million of a $2 million budget to produce.[2]



Despite having written several books describing marriage as an "old-fashioned superstition", drama critic and confirmed bachelor Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) falls in love with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), who grew up next door to him in Brooklyn, and, on Halloween day, they marry. Immediately after the wedding, Mortimer visits the bizarre relatives who still live in his old family home: his elderly aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), and his brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt. Each time Teddy goes upstairs, he yells "Charge!" and takes the stairs at a run, imitating Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill.

Mortimer finds a corpse hidden in a window seat and suspects Teddy, but his aunts explain that they are responsible ("It's one of our charities"). They have developed the "very bad habit" of ending the presumed suffering of lonely old bachelors by serving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and "just a pinch of cyanide". The bodies are buried in the basement by Teddy, who believes he is digging locks for the Panama Canal and burying yellow fever victims.

To complicate matters further, Mortimer's brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives with his alcoholic accomplice, plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre). Jonathan is a psychotic murderer trying to escape the police and find a place to dispose of the corpse of his latest victim, a certain Mr. Spenalzo. Jonathan's face, as altered by Einstein while drunk, resembles that of Boris Karloff in his makeup as Frankenstein's monster. This comparison is frequently noted in the film, much to Jonathan's annoyance (originally a self-referential joke). Jonathan, upon finding out his aunts' secret, decides to bury Spenalzo in the cellar (to which Abby and Martha object vehemently, because their victims were all nice gentlemen) and soon declares his intention to kill Mortimer.

Mortimer makes increasingly frantic attempts to stay on top of the situation as Elaine waits for him at her family home next door, including multiple efforts to alert the bumbling local cops to the threat Jonathan poses, as well as have the paperwork filled that will have Teddy declared legally insane and committed (giving him a safe explanation for the bodies should the cops find them). He worries that he will go insane like the rest of the Brewster family. As he puts it, "Insanity runs in my family, practically gallops!". While explaining this to Elaine, he claims they've been crazy since the first Brewsters came to America as pilgrims.

But eventually Jonathan is arrested, while Teddy and the two aunts are safely consigned to an asylum. Finally, Abby and Martha inform Mortimer that he is not biologically related to the Brewsters after all: His real father worked as a chef on a steam ship. In the the film's closing scene, after lustily kissing Elaine and before whisking her away to their honeymoon, he gleefully exclaims "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!"[3]


Actor Role
Cary Grant Mortimer Brewster
Josephine Hull Aunt Abby Brewster
Jean Adair Aunt Martha Brewster
Raymond Massey Jonathan Brewster
Peter Lorre Dr. Herman Einstein
Priscilla Lane Elaine Harper Brewster
John Alexander Teddy "Roosevelt" Brewster
Jack Carson Officer Patrick O'Hara
John Ridgely Officer Sanders
Edward McNamara Police Sgt. Brophy
James Gleason Police Lt. Rooney
Edward Everett Horton Mr. Witherspoon

Veteran character actor Charles Lane appears as a photographer at City Hall trying to get a picture of Mortimer Brewster getting a marriage license at the beginning of the film.


The contemporary critical reviews were uniformly positive. The New York Times critic summed up the majority view, "As a whole, Arsenic and Old Lace, the Warner picture which came to the Strand yesterday, is good macabre fun." Variety declared, "Capra's production, not elaborate, captures the color and spirit of the play, while the able writing team of Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein has turned in a very workable, tightly-compressed script. Capra's own intelligent direction rounds out."

Twenty-four years after the film was released, Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg wrote Hollywood in the Forties where they stated that "Frank Capra provided a rather overstated and strained version of Arsenic and Old Lace".[4]

American Film Institute recognition

In a separate AFI poll, star Cary Grant was named # 2 of the 25 greatest male American screen legends.

Radio adaptation

Arsenic and Old Lace was adapted as a radio play for the November 25, 1946, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater with Boris Karloff and Eddie Albert, and the January 25, 1948, broadcast of the Ford Theatre.

See also

  • Black Widow murders — a real murder case whose events were compared to the fictional murders in the film


  1. ^ As stated in an episode of This Is Your Life, Karloff was actually an original producer of the stage play and received royalties whenever it was performed.
  2. ^ From the special feature section of Warner Bros. DVD release 65025.1B
  3. ^ "Arsenic and Old Lace Synopsis." Retrieved: October 24, 2009.
  4. ^ Higham and Greenberg 1968, p. 161.
  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-30680-771-8.
  • Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg. Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1968.

External links

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