Arsenic and Old Lace (film)

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Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic And Old Lace Poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frank Capra
Produced by Frank Capra
Jack L. Warner
Screenplay by Julius J. Epstein
Philip G. Epstein
Based on Arsenic and Old Lace
1941 play
by Joseph Kesselring
Starring Cary Grant
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • September 1, 1944 (1944-09-01) (New York City)[1]
  • September 23, 1944 (1944-09-23) (USA)
Running time
118 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,120,175 US (est.)

Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1944 American dark comedy film directed by Frank Capra, starring Cary Grant, and based on Joseph Kesselring's play Arsenic and Old Lace. The script adaptation was by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein.[2] Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941 because of star Cary Grant's availability, 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 could not be released from his contract with Paramount Pictures. Capra had also approached Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before learning that Grant would accept the role. Boris Karloff played Jonathan Brewster, who "looks like Karloff," on the Broadway stage, but he was unable to do the film as well because he was still appearing in the play during filming, and Raymond Massey took his place.[3][Note 1] The film's supporting cast also features Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton and Peter Lorre.

Josephine Hull and Jean Adair portray the Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha, respectively. Hull and Adair, as well as John Alexander (who played Teddy Brewster), were reprising their roles from the 1941 stage production.[5] 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.[6]


The plot revolves around the Brewster family of Brooklyn, New York, descended from the Mayflower and composed of illustrious forebears whose portraits line the walls of the ancestral home. Currently, the Brewster clan is composed of insane murderers.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull and Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace

Despite having written several books ridiculing marriage as an "old-fashioned superstition", Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) falls in love with the girl he grew up next door to in Brooklyn, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of a minister. On Halloween day, Mortimer and Elaine marry. Immediately after the wedding, the couple return to their old neighborhood and, after some playful romance in the adjacent cemetery, Elaine goes to her father's house to pack for the honeymoon and Mortimer visits the eccentric, but lovable, aunts who raised him and who still live in the old family home: the elderly Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair); his brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, also still resides there. 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 had left notes for his next book in the house and, while searching for them, he finds a corpse hidden in the window seat, he assumes that, while under some delusion, Teddy has committed murder, but his aunts explain that they are responsible ("It's one of our charities"). They explain in the most innocent terms that they have developed what Mortimer calls the "very bad habit" of ending the presumed suffering of lonely old bachelors, they post a 'Room for Rent' sign and when these men drop by to inquire, the ladies serve 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. Hermann Einstein (Peter Lorre). Jonathan is a murderer trying to escape from 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, looks like Boris Karloff's in his makeup as Frankenstein's monster, this resemblance [Note 2] is frequently noted, much to Jonathan's annoyance. 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 while Mr. Spenalzo is a stranger and a "foreigner") and soon declares his intention to kill Mortimer.

Elaine grows more impatient to leave on their honeymoon, and more concerned about Mortimer's suddenly odd behavior, he makes increasingly frantic attempts to stay on top of the situation, including multiple efforts to alert the bumbling local cops to the threat Jonathan poses, as well as trying to get the paperwork filed that will have Teddy declared legally insane and committed to a mental asylum (providing a good explanation for the bodies - Teddy is a killer - should the cops find them, and presumably preventing his aunts from creating any more victims because they will no longer have their resident gravedigger). He also worries that he will go insane like the rest of the Brewster family, as he puts it, "Insanity runs in my family; it 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, Einstein flees (after having signed Teddy's commitment papers), and Teddy is safely consigned to an asylum where the two aunts insist upon joining him. Abby and Martha inform Mortimer that he is not biologically related to the Brewsters, after all: his real mother was the aunts' cook and his father had been a chef on a steamship, he realizes that, since he is not an upper-class Brewster, he will not become either insane or a murderer. In the film's closing scene, after lustily kissing Elaine, and before whisking her away Teddy Roosevelt-style ("Charge!") to their honeymoon, he gleefully exclaims "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!"[7]


The play was written by Joseph Kesselring, son of German immigrants and a former professor at Bethel College, a pacifist Mennonite college, it was written in the antiwar atmosphere of the late 1930s.[8] Capra scholar Matthew C. Gunter argues that the deep theme of the play and film is the conflict in American history between the liberty to do anything (which the Brewsters demand), and America's bloody hidden past.[9]



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."[1] 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."[11] Harrison's Reports wrote: "An hilarious entertainment, it should turn out to be one of the year's top box-office attractions."[12] John Lardner of The New Yorker called the film "practically as funny in picture form as it did on the stage, and that is very funny indeed."[13]

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".[14]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Radio adaptations[edit]

Arsenic and Old Lace was adapted as a radio play for the November 25, 1946, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater with Boris Karloff[16] and Eddie Albert, and the January 25, 1948, broadcast of the Ford Theatre.

See also[edit]


Explanatory notes

  1. ^ As stated in an episode of This Is Your Life, Karloff was actually an investor and a producer of the stage play who received royalties whenever it was performed.[4]
  2. ^ The reference to Karloff was originally a self-referential joke due to the veteran actor renowned for monster roles playing the character of Jonathan Brewster on stage.[4]


  1. ^ a b "Movie Review - Arsenic and Old Lace". The New York Times. September 2, 1944. Retrieved February 26, 2016. 
  2. ^ McGilligan 1986, p. 170.
  3. ^ Atkinson, Brooks. "Review: Arsenic and Old Lace." The New York Times,January 11, 1941.
  4. ^ a b Nixon, Rob. "The big idea behind Arsenic and Old Lace." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  5. ^ "Notes: Arsenic and Old Lace." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  6. ^ "Special feature section." Arsenic and Old Lace , DVD release: 65025.1B.
  7. ^ "Arsenic and Old Lace Synopsis." Retrieved: October 24, 2009.
  8. ^ See Keith L. Sprunger, "Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of Arsenic and Old Lace, Menonnite Life (May, 2013). Archived 2014-02-24 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^ Gunter 2012, pp. 49–51.
  10. ^ All credits: "Credits: Arsenic and Old Lace."[permanent dead link] Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  11. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York. September 6, 1944. p. 10. 
  12. ^ "'Arsenic and Old Lace' with Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre and Priscilla Lane". Harrison's Reports. September 2, 1944. p. 143. 
  13. ^ Lardner, John (September 9, 1944). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York. p. 51. 
  14. ^ Higham and Greenberg 1968, p. 161.
  15. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-05. 
  16. ^ "Boris Karloff to Repeat 'Arsenic' Role Monday, WHP". Harrisburg Telegraph. November 23, 1946. p. 19. Retrieved September 13, 2015 – via  open access publication – free to read


  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-306-80771-8.
  • Gunter, Matthew C. The Capra Touch: A Study of the Director's Hollywood Classics and War Documentaries, 1934-1945. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2012. ISBN 978-0-7864-6402-9.
  • Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg. Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1968.
  • McGilligan, Pat, ed. Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1986. ISBN 0-520-05689-2.
  • Stout, Kathryn and Richard. Movies as Literature. Wilmington, Delaware: Design-A-Study, 2002. ISBN 978-1-8919-7509-7 (Study questions on the plot, pp. 41–46.),

External links[edit]