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Arsenic and Old Lace (film)


Arsenic and Old Lace (film)

Arsenic and Old Lace
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 dates
  • September 23, 1944 (1944-09-23)
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.[1] 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. 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 movie as well because he was still appearing in the play during filming, and Raymond Massey took his place.[2][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 Roosevelt), were reprising their roles from the 1941 stage production.[4] 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.[5]


  • Plot 1
  • Commentary 2
  • Cast 3
  • Reviews 4
  • Radio adaptations 5
  • In popular culture 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


The plot revolves around the Brewster family of Brooklyn, New York, descended from the Mayflower and composed of illustrious White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ancestors whose portraits line the walls. The religious theme is repeatedly mentioned, and Elaine is the daughter of the minister who lives next door, with some scenes held in its ancient cemetery. Today the Brewster clan comprises 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 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 eccentric but lovable relatives who raised him and 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 assumes that Teddy has committed murder under some delusion, 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 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 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, 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.

While Elaine waits at her family home next door for Mortimer to take her on their honeymoon, Mortimer 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 to get the paperwork filed that will have Teddy declared legally insane and committed to a mental asylum (giving him a safe explanation for the bodies should the cops find them, and preventing his aunts from creating any more victims because they will no longer have any place to bury the bodies). He also 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 is safely consigned to an asylum and the two aunts insist upon joining him. Finally, 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. If he is not an upper-class Brewster then he realizes he will not become insane or a murderer. In 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!"[6]


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.[7] 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.[8]



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."[10] 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]

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".[12]

American Film Institute recognition

Radio adaptations

Arsenic and Old Lace was adapted as a radio play for the November 25, 1946, broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater with Boris Karloff[13] and Eddie Albert, and the January 25, 1948, broadcast of the Ford Theatre.

In popular culture

The 1946 Porky Pig cartoon Kitty Kornered features references to Arsenic and Old Lace. A cat drinks wine out of a bottle labeled "Arsenic and Old Grapes". Later, the cats run up a flight of stairs while made up to look like Theodore Roosevelt shouting "Charge!".

See also

  • Amy Archer-Gilligan—nursing home owner accused of murdering elderly men in her care 1910–1917
  • Black Widow murders—a real murder case whose events were compared to the fictional murders in the film


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.[3]
  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.[3]


  1. ^ McGilligan 1986, p. 170.
  2. ^ Atkinson, Brooks. "Review: Arsenic and Old Lace." The New York Times,January 11, 1941.
  3. ^ a b Nixon, Rob. "The big idea behind Arsenic and Old Lace." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  4. ^ "Notes: Arsenic and Old Lace." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  5. ^ "Special feature section." Arsenic and Old Lace , DVD release: 65025.1B.
  6. ^ "Arsenic and Old Lace Synopsis." Retrieved: October 24, 2009.
  7. ^ See (May, 2013).Menonnite Life, Arsenic and Old LaceKeith L. Sprunger, "Another Look: Joseph Kesselring, Bethel College, and the Origins of
  8. ^ Gunter 2012, pp. 49–51.
  9. ^ All credits: "Credits: Arsenic and Old Lace." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: June 25, 2012.
  10. ^ P.P.K. "Movie Review: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)". The New York Times, September 2, 1944.
  11. ^ "Arsenic and Old Lace." Variety, December 31, 1943.
  12. ^ Higham and Greenberg 1968, p. 161.
  13. ^ "Boris Karloff to Repeat 'Arsenic' Role Monday, WHP". Harrisburg Telegraph. November 23, 1946. p. 19. Retrieved September 13, 2015 – via  


  • 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

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