Capra & Arsenic and Old Lace
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE
Released: 1944 (completed 1941) Production: Frank Capra for Warner Bros. Direction: Frank Capra Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein; based on the play of the
same name by Joseph Kesselring Cinematography: Sol Polito Editing: Daniel Mandell Running time: 118 minutes
Mortimer Brewster ……………………….. Cary Grant
Abby Brewster ………………………… Josephine Hull
Martha Brewster …………………………… Jean Adair
Arsenic and Old Lace was one of the biggest Broadway hits of the 1940’s, a fast-paced, light-hearted treatment of murder exemplifying the black humor of the time. When Frank Capra bought the film rights to the play and began production in late 1941, it was with the stipulation that he would not release the film until it had closed on Broadway. Capra had hoped to use the income from the film to support his family while he earned the pay of a major in the Army. Unfortunately for Capra, the play was extremely popular and the movie could not be released until 1944. However, his good fortune lay in securing the talents of Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander of the original cast for his film version. Having signed Cary Grant, Hollywood’s best farceur, for the lead role of Mortimer Brewster, Capra then chose some of his favorite character actors to round out his cast, notably Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason.
Translating hit Broadway plays to the screen has always been a problem for Hollywood, and it even proved a problem for a creative hand such as Capra. Critics complained then and still complain about the scenes that were added to the original play: a comment about the unorthodox behavior of Brooklynites is exemplified by a riot scene during a Dodgers game at Ebbetts Field; a scene with Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic, and his fiancee, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), applying for a marriage license; the newlyweds’ tryst in the cemetery next ‘to the Brewster mansion; and a cabby waiting for Mortimer throughout the movie with the meter on and eventually presenting him with a $22.50 tab. But in spite of these additions, Arsenic and-Old Lace’ remains as entertaining on the screen as it was on the stage.
Martha (Jean Adair) and Abby Brewster (Josephine Hull) are two wealthy, sweet old maids who live in the old family mansion where they take care of their nephew, Teddy (John Alexander). Teddy needs a great deal of care, since he thinks he is President Theodore Roosevelt. One delightful and famous feature of Teddy’s behavior is that every time he goes upstairs, he yells “Charge!” and then charges up to the second floor. But if Teddy is strange, his aunts are even stranger. Very church-oriented, one of their charitable acts is to serve a special elderberry wine laced with a combination of arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide to unsuspecting lonely old gentlemen who come to inquire about the room they advertize for rent. That the ladies are disarmingly sentimental about their victims, remembering all their names, and are blissfully unaware that what they are doing is immoral, makes for a very amusing situation. The bodies are properly disposed of by Teddy, who thinks that they are all yellow-fever victims from Panama and must be buried quickly to avoid contagion. He digs a grave in the cellar, which he believes to be the Panama Canal, and then he and the sisters holds a proper Christian burial service. It is all quite tidy.
However, things,take a turn when Teddy’s brother Mortimer (Cary Grant) comes to tell his aunts that he has married. While there, Mortimer discovers his aunts’ latest “charity case” in the window seat. At first he thinks the eccentric Teddy is responsible, but with some pride his aunts assure him that the dead man is their doing. With the revelation that this is their twelfth victim, Mortimer almost goes crazy himself. However, while he worries about what to do abo\:lt the situation, he prevents his aunts from taking a thirteenth victim.
When Mortimer goes out to see about getting his aunts committed to an insane asylum, his older brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), stealthily arrives at the house with his cohort Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), a plastic surgeon of sorts. Jonathan is a very cold-blooded killer who likewise boasts of twelve dead victims; he also bears a striking resemblance to Boris KI,uloff. Jonathan has eluded the police because Dr. Einstein has given him three different faces in five years. Unfortunately, the last time he operated, Dr. Einstein had recently seen a horror movie and was drunk when he operated; the result is that Jonathan has ended up with Boris Karloff’s face. Jonathan is extremely unhappy about this and turns murderously angry whenever anyone reminds him of it. The two have come to the Brewster house so Dr. Einstein can operate again and correct his error. While Raymond Massey is made up to look like Karloff and his reaction to the allusions to his face is amusing, the humor loses some of its sharpness on the screen; the real Boris Karloff played Jonathan in the original Broadway version.
Abby and Martha make it very clear that Jonathan’s menacing presence is not welcome and that they would like him to leave. During the evening it becomes known that Jonathan also has a body to dispose of-that of his twelfth victim. However, he has decided to stay for a long time’, since the quiet, respectable house is a perfect hiding place.
When Mortimer returns, we find that there .is little love lost between the two brothers. Discovering a new body in the window seat, Mortimer realizes that this is his brother’s victim and that he now has a hold on him. However, when Jonathan discovers his aunts’ victim in the cellar, he realizes that he also has a trump card. Meanwhile, however, the fact that his aunts have accumulated the same number of victims as he has makes Jonathan jealous, and to beat them, he decides to make Mortimer his thirteenth victim. Jonathanand the doctor tie Mortimer to a chair so Jonathan can kill him by the “Melbourne method,” a slow method which even gives Einstein the shivers. Just as Jonathan is about to strangle his brother, police officer O’Hara (Jack Carson) arrives. O’Hara has ambitions of being a playwright, and finding Mortimer quiet and unoccupied at the moment, he takes advantage of the situation to relate the lengthy plot of his play to the helpless drama critic. A stereotypal dumb cop, O’Hara is oblivious to the fact that Mortimer is bound and gagged. Mortimer, Jonathan, and Einstein are saved from being bored to death by the arrival of two more policemen who have come to see about putting Teddy away, as he is just too much of a neighborhood nuisance. Luckily for Mortimer, they do notiCe that he is tied up, and they become very suspicious of Jonathan because of his looks. When Lieutenant Rooney (James Gleason) and Judge Cullman (Vaughan Glaser) arrive to help commit Teddy, the lieutenant recognizes Jonathan right away from wanted posters and arrests him.
Seeking some sort of revenge, Jonathan tells the police officers about the twelve bodies in the basement, but none of them will believe him. When Teddy backs up the story, the police take that as evidence that it is a crazy story from two crazy men. Even hardboiled Rooney refuses to believe it when Martha and Abby offer to show him the graves in the cellar; When the sisters are told that Teddy has to go to Happy Dale they insist on going with him and happily commit themselves. One of the play’s running jokes concerns Mortimer’s worry about the insanity in his family. When he signs the commitment papers as next of kin, the sisters quietly take him aside and tell him that he is really not a Brewster, but the son of a sea cook. Instead of being upset, Mortimer is overjoyed that he is not part of this family. However, the strain of dealing with four insane people has driven him slightly crazy, and the judge wonders if he is not committing the wrong Brewster. While everyone is busy getting the papers signed, Dr. Einstein tries to sneak out of the house. He is stopped by Mortimer who asks him to sign the papers because a doctor’s signature is needed. Everyone is so engrossed in the paper signing that Einstein is the only one who is aware that Rooney is concurrently getting a description of him as Jonathan’s accomplice over the phone. His services over, Einstein quietly escapes, unable to believe his luck.
Teddy is persuaded to leave for Happy Dale when Mortimer tells him that his term in office is over. Teddy decides that now he can go on his African safari. After everyone else has left, and while waiting for Teddy to get his things together, the sisters strike up a conversation with Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), the head of Happy Dale. It turns out that Mr. Witherspoon is alone in the world and not very happy. As the movie ends, the sisters sweetly offer him a glass of elderberry wine.
Arsenic and Old Lace was a departure for Capra. His previous major films, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)and Meet John Doe (1941), were full of social commentary and the celebration of the common man.
There is not a trace of either in this film; a fact, Capra has reported, that could not have made him happier. Critics have always thought of the film as one of Capra’s lesser efforts. In fact, some analyses of his work have either glossed over it or omitted it completely. The critics felt that the additions to the original play broke up its fast pace and did little to heighten its humor. They criticized the great amount of overacting from everyone, especially from Cary Grant and Jack Carson. Capra unashamedly admits that he let his cast romp and mug to their hearts’ content. With all its faults, even some of the critics had to admit that the film was and is rollicking good fun. Most of the lines and sight gags are still funny today, making the film a continuous favorite with audiences.