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The Criterion Blogathon: "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944)

Original release poster
Directed by Frank Capra, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) tells the story of Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a Broadway critic and "symbol of bachelorhood," author of several anti-marriage books, who ironically weds Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) on Halloween. On their way to their honeymoon, they stop in Brooklyn, where they grew up next door to each other. While Elaine drops in on her father, Reverend Harper (Grant Mitchell), Mortimer visits the eccentric but lovable relatives who raised him and who still live in his old family home: his spinster aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), and his derranged brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt.

As he searches for the notes for his most recent book, Mortimer discovers a dead body hidden in the window seat and is shocked to find that his aunts were responsible for the murder. Abby and Martha calmly explain that they have been killing lonely old men for years by serving them elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Teddy has conveniently been burying the bodies in the cellar under the belief that they are victims of yellow fever who died while building the Panama Canal. To complicate matters further, Mortimer's long-lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives with his creepy companion, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), an alcoholic plastic surgeon. Jonathan, whose face Dr. Einstein accidentally altered to look like Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, is a psychotic murderer trying to escape from the police and find a place to hide his latest victim. With his increasingly frantic attempts to cover for his aunts, protect his confused bride, commit one brother and have the other sent to jail, Mortimer soon begins to doubt his own sanity. Luckily, everything falls into place in the end. Jonathan is arrested, Teddy is sent to an asylum and the aunts reveal to Mortimer that he is not really a Brewster, but the son of the family cook who married their brother, a chef on a tramp steamer, after giving birth to him. Relieved that he will not became insane or a murderer, Mortimer throws Elaine over his shoulder and finally takes her away to their honeymoon.

Mortimer Brewster: Look, darling, you wouldn't want to have children with three heads, would you? I mean, you wouldn't wanna set up housekeeping in a padded cell. Oh, it would be bad. Look, I probably should have told you this before, but you see... Well, insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops!

Despite the dissolution of his independent production company in late December 1941, Frank Capra still remained one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood. Rather than signing a lucrative deal with a major studio, Capra instead signed up for the United States Army, instantly receiving a commission as a major. His impending military service, however, weighed heavily on his mind. After all, he was an independent director, with no studio home and no real security; if he was truly serious about joining the Army, then he would have to come up with a way to "make a cheap film for a fast buck to keep [his] family going." He set his eyes on Arsenic and Old Lace, a hit Broadway show that he knew he could film cheaply and quickly. When he found out that the play had already been sold to Warner Bros., Capra immediately set to work to convince studio head Jack Warner that he was the right man to adapt it for the screen.

Although previously produced as a playwright, Joseph Kesselring did not achieve much success until he at last hit the winning formula with an farcical black comedy he called Bodies in Our Cellars. Kesselring managed to get the script into the hands of Broadway star Dorothy Stickney in hopes of enticing her into playing one of the dear, demented old sisters, but it was actually her husband, producer Howard Lindsay, who became interested in the play. After Lindsay's partner and collaborator, Russel Crouse, enthusiastically told him to "buy it," both men began rewriting Kesselring's original version, without any credit. Renamed Arsenic and Old Lace, the play opened on January 10, 1941 at the Fulton Theatre in New York and it was a huge critical and commercial success, eventually running for more than three years. Capra happened to attend one of the earliest performances and immediately fell in love with the material, even though it was the complete reversal from the socially conscious work which had become his trademark. According to the director, however, that was really the whole point. "Hell, I owe myself a picture like this," he said in early 1941. "I'm not going to try to reform anybody. It'll be a picture without a sermon, and I'm going to have a lot of fun. [...] For a long time now I've been preaching one thing or another. Why, I haven't had a real good time since It Happened One Night [1934]."

Cary Grant and Frank Capra on the set
Capra admitted to Lindsay and Crouse that he took on Arsenic and Old Lace partly as a way of persuading them to let him film Life With Father he had earlier made them an offer for their long-running stage adaptation of Clarence Day's book, but negotiations fell through when Capra demanded script control (the play would eventually reach the screen in 1947, directed for Warner Bros. by Michael Curtiz). Lindsay and Crouse were hoping René Clair would helm Arsenic and Old Lace, but went with Capra because he had "a more commercial reputation." Although Capra had made his best pictures at Columbia, his lastest film, Meet John Doe (1941), had been successfully distributed by Warners, so he had a good relationship with the studio that owned the property he wanted. However, in order to get Cary Grant to play the lead, Capra knew he would have to decrease the rest of the budget as much as possible. As a result, he proposed that the whole picture be filmed on a soundstage (lowering costs for extras, transportation and location) and that it be shot in only four weeks. Jack Warner agreed to let Capra make the film the way he wanted and a deal was signed on August 1, 1941.

Josephine Hull and Jean Adair
After failing to convince the studio to wait until the summer of 1942 so they could keep their cast together, Lindsay and Crouse agreed to loan Capra their two lead actresses, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, for only eight weeks, including two weeks of travel time by train. When character actor Andy Devine, whom Capra wanted for the delusional "Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster, was unavailable, they also allowed him to borrow the actor who originated the role on stage, John Alexander, who would later play the real Theodore Roosevelt in the Bob Hope comedy Fancy Pants (1950).

Lindsay and Crouse balked, however, at Capra's request for Boris Karloff, who was ironically playing the old ladies' criminally insane nephew, Jonathan, who had been turned into a replica of Karloff's Frankenstein monster by his drunken plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein. An investor in the play, Karloff was its "star attraction" and the producers were counting on him to continue bringing in capacity audiences while the other regulars were in Hollywood working on the film. Lindsay and Crouse told Capra that he could have Karloff if Warners consented to letting them borrow Humphrey Bogart to replace him on stage in the meantime. Unable to convince the studio to make the swap, Capra considered Sam Jaffe, before ultimately deciding on using Canadian-born actor Raymond Massey in Karloff-like make-up, much to the dismay of Lindsay and Crouse.

Raymond Massey, Cary Grant and Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre was Capra's first choice for the role of the diffident Dr. Herman Einstein. The director was a great fan of Lorre's, "as an actor, as a personality and as a man who could do almost anything he wanted to." Often featured in crime and mystery films, Lorre was ready and willing to cross over to comedy, building Einstein into a "fawning and frantically squeamish adolescent." Capra later said of Lorre: "You could give him a little bit of a part and he'd just milk it and add to it and be that character. I think he had more to do with his own characterizations than anybody else, because he knew himself better than anyone else."

For the role of Mortimer Brewster, the single "normal" member of the crazy family in Kesselring's story, Capra considered Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan before settling on Cary Grant. Hope was eager to do it, but couldn't get Paramount to agree to a loan-out, while Reagan simply turned it down. Arsenic and Old Lace was somewhat of a departure for the 37-year-old Grant, who always assumed the role of "the calm, hands-in-the-pocket guy who tosses the answers off to the excited people. But here [he is] the one who is always bouncing around." Reportedly, Capra convinced Grant to play Mortimer by offering him a salary higher than his own, $160,000 (the director apparently received $100,000), which the actor donated entirely to the United Service Organization, the British War Relief and the Red Cross. Since the part of Mortimer Brewster, originated by Allyn Joslyn, was just one the stage ensemble, rewrites had to be made in order to give Grant a more important role in the film version.

Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane
Working with twins Philip and Julius Epstein, the screenwriters who would later win an Academy Award for Casablanca (1942), Capra opened the play slightly by featuring an exterior of the Brewster house and added several new scenes to Kesselring's original story, including Mortimer's runaway wedding to Elaine (in the original version, Mortimer is simply delayed from going to see a play with his sweetheart), as well as a funny running gag with a taxi cab driver (played by Garry Owen) standing outside the mansion throughout the film, waiting to take Mortimer and Elaine off to their honeymoon.

Because of the restrictions imposed by the Production Code, a few scenes and lines of dialogue had to be changed or omitted for the film. For instance, when Mortimer finds out he's not biologically related to the Brewsters and therefore not prone to the obvious insanity that runs in his family, he delightfully declares to his bride, "Darling, I'm a bastard!" Although that line "brought down the house" at the theater, the word "bastard" was strictly forbidden on screen at the time. After picking their brains trying to find an equally clever response for the film version, Philip Epstein finally came up with a solution: since Mortimer's father was a cook on a tramp steamer, the line was changed to "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a son of a sea cook!," which still managed to get sizeable laughs from the audience. At the end, when Mortimer's aunts insist on joining Teddy at the sanitarium, the play closes with them poisoning its director, Mr. Witherspoon (played in the film by Edward Everett Norton), using their preferred method of elderberry wine laced with arsenic. Since the Hays Office only allowed criminal acts to be shown if the perpretators were punished by the end of the film, this macabre ending was substituted by a scene of the cab driver saying, "I'm not a cab driver, I'm a coffee pot."

Dialogue director Harold Winston, Capra, Grant and Lane
Capra frequently let his "scene stealers run wild" and improvise on the set. According to the director, there was no reason to follow the script "word for word with actors [who] were so much better than the script." In fact, he often kept the cameras rolling, just to see what would happen. Capra especially let Lorre and Grant ad-lib as much as they wanted "because they were both very good at it." Oddly enough, Grant did not enjoy working with Capra and always described his portrayal of Mortimer as his least favorite film performance. Although he found Capara "a dear, dear man," he felt Arsenic and Old Lace "was not my kind humor [...] too much histerical shouting and extremely broad double takes." In addition, he thought the sets were wrong, too dark and stagy, the supporting cast (except for Jean Adair, for whom he had a special affection) too theatrical and the comedy bits too forced. According to Julius Epstein, Capra was aware of the film's problems and meant to fix them with reshoots and careful editing, "but then came Pearl Harbor and he ran off to Washington [to join the Signal Corps]."

Grant and Capra on the set
Although Capra planned to film Arsenic and Old Lace on a single set, he had to make exceptions for the new scenes added to the story. For the most part, though, he and cinematographer Sol Polito, who used low-key lighting to give the picture its spooky Halloween tone, were confined to art director Max Parker's set of the old ladies' Brooklyn house and the adjacent graveyard, which was based on Capra's own sketches. To add to the "funny-creepy" mood, Capra ordered a backdrop with wispy clouds in front of a full moon and had countless bags of autumn leaves blown around the exterior house and cemetery sets by three wind machines.

Filmed between October 20 and December 16, 1941, Arsenic and Old Lace ultimately took eight weeks to finish, not the four Capra had originally planned. As a result, the original $400,000 budget was eventually set at $1,120,000, which is a far more realistic figure considering the salaries for Capra and Grant alone. The deal for the film rights stipulated that Arsenic and Old Lace could not be released to the paying public until after the play had closed on Broadway. Since the show ran for 1,444 performances, the film was not shown until 1943, when it was previewed by American servicemen around the world, and it did not receive its theatrical release until September 1, 1944 much to Capra's regret, for it missed some of the most lucrative box-office periods of the war years.  

Despite the delayed release, Arsenic and Old Lace garnered positive reviews from critics. The New York Times, for instance, described it as "good macabre fun [which] offers a large number of laughs and some genuine melodramatic thrills along with some cut-rate hokum." For their part, Variety asserted that Kesselring's play "has, in the highly capable hands of producer-director Frank Capra, become riotous screen entertainment [...] it is definitely in the higher brackets as a money-getter." As for me, I say Arsenic and Old Lace is the most ridiculous film I have ever seen. It's 118 minutes of pure mindless ridiculousness. But it's the darnest best 118 minutes of pure mindless ridiculousness you'll ever see.

Lastly, I wanted to leave you with a rather lovely story that happened during the filming of Arsenic and Old Lace. Back when Cary Grant was still Archie Leach and touring with Bob Pender's troupe, he had come down with rheumatic fever in Rochester, New York and was confined to his rooming-house bed for several weeks, alone most of the time. Jean Adair happened to be appearing at the same vaudeville house, heard about the English boy and decided to bring him flowers and fresh fruit every day until he recovered. When Capra introduced him to Adair on the first day of shooting, Grant immediately recognized her and asked if she did him. Of course, she replied, she had seen all of his films. When he told her he was that young acrobat who had taken ill in Rochester, she suddenly smiled, threw her arms around him and hugged him affectionately. While she didn't remember him by name (since he was still Archie Leach at the time), she told him she thought there was something familiar about him.

This post is my contribution to The Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6

Cary Grant: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2005) | Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (2011) | The Capra Touch: A Study of the Director's Hollywood Classics and War Documentaries, 1934-1945 by Matthew C. Gunther (2012) | The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre by Stephen D. Youngkin (2005) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review


  1. Great post as always! This has been watched many times at my house (though I didn't really like it when I was little - I would leave the room when Jonathon showed up). Teddy is my favorite :) Did you know the house was later used in "George Washington Slept Here"?

    1. Thank you. :)
      No, I did not know that. That's great. I've never seen that film, though. Is it any good?

  2. Such a fun film! Whenever I think about it, I go "What a weird little movie." It certainly stands out from the rest of Grant and Capra's respective filmographies. On a sidenote, one day at my local library I heard an old lady and her grandson picking out movies to watch together. She got so thrilled when she found Arsenic and Old Lace that it made her grandson excited too. It was so sweet.

    1. Yeah, it was definitely an odd choice for Capra and Grant. But actually, I don't think the film would have worked as well (or even at all) if they hadn't been a part of it.

      Aww... what a lovely little story. :)

  3. Great info here! I had no idea re: Frank Capra's motivation for making this film in the first place. Thanks for sharing all this great background with us.

    I'm not sure how big a fan I am of this film, but your enthusiasm has won me over. I think I have it on a DVD set at home and I'll likely be pulling it out soon.

    Thanks also for joining the blogathon with a fresh take on this well-known film! :)

    1. Thanks for reading.
      It's a pretty absurd little film, but it's so much fun.

      Thank you for hosting. :)

  4. Oh, I want to rewatch this! It's the first real play I was ever in.


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