AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Arsenic and Old Lace
Director: Frank Capra (Dir)
Release Date:   23 Sep 1944
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 1 Sep 1944
Production Date:   20 Oct-16 Dec 1941
Duration (in mins):   118
Duration (in reels):   12
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Cast:   Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster)  
    Priscilla Lane (Elaine Harper)  
    Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster)  
    Jack Carson (O'Hara)  
    Edward Everett Horton (Mr. Witherspoon)  
    Peter Lorre (Dr. Einstein)  
    James Gleason (Lt. Rooney)  
    Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster)  
    Jean Adair (Martha Brewster)  
    John Alexander ("Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster)  
    Grant Mitchell (Reverend Harper)  
    Edward McNamara (Brophy)  
    Garry Owen (Taxi cab driver)  
    John Ridgely (Saunders)  
    Vaughan Glaser (Judge Cullman)  
    Chester Clute (Dr. Gilchrist)  
    Charles Lane (Reporter)  
    Edward McWade (Gibbs)  
    Spencer Charters (Marriage license clerk)  
    Hank Mann (Photographer)  
    Lee Phelps (Umpire)  
    Alberta Gary    
    Roland Jones    
    Mary Brodel    
    Juanita Stark    
    Vera Lewis    
    Herbert Gunn    
    Don Phillips    

Summary: After overcoming an attack of pre-nuptial nerves, Mortimer Brewster, New York theatrical critic, confirmed bachelor and author of millions of words against marriage, weds Elaine Harper, a minister's daughter, on Halloween Day. On their way to their Niagara Falls honeymoon, Mortimer and Elaine stop in Brooklyn, where Elaine's father lives next to Mortimer's two maiden aunts and uncle. While Elaine breaks the news of her marriage to her conservative father, Mortimer drops in on his aunts, Abby and Martha. In his aunts' living room, Mortimer searches for notes on his latest book, Mind Over Matrimony , and discovers a corpse in his aunts' window seat. Immediately Mortimer assumes that his deranged uncle, who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, is responsible. To his horror, however, Abby and Martha calmly take credit for murdering Mr. Hoskins and later confess to killing not only Mr. Hoskins but eleven other men, all of whom are now buried in the cellar. Stricken by the story of his aunts' murderous past, which began when an elderly visitor suffered a fatal heart attack in their parlor and inspired them with his peaceful repose, Mortimer tries to point out the error of their killing ways. Instead, Abby and Martha insist that luring lonely men into their home with a "room for rent" sign and serving them elderberry wine laced with arsenic and other poisons is a charitable service. While Mortimer frantically tries to have his uncle, whose lunacy is well-known in Brooklyn, committed to a sanitarium as a means of clearing his aunts of any future blame, Gibbs, another would-be renter, arrives at the house. After preventing Gibbs from taking the fatal sip of elderberry wine, Mortimer leaves to see Judge Cullman, whose signature he needs for "Teddy's" commitment papers. In his absence, Mortimer's criminally insane brother Jonathan, recently escaped from an Indiana asylum, and Dr. Einstein, a drunken underworld plastic surgeon, show up unexpectedly at the house. Unknown to the aunts, Jonathan, whose face Dr. Einstein accidentally altered to resemble Boris Karloff's, has brought along his own murder victim, Mr. Spenalzo. Against his sisters' wishes, Teddy, who has been told by Abby and Martha that Mr. Hoskins, like their other victims, is a yellow fever casualty and must be buried immediately in a "lock" of the "Panama Canal," invites Dr. Einstein to inspect his newly dug hole in the cellar. Dr. Einstein concludes that the "lock" would be an ideal resting place for Mr. Spenalzo, and after Jonathan forces his aunts to retire early, the two criminals move Mr. Spenalzo into the living room, just as Teddy carries Mr. Hoskins to the cellar. Before Jonathan and Dr. Einstein are able to get Mr. Spenalzo into the basement, however, Elaine shows up, forcing them to deposit the corpse in the now vacant window seat. The ever paranoid Jonathan then tries to drag Elaine to the cellar but is stopped by the return of Mortimer. Oblivious to Elaine's distress over Jonathan, Mortimer sends her back home, then after failing to intimidate Jonathan into leaving, finds Mr. Spenalzo's body in the window seat. Although Mortimer first accuses Abby of the deed, Jonathan reveals himself as the culprit when he rushes to sit on the window seat as his aunts are about to open it. Before Mortimer is able to act on his discovery, O'Hara, the new neighborhood policeman, arrives at the door. On the promise that he will discuss O'Hara's autobiographical play with him later that night, Mortimer rids himself of the policeman, but then is confronted by Dr. Einstein, who, while disposing of Mr. Spenalzo's body, stumbled on Mr. Hoskins' corpse in his cellar grave. After Jonathan and his aunts argue about who has the more impressive murder record, Mortimer obtains the second needed signature for Teddy's commitment papers from Dr. Gilchrist and confesses to a confused Elaine about his family's insanity. Determined to do away with his brother, Jonathan ties up and gags Mortimer and is about to kill him when O'Hara returns, having received complaints about Teddy's noisy bugle calls. Seeing Mortimer bound and gagged, O'Hara proceeds to recite the action of his play, while Jonathan lies behind him, unconscious from an accidental blow by Dr. Einstein. When Jonathan revives, he assumes that O'Hara and his partner Brophy are after him and unwittingly reveals that he is a fugitive. Eventually O'Hara's superior, Lieutenant Rooney, shows up and listens in disbelief as Jonathan and his aunts tell him matter-of-factly about the thirteen dead men in the cellar. After Jonathan is arrested and Dr. Einstein slips away, Mr. Witherspoon of the Happy Dale Sanitarium comes for Teddy, only to hear that Martha and Abby, who are anxious to stay near their brother, want to go, too. Just before parting, Abby reveals to Mortimer that he is not really their next of kin but is the adopted son of a sea cook. Overjoyed, Mortimer rushes to tell Elaine, who has since discovered Mr. Spenalzo and Mr. Hoskins for herself, the good news about his parentage and to resume at last their honeymoon plans. 

Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Brand Name: A Warner Bros.--First National Picture
Distribution Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Frank Capra (Dir)
  Russ Saunders (Asst dir)
  Harold Winston (Dial dir)
  Claude Archer (2d asst dir)
Producer: Frank Capra (Assoc prod)
Writer: Julius J. Epstein (Scr)
  Philip G. Epstein (Scr)
Photography: Sol Polito (Dir of photog)
  Wesley Anderson (2d cam)
  Frank Evans (Asst cam)
  Charles O'Bannon (Gaffer)
  Mickey Marigold (Still photog)
Art Direction: Max Parker (Art dir)
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell (Film ed)
Set Decoration: Lou Hafley (Props)
  Keefe Malley (2d propman)
  Levi C. Williams (Asst propman)
  Alfred Williams (Asst propman)
Costumes: Leon Roberts (Ward)
  Cora Lobb (Ward)
  Orry-Kelly (Gowns)
Music: Leo F. Forbstein (Mus dir)
  Max Steiner (Mus)
  Hugo Friedhofer (Orch arr)
Sound: C. A. Riggs (Sd)
  E. A. Brown (Mixer)
Special Effects: Byron Haskin (Spec eff)
  Robert Burks (Spec eff)
Make Up: Anita De Beltrand (Hair)
  Perc Westmore (Makeup artist)
  Johnny Wallace (Makeup man)
Production Misc: Steve Trilling (Prod mgr)
  Bob Fender (Unit publicist)
  Eric Stacey (Unit mgr)
  Joe Cramer (Best boy)
  Dr. Herman Lissauer (Research)
  Wandra Sybald (Scr clerk)
  Harold Noyes (Grip)
Stand In: Mal Merrihugh (Stand-in for Cary Grant)
Country: United States

Source Text: Based on the play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring, as produced by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (New York, 10 Jan 1941).
Authors: Russel Crouse
  Howard Lindsay
  Joseph Kesselring

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. 6/10/1944 dd/mm/yyyy LP12890

PCA NO: 7855
Physical Properties: b&w:
  Sd: RCA Sound System

 
Genre: Comedy
Sub-Genre: Crime
 
Subjects (Major): Aunts
  Hereditary tendencies
  Insanity
  Murder
  New York City--Brooklyn
  Newlyweds
  Spinsters
 
Subjects (Minor): Alcoholics
  Authors
  Bachelors
  Brothers
  Burial
  Clergy
  Confession
  Corpses
  Corpses, Missing
  Critics
  Death and dying
  Fathers and daughters
  Fugitives
  Halloween
  Impersonation and imposture
  Insane asylums
  Judges
  Boris Karloff
  Parentage
  Physicians
  Plastic surgeons
  Playwrights
  Poisoning
  Police
  Scars
  Theodore Roosevelt
  Uncles
  Wine and wine making

Note: Although this film was made in late 1941, it was not released until Sep 1944 because of a contractual obligation between Warner Bros. and the producers of the Broadway show, in which Warner Bros. agreed not to release the film until the end of the stage play's run. According to Warner Bros. press releases, Warner executive Hal B. Wallis outbid "every major film company" in Feb 1941 for the rights to Kesselring's play. Warner Bros. studio records included in the Warner Bros. collection at the USC Cinema-Television Archives reveal that the rights cost $175,000, and that theatrical producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse negotiated for 15% of the film's profits. Although the original projected release date of the film was 30 Sep 1942, the play had 1,444 performances and ran for over three and a half years, thus delaying considerably the film's release. Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander re-created their Broadway stage roles for this picture. Upon completion of their film duties, the actors then returned to the play.
       Although not cast in the film, Boris Karloff originated the role of "Jonathan" on the stage. According to modern sources, Karloff volunteered to stay with the play to appease Crouse and Lindsay, who were concerned that the loss of all of their stars at one time would hurt their ticket sales. Studio records indicate that Warner Bros. suggested Humphrey Bogart to Lindsay and Crouse as a possible stage replacement for Karloff, but apparently the deal was never pursued. During filming, Karloff signed an agreement allowing the use of his name and likeness in the picture, a legal matter that greatly concerned Warner Bros. executives. In the spring of 1941, French film director RenĂ© Clair saw the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace and approached Lindsay and Crouse about directing the film. Lindsay and Crouse then communicated Clair's interest to Warner Bros., but it is not known if the studio ever seriously considered Clair for the job. Modern sources claim that Capra originally wanted Bob Hope for the role of "Mortimer," but Hope was not available.
       According to studio records, Warner Bros. borrowed Cary Grant from Columbia for the production. Grant's total salary was $160,000. As per Grant's instructions, $50,000 of that money went to the Hollywood Division of the British War Relief Association of Southern California, $25,000 went to the American Red Cross, $25,000 went the United Service Organization, and $10,000 was paid to Grant's agent. Capra received $100,000 for his services. Hull and Adair were each paid $10,000, Lorre received $13,000 and Massey, $25,000. Studio records additionally record the following information about the production: For the film, the Epsteins expanded the role of "Mortimer" to accommodate Grant's star status and also added a few scenes, including an Ebbets Field baseball riot, to the beginning of the story. Prior to production, the script was submitted to the PCA for approval. According to files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA advised Warner Bros. research head Dr. Herman Lissauer to play down the newlyweds' "sex frustration," which was evident, in their opinion, in certain lines and bits of business. In addition, the PCA strongly suggested that all references to actual poisons, with the exception of arsenic, be eliminated from the script, as an actual "recipe" for a toxic additive might be replicated by unstable viewers. Some of the PCA's advice was taken, while other suggestions were ignored without apparent ramifications.
       Throughout most of the production, the script was being re-written by the Epstein brothers. Contrary to some modern sources, which state that the film was shot in four weeks, the proposed shooting period was eight weeks, and actual filming took nine weeks. (In his autobiography, Capra claims that he submitted a budget to Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner that was based on a four-week shooting schedule, but no evidence that Warner Bros. ever seriously considered filming the project in that time has been found.) In a memorandum to an executive at Warner Bros., unit manager Eric Stacey described Capra's directing methods to explain why, in part, the production fell behind schedule: "He times his work so that the last thing in the day he will stage, and photograph, [is] a master long shot of a sequence; then the following morning at 8:00 o'clock when he sees his dailies of the previous day's work, he will continue in that sequence and make changes while he is shooting closer shots of the same action, and as ideas develop he will sometimes go back and make close-ups again, having the character read a different line, or have the character do a different piece of business." On 1 Nov 1941, a decision was made to shoot all of the Brewster house interiors, the bulk of the story, in sequence. Production records indicate that some scenes, such as ones in Mortimer's grandfather's laboratory, in the Brewster cellar, and in the aunts' bedroom, were shot but not used in the final film.
       Modern sources note that a scene at the end of the story, in which "Mr. Witherspoon," played by Edward Everett Horton, becomes the aunts' last victim, was shot and included in preview prints of the film. Because of poor audience reaction to the screen demise of the popular character actor, however, the scene was removed from release prints. Publicity items from 1944 state that Massey's makeup, which was the subject of much debate during the production, required two hours to apply and two hours to remove. The production ended a few days after the United States' entry into World War II. According to a 13 Dec 1941 NYT article on Capra, earlier in the year, he had applied for a commission with the Signal Corps. Shortly after finishing Arsenic and Old Lace , he assumed his duties as a major and made no other commercial films until 1946's It's a Wonderful Life , which he produced after his release from the service. Warner Bros. press releases boasted that the set for Arsenic and Old Lace was the largest ever constructed at the studio, and that the house was "complete in every detail, room by room." Because of strict movie censorship rules, the word "bastard," which is used in the stage play in a key line at the end, was not included in the screenplay. In his autobiography, Capra credited Jesse Hibbs (not Russ Saunders) as the assistant director.
       Capra also notes that while he was stationed in London in 1943, he overheard American and British soldiers screaming "Charge!" in the manner of the "Teddy Roosevelt" character and deduced that they had seen the film. He then learned that Jack L. Warner had released the picture to the armed forces a year before it was to be released to the general public. An AMPAS notice indicates that Arsenic and Old Lace was not given Academy Award consideration for the fourteenth, fifteenth or sixteenth annual awards because of its 1944 release date. DV lists the film's preview running time as 97 minutes, but this time is most likely an error. In Nov 1946, Karloff played "Jonathan" in an abbreviated CBS radio version of Kesselring's play. Arsenic and Old Lace was produced on television four times: the first broadcast on CBS in 1945 starred Josephine Hull and Boris Karloff; Karloff and John Alexander reprised their roles for a 1955 CBS broadcast, which also starred Helen Hayes, Orson Bean and Billie Burke; in 1962, a third version, which starred Karloff, Tony Randall and Mildred Natwick, was broadcast on NBC; Hayes reprised her 1955 role for a fourth broadcast on ABC in 1969, which also starred Lillian Gish, Fred Gwynne and Bob Crane. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   2 Sep 1944.   
Daily Variety   1 Sep 44   p. 3.
The Exhibitor   6 Sep 44   pp. 1577-78.
Film Daily   1 Sep 44   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Sep 44   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   5 Sep 44   p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter   17 Oct 1944.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   18 Mar 44   p. 1806.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   2 Sep 44   p. 2081.
New York Times   13 Dec 41   p. 24.
New York Times   2 Sep 44   p. 17.
Variety   6 Sep 44   p. 10.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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