Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster
Priscilla Lane as Elaine Harper/Brewster
Josephine Hull as Aunt Abby
Jean Adair as Aunt Martha
John Alexander as Theodore Brewster
Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster
Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein
Jack Carson as Officer O'Hara
Arsenic and Old Lace was a successful play by Joseph Kesselring which opened on Broadway in 1941 to critical and popular acclaim. Director Frank Capra collaborated with writers Julius and Philip Epstein to do an adaptation of the script for the screen. One of the conditions of the sale of the rights was that the movie could not open before 1944, because the play was so popular that it was still running in New York and London.
The movie, which closely follows the play, is a dark yet hilarious comedy which centers around the antics of the Brewster family one Halloween. The movie opens with Mortimer, a die-hard bachelor and author of many anti-matrimony books ("Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure", "Mind Over Matrimony") getting married in City Hall to the girl next door (who is a minister's daughter). They run home to tell Elaine's father and Mortimer's two maiden aunts Abby and Martha before going on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls. While Elaine breaks the news to her father that she is now married to the misogynist next door, Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat of his aunts' house. He immediately assumes that his eccentric younger brother Theodore (who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt) has snapped and killed someone. However, when Mortimer tries to break the news to his sweet old aunts that Teddy has murdered someone, they pat him on the shoulder and tell him not to worry about it - they know about the body in the window seat because they're the ones who killed him! Things only get more complicated, because while Mortimer is trying to get rid of the body, get his family committed without being charged with murder, and hide the whole affair from Elaine, his convict older brother Jonathan shows up at the house on the run from the police and attempting to hide a body of his own.
This is a good, fast-paced movie which kept me laughing for the 2 hour duration. The film has some slapstick, but its humor comes mainly from the opposition of the viewers' assumptions about the characters with the revelation of their true natures. There are also a number of truly funny running jokes. One of the best is that Jonathan has had numerous plastic surgeries (performed by the alcoholic Dr. Einstein) to help him hide from the police. The latest surgery occurred right after Dr. Einstein had seen Frankenstein, and now people keep telling Jonathan he looks like Boris Karloff, which drives him into a homicidal rage. The shock and astonishment of Mortimer throughout the film contrast hysterically with the calm sweetness of his elderly aunts, the steadfast eccentricity of Teddy, and the murderousness of Jonathan. Cary Grant does a wonderful job with exaggerated expressions, double-takes, and startlement which emphasizes this contrast even more strongly.
- Cary Grant donated his entire salary from making the film to war charities.
- Capra knew the film couldn't be released until 1944, but he shot the film early and hurriedly so his family could live on his salary if he got called away to war.
- The characters of Teddy, Aunt Abby, and Aunt Martha were played by the same actors in the film and in the stage play.
- The part of Jonathan Brewster was actually played by Boris Karloff in the stage version.
- The only reason Karloff didn't play Jonathan Brewster in the screen version as well is because his particular contract for the play didn't allow him to take time off for the filming.