Mortimer Brewster’s aunts Abby and Martha are two of the kindest, most loving women you could ever hope to meet. They are always willing to help others and always seemed to have a kind word for everyone. They raised Mortimer and his brothers Jonathan and Teddy from a young age. Mortimer has developed into a well-rounded young man who works for the city’s paper reviewing the theatre. Brother Teddy, while harmless, suffers from the delusion that he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Brother Jonathan, well, the less said about him the better. He was the type of child who enjoyed pulling the wings off of flies and the legs off of spiders. The “fun” begins when Mortimer is excitedly preparing to share the good news of his coming engagement to the girl next door rather unexpectedly finds a dead body in the window box seat of his Aunts’ home. Later that same night his brother Jonathan returns home after a long absence; who after numerous face changing surgeries looks a great deal like the actor Boris Karloff. With him comes an alcoholic plastic surgeon and another dead body. Meanwhile, Teddy seems to be digging body sized locks for the Panama Canal in the basement.
Arsenic and Old Lace directed by Frank Capra, features Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, and John Alexander as the three brothers; Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the two loving aunts and Peter Lorre as the drunken surgeon Dr. Einstein. The film is based on the stage play by Joseph Kessiring which was still on its extended first run on Broadway at the time the film was made. It is a dark comedy with many twists and turns. It is one of my favorite movies and my second favorite play of all time. In fact, when my wife and I were directing High School Theatre Arsenic and Old Lace was the first play we chose to produce. The film holds true to the play and despite the focus on madness and murder manages to provide a number of good-natured laughs and situations.
A running gag in the film and the play concerns Brother Jonathan’s appearance. The results of his last plastic surgery left him looking like, as I mentioned earlier, film star Boris Karloff. If you have ever seen pictures of Mr. Karloff you will note that he had a very distinctive appearance. Raymond Massey is made up to have a general resemblance to Karloff and pulls off the roll very effectively. One might wonder, however, why the filmmakers did not hire Karloff himself for the role. He was alive and, in fact, had been playing the part of Jonathan on stage. In truth, Mr. Karloff was the studio's first choice for the role. However, they were thwarted in casting him because the theatre would not let him loose from the stage production long enough for him to be in the film. Pity, because, for those who recognize the man the joke would have been much funnier if he had been played by the man he was supposed to look like.