Saturday, October 18, 2014

From Stage to Screen: Arsenic and Old Lace

Frank Capra apparently had a knack for making films that would be forever linked to specific holidays. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a perennial Yuletide favourite. Meet John Doe (1941) is also linked to that particular holiday. As to Frank Capra's adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), it has always been tied to Halloween. There should be little wonder that it is. Not only is Arsenic and Old Lace set at Halloween, but its subject matter makes it perfect viewing for the holiday.

Arsenic and Old Lace centres on drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), who returns to visit his spinster aunts, Martha (Jean Adair) and Abbey (Josephine Hull) following his wedding. His cousin Teddy (John Alexander), who lives with his two aunts, believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt. When Mortimer discovers a dead body in a window seat, he concludes that Teddy must have committed murder. It is not long before Mortimer learns the shocking truth behind the murder. Worse yet, his homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up. Jonathan brings with him surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), with the plan that Einstein will perform plastic surgery on him so he won't be recognisable to the police As might be expected, hardly anything goes according to plan for either Mortimer or Jonathan.

The film Arsenic and Old Lace was based on the hit Broadway play of the same name by Joseph Kesselring, who wrote it in 1939. As hard as it is to believe, the black comedy had some basis in real life. It is commonly believed at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas that Goerz House at the college served as the basis for the Mortimer sisters' home. While Mr. Kesserling taught at the college he lived at Goerz House, which at the time served as both a residence for male teachers and a men's dormitory. Among its features were a rather large window seat and a cellar with a dirt floor, much like the Mortimers' house. At Bethel College it is also believed that the Mortimer sisters themselves might have been based on people he met while living in Kansas.

Of course, no murders were ever committed at Goerz House at Bethel College. That having been said, the inspiration for that part of the plot of Arsenic and Old Lace might have been based on a real life murder case.  Amy Archer-Gilligan was the owner of a nursing home, the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm in Windsor, Connecticut. For lifetime care at the nursing home, one only needed to pay Archer-Gilligan a one time fee of $1000. Unfortunately, she had a novel means of making more room at the home and thus creating more business. Quite simply, between 1907 and 1917 Archer-Gilligan murdered several of the residents at her nursing home for their pension money. She was charged with five counts of murder, which her lawyer got reduced to one count, although she might have been guilty of many more (between 1907 and 1917 there were sixty deaths at the nursing home).  As to how she committed the murders, Archer-Gilligan had been buying arsenic in bulk, ostensibly to deal with a rat problem.

Prior to Arsenic and Old Lace Joseph Kesserling had not been particularly successful as a playwright. His first play on Broadway, There's Wisdom in Women, closed after only 46 performances in 1935. His third play, Cross-town, did even worse. It closed after only five performances in 1937. Fortunately Mr. Kesserling sent a copy of Arsenic and Old Lace (then titled Bodies in Our Cellar) to actress Dorothy Stickney with the idea that she could play one of the aunts. Ultimately she would not, but Miss Stickney was married to Howard Lindsay, who with  Russel Crouse formed a successful writing team on Broadway. Mr. Lindsay saw potential in the script for Bodies in Our Cellar and as a result Lindsay and Crouse decided to make the play their first joint production on Broadway. Allegedly Lindsay and Crouse rewrote the play a good deal, although they took no credit for it publicly.

To direct Arsenic and Old Lace (as the play was retitled), Lindsay and Crouse turned to Bretaigne Windust, who had directed Lindsay and Crouse's hit play Life with Father in 1939. For the important role of serial killer Jonathan Brewster, Lindsay and Crouse recruited Boris Karloff (the line "He looks like Boris Karloff!" was then an in-joke that got uproarious laughter from audiences when the play was first performed on Broadway). For the other roles in the play Lindsay and Crouse hired Broadway veterans: Josephine Hull; Jean Adair; John Alexander; Allyn Joslyn; and Edgar Stehli.

The play Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut in a trial run in Baltimore, Maryland on 26 December 1940. The show opened to overwhelmingly positive notices from critics. It also proved to be a smash hit. It was then on 10 January 1941 that Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut on Broadway at the Fulton Theatre (now called the Helen Hayes Theatre). It proved to be an enormous success. As in Baltimore the reviews from critics were overwhelmingly positive. What is more, Arsenic and Old Lace was playing to largely full houses. The play would remain at the Fulton Theatre until 25 September 1943, whereupon it moved to the Hudson Theatre. It was there that it closed on 17 June 1944 after 1,444 performances.

Such success did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. Nearly every major studio sought the film rights to Arsenic and Old Lace, including Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn. In the end it was Warner Bros. who won the rights to the play, closing the deal less than a month after Arsenic and Old Lace had opened on Broadway. As part of the deal Lindsay and Crouse insisted that the film could not open until 1 January 1943, giving the play a chance to run two years on Broadway. As it was the play would run considerably longer and in the end the film would not be released until 23 September 1944.

Lindsay and Crouse were hoping that René Clair would direct the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Instead Jack L. Warner chose Frank Capra, who had directed such hit films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).  The screenplay was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. The screenplay would depart from the play in some respects, largely because of the Production Code. The line, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm a bastard!" had to be altered in order to conform to the Code. Another change made in the film is that in the play Mortimer and Elaine are only engaged, while in the film they have just married. Yet another change made for the film is that while the play is set in September, the film is set in Halloween.

The casting of the lead role of Mortimer for the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace would take some time. Originally Warner Bros. wanted Bob Hope for the role. Although it might seem odd now, there's no doubt that it made perfect sense to Warner Bros. at the time. Bob Hope had recently starred in two hit horror comedies for Paramount: The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), which they probably thought made him a good choice for Arsenic and Old Lace, yet another horror comedy. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., Bob Hope was under contract to Paramount and that studio refused to loan  him out. Reportedly Frank Capra offered the role to Jack Benny, who was then under contract to Warner Bros., but Jack Benny turned him down. On 11 August 1941 Warner Bros. announced that Richard Travis (now best known as Bertram H. Jefferson in The Man Who Came to Dinner) would play Mortimer. This changed on 30 September 2011 when Warner Bros. announced that Cary Grant had been cast in the role.

The role of Mortimer would not be the only one that would prove difficult to cast. The role of Jonathan would as well. Warner Bros. wanted Boris Karloff to play the role, but Lindsay and Crouse did not want to release him from the play for two months to make the film. They tried to convince Warner Bros. to wait until June 1942, when Boris Karloff (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) would be free to do the film. Lindsay and Crouse believed that Boris Karloff was the play's chief asset and without him ticket sales could actually go down. Ultimately Raymond Massey would be cast in the role of homicidal sociopath Jonathan Brewster.

Then as now Raymond Massey was best known for playing villains in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Santa Fe Trail (1940). He had appeared with Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932). He also resembled Boris Karloff insofar as both men were tall and somewhat menacing in appearance. As it was Frank Capra insisted that make up be used to make Raymond Massey look even more like Boris Karloff. This alarmed Warner's legal department, who had Mr. Karloff sign a release so that he would not sue the studio.

While Boris Karloff did not get to appear in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace, his co-stars from the play Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander were able to recreate their respective roles of Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha, and Cousin Teddy for the film. The three actors were given eight weeks off from the play in order to play their parts in the film.  Their roles were taken over by Patricia Collinge, Minnie Dupree, and Harry Gribbon respectively.

For the most part the rest of the cast was filled out by players under contract to Warner Bros. Legendary actor Peter Lorre played the role of plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein. Priscilla Lane played Mortimer's new wife, Elaine. Jack Carson played the rather clueless Officer O'Hara. Legendary character actor Edward Everett Horton was one of the exceptions in the cast. He spent nearly his entire career as a freelancer, so he was not under contract to Warner Bros. when he played Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Dale Sanitarium.

For its adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace Warner Bros. spared no expense. Its cinematographer would be Sol Polito, who had already shot such classic films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). He had already been nominated for one Academy Award, for his photography on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Max Steiner, then as now known for his work on King Kong and Gone with the Wind, would compose the score. Arsenic and Old Lace was budgeted at $1,220,000 then a respectable sum for a film. It was given a shooting schedule of 48 days or, more simply, eight weeks.

Arsenic and Old Lace was shot from 20 October 1941 to 16 December 1941. Despite this it would be some time before the movie would be seen by audiences in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Lindsay and Crouse did not want the film released while Arsenic and Old Lace was still playing on Broadway. Initially they had thought the play would have ended its run by 1 January 1943 at the latest. As it turned out Arsenic and Old Lace was such a roaring success that it ran until 17 June 1944. While Warner Bros. would not release the film during this time, it was shown to troops serving overseas in World War II during 1943.

It was also during this period that the film would undergo one change from its original, completed version. The original, completed version of the movie Arsenic and Old Lace ended with Aunts Abby and Martha poisoning one last victim, Mr. Witherspoon. The Breen Office was none too happy with this ending, and it turned out that preview audiences were not either. In the end Warner Bros. simply cut the ending off, so the film ends with Mortimer, Elaine, and the taxi driver in the cemetery.

With the play's Broadway run completed Arsenic and Old Lace premiered at the Strand in New York City on 1 September 1944. It went into general release on 23 September 1944. In the intervening time two of the film's cast members had died, Edward McWade, who played the murder victim Gibbs, and Spencer Charters, who played the Marriage Licence Clerk. Priscilla Lane was also no longer with Warner Bros., the actress and the studio having terminated her contract by mutual consent not long after Arsenic and Old Lace had finished shooting.

The film Arsenic and Old Lace would prove very successful. It would literally play for weeks in several cities. Ultimately the film made $2,836,000 in the United States and $1,948,000 overseas. The film also received largely positive reviews. Donald Kirkley wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "The epic, macabre humour of Arsenic and Old Lace has been fully retained in the screen version... In some ways the film is superior." The New York Times reviewer wrote of the film, "Frank Capra has put into the picture all of the riotous farce, gentle naivete and broad melodrama that Messrs. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse put originally into the Joseph Kesselring stage play."

Curiously not everyone was happy with the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Cary Grant felt that he overplayed Mortimer Brewster and that Allyn Joslyn (who originated the role on stage) was much better. He also felt Jimmy Stewart would have done a better job of playing Mortimer in the film. Mr. Grant considered Arsenic and Old Lace to be his least favourite performance on film.

It would appear that audiences have disagreed with Cary Grant over the years. Arsenic and Old Lace continued to do brisk business well into 1945. The film would later prove to be a favourite on television, where it is among Frank Capra's most frequently shown films. Indeed, for many television stations airing Arsenic and Old Lace is a Halloween tradition.

As a postscript it must be noted that while Boris Karloff did not get to play Jonathan Brewster on film, he did eventually get to play the role in a television adaptation of the play. On 5 January 1955 the CBS series The Best of Broadway aired an adaptation of the play that not only featured Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster, but John Alexander as Cousin Teddy, Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon. Josephine Hull would go from Arsenic and Old Lace to another great success on Broadway, the play Harvey. She would reprise her role as Veta Louise Simmons in the 1950 film version of Harvey as well.

Seventy years after its release Arsenic and Old Lace not only remains popular, but also well respected. At film review site Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rather phenomenal rating of 92%. At IMDB it has a rating of 8.1 out of 10. In 2000 the American Film Institute placed Arsenic and Old Lace at #30 in its "
100 Years...100 Laughs" list of the funniest movies of all time. Originating as a smash hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace has gone on to become one of the best loved film comedies of all time.


Irish Jayhawk said...

Not sure if this surprises you or not, but Arsenic & Old Lace is my favorite film. I adore watching it anytime, but especially on Halloween. And I loved that I learned something new- had no clue about the connection to Kansas! Fabulous post, Terry!

FlickChick said...

Wonderful and informative post! I harbor a crush on Mr. Grant that borders on...well, let's not go there. At any rate, I initially wasn't keen on this film, but after another viewing, I think I finally "got it" and decided it was, indeed, good fun.

Spiritually Cramped said...

I couldn't possibly count how many times I've seen this film (Cary Grant was my first love!) but I knew woefully little about its backstory. Thanks for redressing the balance with such a fun and informative post!


I love this film so much, and didn't know anything about the original play (well, I only knew that Karloff was in the cast!). Thank you so much for such an informative post about one of the greatest films ver.
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)