Arsenic and Old Lace

May 21, 1991

In 1941, director Frank Capra was at the peak of his profession with a string of critical and popular successes behind him, including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Lady for a Day (which he would remake thirty years later as Pocketful of Miracles, his cinematic swan song), It Happened One Night (for which he won an Oscar), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe.

On the eve of the outbreak of World War II, Capra was looking for one more sure-fire moneymaker. Capra had asked to head a military field photo company. The Signal Corps offered him a major’s commission. He signed papers and was told to stand by. Capra needed money to help keep his family going while he was away. Scouting for a property, he looked east to Broadway (where he’d found the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You). He liked what he saw in a raucous and macabre smash, Arsenic and Old Lace. An early black comedy with an engaging mixture of gruesomeness and gags, the play had opened at New York’s Fulton Theatre on January 10, 1941, garnered rave reviews and would eventually run for 1,444 performances.

The play concerns the daft doings of the Brewster clan, an odd branch on the Addams Family tree. Drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) must contend with the fact that his genteel, addle-pated maiden aunts have been dispatching lonely old male visitors from their Victorian parlor, with graciously proffered glasses of elderberry wine, to the Great Beyond or, to put it less metaphysically, to a grave in their basement. This they accomplished with the aid of their nephew Teddy who, under the delusion that he is Teddy Roosevelt, believes the stiffs to be yellow fever victims who perished while working on the Panama Canal. More mayhem arises with the arrival of the blackest sheep of the Mortimer fold, Jonathan, and his accomplice, plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

Capra knew sure-fire material when he saw it. Essentially a one-set play, it could be transferred to film quickly and cheaply. Unfortunately, there was a hitch: Warner Brothers had already snapped up the film rights and the movie version could not be released until the play’s theatrical run had ended—a far-off prospect considering the way advanced sales were going.

Undaunted, Capra pressed onward.  He surrounded himself with a team of pros: cameraman Sol Polito, editor Daniel Mandell and the redoubtable team of twin screen writers, Julius and Philip Epstein, who numbered among their credits such superb entertainments as Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, The Man Who Came to Dinner and Now, Voyager.

The Epsteins basically left the pre-sold play intact, save for a few changes. The day in question is moved from September to the more apropos Halloween, and the action opened up to include a baseball game and a trip to the marriage license bureau for Mortimer and his fiancee, Elaine, before focusing in on the antics of chez Brewster. Mortimer, in addition to being a drama critic, has become the author of a couple of anti-matrimony tracts and his aforementioned intended softened from aggressive to the cute ingenue played by Priscilla Lane. Capra rounded out his cast with a crack cadre of character actors: James Gleason, Jack Carson, Raymond Massey as Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre as, well, Peter Lorre.

Capra was soon shooting on a Warner’s sound stage as speedily as he had envisioned. And, as he wrote, he “couldn’t be happier. I let the scene-stealers run wild. It was a mugger’s ball.” (Perhaps he was thinking back to his early days in silent comedy, helming Harry Langdon comedies.)

The fun was to be short-lived. With one week left to shoot, Pearl Harbor intervened and on December 8th, two Signal Corps officers came to the set to swear Capra in. He was granted six weeks in which to finish shooting, editing and previewing the film before reporting for active duty on February 11th, 1942.

The movie stayed in the can until the 1944 completion of the Broadway run (perhaps the longest deliberate withholding of a movie’s release), but Capra had an inkling of its ultimate reception while overseas. He would occasionally hear G.I.s goof off yelling “Charge!” A la Teddy, who would shriek it while racing up San Juan Hill—actually the Brewster house stairs—in the movie.  While in the R.A.F. mess hall at Pinewood Studios, pilots would run toward Capra’s table brandishing imaginary swords, again yelling “Charge!” Capra realized they’d seen the film and loved it. (Jack Warner had released it early to the armed services.) “Charge” became a catchword wherever there were Americans in uniform and after the war Dodger fans took it up as a call to action.

When the film was released in 1944, it was a resounding success. In fact, it’s been said, nobody has ever lost money on Arsenic and Old Lace, whether in stock, high school or revival. Nobody . . . except for Frank Capra. He discovered when the film opened that he had outfoxed himself. As he writes in his autobiography The Name Above the Title: “You will probably remember the big plot to make Arsenic and Old Lace on a percentage basis so I wouldn’t have to dig into the old sock to keep my family going while I was in uniform. How did the plot work out? A disaster. The picture was not played in theaters until 1944. Then it made money so fast my first percentage check was for $232,000! Great!  Oh, sure.  The federal and state income taxes on it added up to $205,000!”