ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, a macabre comedy in three acts written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939 under the title Bodies in Our Cellar. Produced by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, it debuted at New York's Fulton Theatre on August 18, 1941, as Arsenic and Old Lace, and became an immediate critical and popular success, running for 1,444 performances.
Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse each had long Broadway careers as actors before and during their collaboration as Broadway writers, producers and theater owner/operators.
Characters in Arsenic and Old Lace in order of appearance:
AUNT ABBY BREWSTER, Josephine Hull
THE REV. DR. HARPER, Wyrley Birch
TEDDY BREWSTER, John Alexander
OFFICER BROPHY, John Quigg
OFFICER KLEIN, Bruce Gordon
AUNT MARTHA BREWSTER, Jean Adair
ELAINE HARPER, Helen Brooks
MORTIMER BREWSTER, Allyn Joslyn
MR. GIBBS, Henry Herbert
JONATHAN BREWSTER, Boris Karloff
DR. EINSTEIN, Edgar Stehli
OFFICER O'HARA, Anthony Ross
POLICE LT. ROONEY, Victor Sutherland
MR. WITHERSPOON, William Parke
The entire action of the play takes place in the living room of the old Brewster home in Brooklyn, a structure as Victorian as the two delightfully dotty old sisters, Abby and Martha Brewster, who occupy the house with their nephew, Theodore "Teddy" Brewster. As the curtain rises, Abby is seated at the tea table with a neighbor, the Rev. Dr. Harper. Standing nearby is Teddy, costumed in a frock coat, with pince-nez fastened to a black ribbon, and looking very presidential `a la Teddy Roosevelt.
Josephine Hull and Jean Adair reprised their roles in the 1945 film, as did John Alexander. Contractual obligations prevented Boris Karloff from doing the same.
Wyrley Birch was a Canadian actor, busy in American films throughout the 1930s & '40s, and in television during the 1950s, appearing often on "Sgt. Bilko/The Phil Silvers Show."
Arsenic and Old Lace's opening scene is a wealth of exposition: We learn that Dr. Harper is pastor of the church next door; that there's a war in Europe; that the sisters' nephew, Mortimer Brewster, is a theater critic who's dating Dr. Harper's daughter, Elaine; that Dr. Harper is opposed to his daughter's relationship with Mortimer as he is opposed to the evils of theater. They are interrupted when local police, Officers Brophy and Klein, stop by to pick up the sisters' donation of toys for the Christmas fund.
Officer Klein was played by Bruce Gordon, best remembered for his role as Frank Nitti in the TV series, The Untouchables.
The following bit between the police officers and Teddy confirms our suspicion that Teddy Brewster does indeed believe he is Colonel Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.
(The cops cross to Teddy and give him a snappy salute.)
TEDDY: What news have you brought me?
BROPHY: Colonel, we have nothing to report.
TEDDY: Splendid! Thank you, gentlemen! At ease!
(Teddy crosses to the stairway, blasts his bugle loudly, and hollers "C H A R G E !" running up the stairs.)
So five pages into the script and you're already hooked on the zany antics of the lovable Brewster family. Uh...well...maybe not so lovable. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Abby & Martha treat lonely old men to their homemade elderberry wine laced with a mixture of arsenic, strychnine, and a pinch of cyanide, turning over the bodies to Teddy as yellow fever victims for burial in the Panama Canal (the basement). At last count there were eleven bodies buried there. The twelfth body was put in the window seat by Abby when Martha was out tending a sick neighbor. Before they can alert Teddy to the next yellow fever victim ready for burial, Mortimer comes home to tell his beloved aunts that he's going to marry Elaine. He discovers the body in the window seat, believes that his harmless brother Teddy has finally gone over the edge, and tries to explain that to Abby & Martha. Naturally, they correct him, explaining that the body in the window seat is really one of their gentlemen.
For many years, Allyn Joslyn was a fixture as a leading man on Broadway, but the roles he originated on stage were always given to filmdom's matinee idols. As a result, Joslyn spent most of his film career playing obnoxious "other men" who never got the girl. He was good at that, though.
Soon after the body is transferred from the window seat to the Panama Canal, the sisters' other nephew, Jonathan Brewster, who recently escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane, returns to and forcibly enters his childhood home, bringing with him Dr. Einstein, his partner in crime, as well as the body of one Mr. Spenalzo, whom Jonathan had killed at some point on their road trip; they stash him smartly in the window seat.
Karloff was an English actor who emigrated to Canada in the 1910s, best remembered for his roles in horror films and his portrayal of Dr. Frankenstein's "monster" in the films Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). It's easy to forget that he had a keen sense of humor; here's a reminder:
Evil Jonathan's partner in crime was played by the talented Edgar Stehli, a legendary character actor who worked steadily on New York stages for 50 years.
Throughout the play, police representatives are in and out of the house for a variety of reasons, none of them having anything to do with dead bodies or capturing criminals. Jonathan and Dr. Einstein are at the top of the "most wanted" list, yet the local cops aren't even curious when they find Mortimer tied up and gagged, assuming that Officer O'Hara, a budding playwright, has ensured a captive audience for a play he's written and is reading to Mortimer.
Officer O'Hara was played by Anthony Ross, probably best remembered for playing "the Gentleman Caller" in the original 1944 production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie." In 1947, he embarked on what promised to be a successful film career, but in 1955 he died of heart failure at the age of 46.
Throughout the play, Mortimer comes to believe that if both his aunts and both his brothers are totally insane, surely he has the same genes! He tells Elaine (played by Helen Brooks) that they can't get married because insanity runs in his family — "it practically gallops!" he says.
Helen Brooks had a very active Broadway career from 1929 through 1944. When her role as Elaine in "Arsenic and Old Lace" came to an end, so did her career, or so it seems. She certainly dropped off the radar. I could find no picture of her, not even a sentence about her anywhere. Hopefully, some reader will enlighten me.
After Police Lieutenant Rooney dresses down his men for not doing their job, they finally haul Jonathan and Dr. Einstein away.
Victor Sutherland was largely known for his motion picture career from the 1910s to the 1950s. Between 1919 and 1950, he also appeared in eight Broadway plays. In the '50s, he was seen occasionally on television, including several appearances in the courtroom drama, "Perry Mason."
Mortimer finally gets Teddy legally committed to Happy Dale Sanitarium, and when Abby & Martha see that Teddy's actually leaving, they realize how sad they will be without him, so they prevail on Happy Dale's administrator to let them commit themselves to Happy Dale, so they can always be together.
Before Mortimer has a complete nervous breakdown, and before his aunts leave their home forever, they take Mortimer aside to confess that he isn't really a Brewster. He was born to the Brewsters' cook, who died shortly after childbirth. They kept him and raised him with their late brother's two boys. Not a Brewster?! Not insane?! Mortimer is beside himself with glee! He and Elaine can now begin their life together.
In 1945, Frank Capra's film of Arsenic and Old Lace was released, and it's interesting to note that Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander reprised their original roles (Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha and Teddy Brewster), but contractual obligations prevented Boris Karloff from recreating Jonathan Brewster. Capra used Raymond Massey in the role...
...made up to look as much like Karloff as possible:
Massey was born to a privileged life in Canada, was well educated, fought with the Canadian Army in WW1, and was severely wounded in action in France. By 1922 he was a civilian, making his debut on the London stage. He began his long American film career in 1927, with time out for service, again with the Canadian Army, in WWII. After the war, Massey became an American citizen, and was seen frequently on TV in the 1950s and '60s.
Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's partner-in-crime, was enacted in the movie by Austrian-American Peter Lorre in his inimitable soft-spoken, off-center style that was always guaranteed to spook us out. King of filmdom's serial killers, Lorre was a popular featured player in Hollywood crime films and mysteries.
In the film, the role of Mortimer was played by the talented British-American actor Cary Grant, one of Hollywood's most popular and enduring performers.
With all due respect to Allyn Joslyn, no one could have played Mortimer better than Cary Grant, and even a hint of biography here would be redundant.
Mortimer's love interest, Elaine Harper, was played in the film by the reliable supporting actress, Priscilla Lane.
Priscilla Lane started out as a singer with her sisters, Rosemary and Lola, and was signed to a Hollywood contract in 1937. She began her film career in a supporting role, and over the years she would play an assortment of similar roles. Her starring role was as the real-life wife of an Air Force Colonel for 34 years (until his death in 1976). After she retired in 1948, she followed her husband around the world from base to base, often singing in camp shows. They eventually settled in New England and had four children.
In the film, Officer O'Hara's first name was revealed. The role of the single-minded would-be playwright, Officer Patrick O'Hara, was played by Jack Carson.
Canadian-born Jack Carson was a popular character actor during the golden age of Hollywood, with a film career spanning 3 decades. Though occasionally he excelled in a dramatic role, he was usually cast in supporting roles for comic relief. He perfected the character of the wisecracking know-it-all who's eventually undone by his ego.
Also, Mr. Capra took the liberty of promoting Officer Brophy to Sgt. Brophy, and cast Edward McNamara in the role...
...and Officer Klein was replaced by Officer Sanders who was enacted by young John Ridgely.
The film's top cop, Lieutenant Rooney — the man in charge of the three officers — was played by one of my favorite character actors, James Gleason.
Master of the double-take, Jimmy Gleason built a career playing tough but warm-hearted characters. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor award for his performance as boxing manager Max "Pop" Corkle in the 1941 film, "Here Comes Mr. Jordan." Gleason was also an award-winning film writer, having co-authored "The Broadway Melody," the second film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In covering the film, I have saved for last Mr. Witherspoon, administrator of Happy Dale Sanitarium, played by the remarkably enduring actor, Edward Everett Horton.
Horton began his career in Vaudeville in 1906, was in a couple of plays on Broadway, and in 1919 he moved to Hollywood where he started getting film roles. His first starring role was in the 1922 comedy, "Too Much Business." He worked steadily, tapering off in the 1960s. He specialized in characters who were pleasant and dignified, but politely hesitant when faced with situations outside their comfort zones. My favorite Horton role is the gentleman's gentleman in A Pocketful of Miracles. My second favorite is Mr. Witherspoon.
In the stage play, the final curtain closes on this scene, so the audience is left wondering whether the wine is actually the sisters' special blend, and if so, did he drink it? In the film, however, Mr. Witherspoon happily helps Mortimer usher Abby, Martha and Teddy to the waiting transportation to Happy Dale Sanitarium.
Since the original Broadway play, there have been multitudes of productions in community and regional theaters across the country, as well as in Canada and England. There are many community-supported theaters that bring it back regularly, every few years, to tickle the funny-bones of new generations of theater-goers. But oddly enough, there's been only one Broadway revival:
Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. The only Broadway revival of Arsenic and Old Lace opened at the 46th Street Theater on 26 June 1986, starring Jean Stapleton as Abby Brewster and Polly Holliday as Martha Brewster...
...with Tony Roberts as Mortimer Brewster...
...Abe Vigoda as Jonathan Brewster...
...William Hickey as Dr. Einstein...
and Michaeljohn McGann as Teddy Brewster. (No picture available)
The supporting role of Rev. Harper was played by Gwyllum Evans.
The bit role of old Mr. Gibbs, who drinks the spiked elderberry wine, was played by William Preston.
You may remember him as Carl "Oldy" Olsen on mid-'90s TV:
The one review of the opening-night performance that I read was scathing. The reviewer (Frank Rich, New York Times) found nothing and no one to his liking. Yet the show ran for over six months (221 performances). Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time audiences disagreed with a critic.
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