Skip to main content

Arsenic and Old Lace - Comedy With a Little Horror Mixed In

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Dusty is an avid classic movie buff and wants to write reviews to, hopefully, stimulate discussion.

Movie Poster


Arsenic and Old Lace

1 hr. 58 mins Comedy, Romance, Crime, Thriller 1944 8.0 stars

Director: Frank Capra

Cast: Cary Grant - Mortimer Brewster

Priscilla Lane - Elaine Harper

Raymond Massey - Jonathan Brewster

Jack Carson - O’Hara

Edward Everett Horton - Mr. Witherspoon

Peter Lorre - Dr. Einstein

James Gleason - Police Lt. Rooney

Josephine Hull - Abby Brewster

Jean Adair - Martha Brewster

John Alexander - “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster

Grant Mitchell - Reverend Harper

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

The Happy Couple - Mortimer and Elaine

Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane

Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane

Synopsis Part I

Mortimer Brewster (played by Cary Grant) is a playwright who has written several books on the advantages of bachelorhood and the awfulness of love and marriage; he is well known for his anti-marriage views. Yet in the opening scene he is standing in line to get a marriage license with his bride to be, Elaine (played by Priscilla Lane).

Scroll to Continue

In the next scene they are already married and stopping off at their respective houses, they are neighbors, to tell their families that they eloped that afternoon. Elaine lives with her father, a minister. Mortimer lives with his two kindly, older, spinster aunts, Aunt Abby (played by Josephine Hull) and Aunt Martha (played by Jean Adair). These aunts evidently raised Mortimer and his two brothers. One of his brothers, Teddy (played by John Alexander) believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt (and he looks like Teddy Roosevelt). Teddy obviously suffers from a delusion, but the aunts encourage his fantasy as does the rest of the community. Two police officers patrolling their block approach the house. One officer, O’Hara (played by Jack Carson) is a rookie; as they arrive at the house his mentor is extolling the absolute kindness of these two aunts. They have come to collect toys which the aunts have gathered for impoverished children so that they can have a nice Christmas. Teddy meets the officers and Officer O’Hara learns very quickly that Teddy different. In order to retrieve some old toys Teddy goes back upstairs in the manner he always uses. He pretends he’s charging up San Juan Hill, shouts, “Charge!” and then charges up the stairs, which shocks Officer O’Hara.

After the officers depart Mortimer comes into the house to share the good news that he has married Elaine and will be departing on the honeymoon right away. The aunts, who already knew that Mortimer had gotten married, went into the kitchen to get a cake out of the oven which they had made for the occasion. Alone for a moment, Mortimer starts looking for some notes he’d misplaced for an upcoming book. In his search he happened to open the window seat and in it he saw a dead body! Mortimer is beside himself, not knowing what to do. When Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha come out of the kitchen he tells them about the corpse he has just found. Aunt Abby says that they’re already aware of it, that it’s a Mr. Hoskins, and that Mortimer should not concern himself with it especially on his wedding day. The aunts mention that there are 12 other bodies buried in the basement. They explain that they poison lonely old men who come to the house looking to rent a room (they have a sign saying room to rent). The aunts feel like they are doing a service for these men who are as I said, lonely and older. They use poison which they put into an elderberry wine they make and it kills them quickly. They then ask Teddy to “dig another lock in the Panama Canal” which Teddy thinks is in their cellar. The aunts tell Teddy that these dead men are yellow fever victims so Teddy digs and buries them as he is told. The aunts then go to the basement dressed in black and hold funeral services. They see peaceful expressions on the corpse’s faces and are reassured that they have done a good and merciful deed.

Mortimer is absolutely dumbfounded; his dear, sweet aunts routinely murder and are completely nonchalant about the whole thing. Then there is Elaine expecting him at any minute to get her and depart on their honeymoon. In haste he decides to have Teddy committed and to delay Elaine without letting on as to why.

The process of committing Teddy is lengthy. He requires signatures from a judge and a doctor. He also has to make arrangements for Teddy to have a room at the asylum, “Happydale”. One of the main objections against Teddy is that he frequently blows a bugle in connection to his delusion. The bugle is loud enough to disturb the neighbors and there have been complaints.

Mortimer is running around trying to make the right phone calls and he leaves to visit a judge to sign papers and to retrieve a doctor to meet Teddy and to sign papers. Mortimer also needs to stave off Elaine.

Mortimer Confronting the Aunts About the Murders

Cary Grant talking to Jean Adair and Josephine Hull

Cary Grant talking to Jean Adair and Josephine Hull

Synopsis Part II

By now night has fallen and two men appear at the door while Mortimer is off on these errands. They enter uninvited and frighten the aunts. One of the men is Jonathan (played by Raymond Massey); he is Mortimer’s other brother. The other man is Dr. Einstein (played by Peter Lorre). Jonathan has led a life of crime and he has been away from the homestead for many years. He himself is a mass murderer. Dr. Einstein is Jonathan’s own plastic surgeon who is constantly operating on him to give him new faces. He is currently quite frightening in appearance resembling Boris Karloff they say, because Dr. Einstein’s last surgery on him was performed after he had seen a scary Karloff movie and while he was drunk. Because it’s been many years and because the aunts don’t recognize his face they are frightened by Jonathan. They think he’s an intruder. They are also intimidated by him because they know he’s a criminal, but they don’t know the extent of his crimes.

Teddy comes to meet them. He invites Dr. Einstein to accompany him to the basement to see his locks on the Panama Canal. Reluctantly Dr. Einstein goes with him. Dr. Einstein sees the freshly dug grave and rushes back to tell Jonathan that there is a hole the perfect size for the corpse which they happen to have in their car, a “Mr. Spinaldzo”.

Jonathan orders the aunts to bed while he prepares to bring Mr. Spinaldzo in through the window on the side of the house rather than through door – to prevent being seen. But when the lights go out, that’s Teddy’s cue to come and get the corpse out of the window seat and bury it in the lock he has just dug in the basement, which he does.

In the meantime Jonathan and Dr. Einstein wrestle with the corpse of Mr. Spinaldzo to get in into the house through the window and it falls into the open window seat left open when Teddy removed Mr. Hoskins.

The lights come on as Elaine barges into the house demanding to know what is happening! Jonathan takes her captive, but then Mortimer arrives back. He also does not recognize Jonathan.

Elaine is freed and sent home. Mortimer calls Mr. Witherspoon (played by Edward Everett Horton) who runs Happydale and asks him to come and get Teddy.

Mortimer glances into the window seat and now finds a different corpse in there, that of Mr. Spinaldzo, and he deduces that the new corpse is the result of Jonathan’s crimes.

Next, Officer O’Hara arrives to complain about Teddy’s bugle blowing. He meets Jonathan and Dr. Einstein. He’s interested in discussing with Mortimer a play he has written, but Mortimer pushes him off for the time being.

Jonathan and Dr. Einstein discover Mr. Hoskins in the basement and confront the aunts who tell them that there are 13 bodies buried there and they are running out of room, so Jonathan can just bury Mr. Spinaldzo elsewhere. Jonathan is jealous of his aunts for having one more corpses than he does and it puts him in a sour mood. Jonathan decides it’s time to get rid of his pesky brother Mortimer. He ties Mortimer up and gags him and prepares to torture him when Officer O’Hara shows up complaining that Mortimer has stood him up. When he sees Mortimer bound and gagged he assumes that he is role-playing a scene from a play. But then more police arrive. Jonathan tells them that there are 13 bodies buried in the cellar, but before they can investigate one of the officers says that Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff and Jonathan snaps. A big brawl takes place and Mortimer is freed. Suddenly the police captain shows up and he is able to arrest Jonathan identifying him from a recent “wanted” photo they have hanging in the station.

Mr. Witherspoon also arrives to take Teddy to Happydale. Mortimer gets the idea to also have his aunts committed and is able to get Dr. Einstein to sign the papers before Dr. Einstein makes his escape. Teddy and the aunts are committed, Jonathan is apprehended and Mortimer and Elaine finally leave on their honeymoon. The End.

Jonathan and Dr. Einstein preparing to Kill Mortimer

Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre ensnaring Cary Grant

Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre ensnaring Cary Grant


This is a screwball comedy; everybody in it is a little screwy to begin with. The exception of course is Elaine who is completely normal. But the comedy in this genre comes largely from highlighting people’s eccentricities. Many in the audience will see the traits of someone they know in the characters. The movie does go to extreme personalities to produce its humor. As a sweet dessert that’s a bit salty, to enhance the flavor, seems at first to be an incompatibility so a comedy based on a family of serial killers seems equally incompatible. Yet this movie does just that.

At first the story misleads the audience. The kindly aunts do not arouse any murderous suspicion when introduced. The community around them, most particularly the police, think that these aunts are saints. And they’re not trying to put up a false front. Apart from their murder hobby they are the most kindly ladies you’d ever want to meet. They don’t know what they are doing is wrong; rather they think their activities are, in fact, acts of kindness. It’s up to Mortimer to set them straight on that matter.

Mortimer is the central character in the story and he does have a lot on his plate that particular day. He has eloped, a man who is renown as an anti-marriage author, and has discovered that the aunts who raised him are serial killers who don’t know realize that their killings are wrong. He has to put his new bride off while he tries to figure out what to do. To make matters worse he has two problematic brothers, one who considers himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and another who has taken up a life of crime and hasn’t been heard from for over 20 years. That is until today, this very day, when Mortimer already has his plate full and is scrambling just to make sure all the pieces fall into the right place.

First there’s Teddy. There is no other name given for this character; it’s Teddy. Teddy not only thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, but he looks and acts like Teddy Roosevelt. Casting and Make-up did a very good job on him. The actor, John Alexander, also deserves acclaim for his portrayal. In fact he also portrayed Teddy Roosevelt in the movie, Fancy Pants (1950). In one scene when Teddy is talking to the doctor that will sign his committal papers Teddy quips that when he leaves the White House he will be “the last Roosevelt in the White House”. The irony here is that when this movie came out the president was Franklin Roosevelt. This little joke may not be caught by modern audiences. The chief complaint about Teddy, who was as good natured as the aunts, was his frequent blowing of his bugle. It was loud enough to wake the neighbors. Many viewers will not catch it, but the bugle isn’t Teddy’s only musical talent. Early on in the movie before we realize he’s delusional we see him playing a harpsicord and doing it quite well.

Mortimer’s other brother is Jonathan. He does not share the kindly nature of the aunts or Teddy. He’s more the stereotypical serial killer. He travels with Dr. Einstein who is his plastic surgeon. Jonathan really wants to murder his brother Mortimer and make it a torturous death much to Dr. Einstein’s chagrin. Fortunately his plans never come about because they are foiled accidently by the police who do not at first realize who Jonathan is. In order to evade the police Jonathan routinely gets his face redone and has done it multiple times. The most recent iteration of his face was done when Dr. Einstein was drunk and had just seen a scary movie which had starred Boris Karloff. There’s a bit of humor in the casting of Dr. Einstein. The part was played by Peter Lorre who starred in many movies alongside the real Boris Karloff; he knew him well. In this movie, the actor who plays Jonathan is Raymond Massey, but on 3 or 4 occasions other characters mention that he looks like Boris Karloff. It is interesting to note that Boris Karloff played the part of Jonathan in the stage version of this story on Broadway.

Another character that needs to be considered is Elaine. She is the only character, as I mentioned earlier, who is not screwy. She views the events of this day from a completely different point of view. To start off she’s a neighbor; her house and the Brewster’s are separated by a cemetery. Her father is a reverend so it’s quite possible that the cemetery belongs to the church where he serves. The point is that Elaine knows Mortimer’s family and has known them all her life. She has the same perspective as everyone else in that neighborhood. They’re good, kindly people; Teddy’s a little strange, but harmless. Mortimer can’t have her finding out that the family does serial killing as a hobby, especially as a self-perceived, community service! Quite naturally she is curious and emotional about the weird goings on there that day. As a woman who has just gotten married that afternoon she can’t possibly understand why her brand new husband is brushing her off and kicking her out of the house. Her persistence is only natural. And while Mortimer loves her dearly her persistence in his estimation is annoying. When Jonathan apprehends her she probably gets the idea that there are legitimate reasons why Mortimer is being so insufferably elusive and she probably realizes this strongly.

When Mortimer take a moment to look at his family he sees one brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, the other brother who is a mean serial killer and two aunts who are nice, kindly serial killers; he starts questioning his own mental well-being. He asks himself whether he might have inherited mental or emotional problems. He even questions whether he is fit to be a husband or a father. He tries to explain these thoughts to Elaine but she dismisses them. Therefore it is very important and quite freeing to him when at the end of the movie the aunts reluctantly tell Mortimer that he was adopted. This is the best news he could have gotten. It takes a weight off his mind and allows him to go off on his honeymoon with Elaine and with a clear conscience.

"Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster Preparing to Blow His Bugle

Cary Grant and John Alexander

Cary Grant and John Alexander

Tidbits from IMDB Trivia

Tidbits (from IMDB trivia)

The hymnal that the aunts use to hold services over Mr. Hoskins is "Hymns For Creative Living." It was published in 1935 by The Judson Press. The hymn that they sing ("There is a Happy Place") is not in that hymnal.

According to Frank Capra’s autobiography, 'The Name Above the Title', Teddy's 'Da da da da da daaa, Charge!' before he goes up steps is the inspiration for the chant very familiar at baseball games.

According to "Dear Boris" biographer Cynthia Lindsay, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair went to their graves believing that Boris Karloff had been so saintly as to agree to let them go to Hollywood to make this film while he stayed on Broadway doing the play. Nothing could have been further from the truth: Karloff was very angry and disappointed that he was the only play cast member not allowed out of his contract to do the film.

Although this film was made in late 1941, it was not released until September 1944 because of a contractual obligation between Warner Bros. and the producers of the Broadway show, in which Warner Bros. agreed not to release the film until the end of the stage play's run. During the delay, Edward McWade, Spencer Charters, and Edward McNamara (who played bit parts in the movie) all died in 1943-4, prior to the film's official release.

Movie Trailer

Mortimer Discovers the Dead Body in the Window Seat

Mortimer Confronts the Aunts About the Dead Body in the Window Seat

And Here's Teddy's Famous Charge

Related Articles