“This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen and usually does.” among the opening titles to the Frank Capra movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the Joseph Kesserling play of the same name.

Set in Brooklyn, New York in 1941, it was filmed in ’41 and released in ’44. It is based on a Joseph Kesserling play, which ran on Broadway from January 1941 through June 1944.  Kesserling, a pacifist, wrote the play in the ’30s.  It is a dark comedy that some speculate was written out of antiwar sentiment and meant to illustrate the tension between the freedom to indulge any whim and the bloody past that is U.S. history. The murdering sisters were from a Mayflower family, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull, and John Alexander who starred in the play were released to act their parts in the movie verson. And, no – I don’t remember that – my mother told me. Boris Karloff, whose real name is very bland, William Henry Platt, played the evil brother in the play.  The play’s biggest draw, Karloff could not be released for the movie. Hence, in the movie version the evil brother is played by a gruesome Raymond Massey.  Several quirky quips in the movie reference that switch.

The story is about a theatre critic (Mortimer Brewster) who is also a critic of marriage.  He finally succumbs to a charming young woman who lives next door to his two aunts and a cemetery. The aunts, as it happens, are noted for their kindness and offer rooms for rent to lonely old men. The catch is that they kill the men, steal their money and bury them  in the basement of their home.  The “weapon” of choice is elderberry wine (so they die with smiles) laced with arsenic. The aunts are helped with the burial chores and ceremonies by Mortimer’s insane brother Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt.  When Mortimer discovers a body in the window box and evil brother Jonathan (a homocidal maniac) escapes prison and arrives on the scene ready to kill Mortimer and put the aunts at risk, hysteria breaks loose and on we go. However “dark” a comedy, it is a comedy and chock-full of laughs.

  • (The movie version can be viewed HERE.)

© 2013, Jamie Dedes (Originally published in Brooklyn Memories)

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