Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director Frank Capra's classic screwball comedy was an hilariously-funny, frantic farce and black comedy (set around Halloween in NYC); it was a frenzied adaptation of the smash Broadway comedy from 1941 to 1944. Three of the original stage performers reprised their roles in the film:

  • mild-mannered NY drama critic Mortimer Brewster's (Cary Grant) two sweet, old loveable spinster aunts: Martha and Abby (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) in Brooklyn, NY were revealed to be secretly poisoning old male bachelors with homemade elderberry wine (spiked with arsenic); the crazed ladies were assisted by Mortimer's insane and eccentric younger brother "Teddy Roosevelt" Brewster (John Alexander), their nephew, who was burying the bodies of many poisoned male victims in the cellar (following a Christian funeral and imagining that the cemetery was for yellow fever victims at the Panama Canal)
  • Teddy regularly charged up the stairs with a bugle in hand, as if fighting the Spanish-American War; Teddy often delivered a yell of "CHAAAARGGGE" and then proceeded up the staircase at every opportunity while blowing his bugle, believing it was San Juan Hill all over again

"Teddy Roosevelt" - "Charge!"
  • hapless nephew Mortimer had just recently married his frustrated new wife Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) - the minister's daughter who lived next door, and they were on their way to a honeymoon at Niagara Falls; throughout the film, Mortimer struggled to convince Elaine that he actually loved her, while distracted and dealing with his family's crazy and insane relatives; he also kept putting her off and uncharacteristically acting weird; she became angered by his desire to get rid of her as his new bride (because he couldn't explain to her what he shockingly learned); he feared that a streak of madness ran deep within his family - and that the Brewster residence was an insane asylum
  • Mortimer discovered what was going on with his aunts when he stumbled upon and found a dead body in the window seat - and there were twelve more in the basement. When he opened the window seat-box twice - a great double-take - he suddenly realized that there was a dead body in there; the corpse was the most recent result of his two spinster aunts' latest charity act of poisoning a lonely old gentlemen; a flabbergasted Mortimer did multiple double-takes and eyeball rolls, before realizing a dead body was in there; when Mortimer informed his aunts that Teddy's "killed a man," they first reacted with laughter
  • to be responsible, Mortimer thought that only his brother Teddy was responsible, and wanted to get him safely committed, never even suspecting his two aunts. Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), the director of the Happydale Sanitorium rest home was reluctant to accept Teddy, because he already had too many "Roosevelts"
  • Mortimer's inquisitiveness forced the two aunts to explain their own "little secret" - they were poisoning unsuspecting old men who sought lodging with their special homemade elderberry wine, as a charity act - to end their loneliness and find ultimate peace
  • Mortimer was also confronted by the unexpected arrival of an insane pair: his sinister, psychotic serial murderer older brother on the lam, Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey in the film, Boris Karloff on stage) (resembling Frankenstein) who had a victim's body of his own to dispose of. Jonathan was accompanied by another villainous companion, his alcoholic assistant - plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre) - a short, demented, round-eye-balled and disreputable plastic surgeon

Jonathan and Dr. Einstein

Jonathan Resembling Boris Karloff's Frankenstein

Dr. Einstein: an Alcoholic Plastic Surgeon
  • that evening while Jonathan attempted to haul the body of their murder victim Mr. Spinalzo into the house (and hide him in the window seat), Teddy was also carrying a new "yellow fever victim" Mr. Hoskins from the window seat down to the cellar ("canal") for burial, according to a pre-arranged plan with his aunts; when Elaine unexpectedly arrived searching for Mortimer, they suspected that she was a "dangerous" witness - they threatened her, gagged and half-strangled her, and dragged her into the cellar
  • the two criminals plotted to make Mortimer their 13th victim and they tied him up to torture him first, but everyone was saved by the arrival of Lieutenant Rooney (James Gleason) to take Teddy away to Happydale, who luckily recognized Jonathan's face and arrested him; the two aunts signed their own commitment papers, while Dr. Einstein was able to escape
  • Mortimer was still frantic about the possibility of his own genetic predisposition to mental illness, but was completely relieved when he finally discovered from his two aunts that he wasn't an insane Brewster family member after all (earlier, he had told Elaine that their marriage was problematic: "Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops") - his mother was the family cook and his father had been a chef on a steamship: "You're not really a Brewster...Your mother came to us as a cook. And you were born about three months afterwards. And she was such a sweet woman and such a good cook. We didn't want to lose her so brother married her. Your real father was a cook too. He was a chef on a tramp steamer."
  • the overjoyed Mortimer yelled at his newly-wed wife Elaine from a window about his real heritage: "Elaine, Elaine, Where are you? Can you hear me? I'm not really a Brewster. I'm a son of a sea cook!" [Note: His words were censored from " I'm a bastard!" to "I'm a son of a sea cook!"]
  • potentially ruining Mortimer's whole scheme, Elaine made the hysterical discovery in the cellar of bodies, yelling out: "It's true. I guess there are 13 bodies down there!" but Mortimer silenced her
  • before their departure for their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, Mortimer exultantly exclaimed to the cab-driver: "I'm the son of a sea-cook"; he charged away with Elaine draped over his shoulder. The astonished cab-driver responded after them with the film's final line: "I'm not a cab driver. I'm a coffee pot."

Mortimer's Two Deadly Aunts

Servings of Elderberry Wine

Mortimer's Double-Take at Body in Window Box, Holding One of Jonathan's Victims ("E-gods, there's another one!")

Mortimer with Elaine Knowing That There were 13 Bodies in the Cellar

Mortimer to Elaine: "Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops"

Yelling to Elaine From Window: "I'm not really a Brewster. I'm a son of a sea cook!"

Mortimer to Cab-Driver: "I'm the son of a sea cook!"

Cab-Driver: "I'm not a cab-driver. I'm a coffee pot"


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