Some 20 years before filming this movie, actress Jean Adair had helped to nurse a very sick vaudeville performer named Archie Leach back to health; by the time she was asked to reprise her Broadway "Arsenic and Old Lace" role as Aunt Martha for this film, Adair and Leach, now known as Cary Grant, were old friends.
On stage, Boris Karloff played the monstrous Jonathan Brewster, Raymond Massey's film character, who, in eerie-looking screen makeup, resembled Karloff, which was a running gag throughout the picture. Karloff eagerly wanted to do this film, but he was kept under contract by the Broadway play producers and was not allowed to do the picture, to his immense displeasure.
Amy Archer-Gilligan, Americas most prolific female serial killer, has been cited as the inspiration for the play, and subsequently the film. She was charged with the poisoning deaths of her two husbands and was allegedly responsible for the deaths of 66 other elderly "inmates" of her nursing home. Her weapon of choice? Arsenic.
Director Frank Capra enlisted in the U. S. Army Signal Corps in 1941 during filming. He received an extension of his order to report for active duty until late January 1942 so he could finish editing the picture.
There are several allusions to the biographies of US Presidents, most obviously Theodore Roosevelt. Jonathan's line "He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him" seems to be an allusion to James A. Garfield's death from pneumonia after being shot by Charles J. Guiteau in 1881.
Frank Capra also noted that while he was stationed in London in 1943, he overheard American and British soldiers screaming "Charge!" in the manner of the "Teddy Roosevelt" character and deduced that they had seen the film. He then learned that Jack L. Warner had released the picture to the armed forces a year before it was to be released to the general public.
Ronald Reagan and Jack Benny were offered the role of Mortimer Brewster, but turned it down. Bob Hope was offered the part and was eager to do it but Paramount Pictures refused to loan him out to Warner Bros. for the project.
Frank Capra pushed his actors to the broadest comedy takes, a fact that did not sit well with Cary Grant. As a result, his (and Jack Carson's) performances were singled out by reviewers for going dangerously over the top, while Raymond Massey and the stage performers managed to look rather restrained by comparison. Grant hated working this way, although in his more generous moments he credited Capra with helping him to get the comic effect he was unable to do on his own (it may have been his subtle way of blaming the director).
In an early example of aggressive product placement, the Bell Company provided the film with their new models of the "French Telephone" (which had both a microphone and ear piece in the same unit) in order to achieve greater advertising.
Frank Capra was drawn to this project due to its very frivolousness. Capra admitted that the films he had made over the previous seven years had all been serious endeavors with moralistic implications. He delighted in the film's escapism and pure, unpretentious entertainment value. Capra said that the film was "no great document to save the world, [and contained] no worries about whether John Doe should or should not jump; [it was] just good old fashioned theater." The director admitted that making the film was the first time he had really enjoyed himself since making It Happened One Night (1934).
There are conflicting reports about the size of Cary Grant's salary for the film and what he did with the money. Some sources claim that Grant earned $100,000 for the making of the picture and that he donated all of that money to the U.S. War Relief Fund. Other, perhaps more-credible sources such as the Warner Bros. Studio archives, suggest that Grant received $160,000 for his efforts and $50,000 of that money went to the Hollywood Division of the British War Relief Association of Southern California, $25,000 went to the American Red Cross, $25,000 went the United Service Organization, and $10,000 was paid to Grant's agent. Still other sources claim that Grant donated $100,000 of his salary to an unspecified wartime charity and kept the remainder of his salary (at least $60,000 if not more) for himself. Each of these sources are consistent on at least two main points: Grant earned $100,000 or more for making the film and donated at least $100,000 of his salary to Allied wartime charities.
The film was shot between October 20 and December 16, 1941. During 1943, the film was shown to the Armed Forces overseas. but went unissued domestically until its Manhattan debut at the Strand Theatre on September 1, 1944, followed by the nationwide release on September 23. Warner Bros. had been contractually required to wait for the Broadway play to finish its run, which finally occurred on June 17, 1944. By the time the movie opened, Priscilla Lane and Warner Bros. had ended their association.
At the time of production, Warner Bros. announced that the Brewster house was the largest set ever built at the studio. The house was complete, room by room, in every detail. In fact, several scenes were filmed in fully-furnished rooms that never appear in the film.
Warner Bros. suggested that Humphrey Bogart could replace Boris Karloff on Broadway, paving the way for Karloff to appear in this film with minimal impact to the play's popularity. The Broadway producers, however, refused the suggestion and jealously guarded Karloff's commitment to the play.
The Broadway comedy opened at the Fulton Theatre on January 10, 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances, closing on June 17, 1944. Repeating their stage roles in the movie were "Brewster siblings" Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander, all three getting time off from the New York play. Boris Karloff was denied permission to go by the play's producers, fearing that the absence of their main star would adversely affect the play's attendance.
The city backdrop was achieved with two-dimensional models of the Manhattan skyline and, in front of that, a foreshortened three-quarter-angle miniature of the Brooklyn Bridge. The tall buildings were covered with a scrim to make them appear farther off, and a glow was projected around the distant city. In front of the bridge were Brooklyn buildings, with a glow of lights in the windows, and still closer, the cemetery next to the Brewster home. From the front tombstone to the Manhattan skyline the 3-D perspective effect was done in 40 feet of studio space.
The Production Code Administration asked filmmakers to tone down the "sex frustration" of the newlywed Elaine and Mortimer. While the eagerness of the newlyweds is apparent in the final cut of the film, the filmmakers complied with the PCA and minimized the couple's "frustration" in several scenes.
Production records confirm that several scenes shot in various rooms of the Brewster house (Mortimer's grandfather's study, the aunts' bedroom, and the cellar) were filmed but not included in the final cut of the film.
Julius Epstein thought Cary Grant mugged too much. He later said Frank Capra intended to go back and rein in the broadest scenes, but near the end of principal photography, the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and Capra was eager to move on to his military assignment, so retakes were never done.
Although he planned to do the entire production on a single set, Frank Capra had to make exceptions for the scenes added to the story in the script adaptation: the baseball game, the marriage license office, and the sanitarium. For the most part though, Capra and cinematographer Sol Polito confined themselves to the set designed by art director Max Parker, following Capra's sketches. The house was constructed so they could shoot both interiors and exteriors in the same place.
The Production Code Administration strongly recommended that the filmmakers limit the deadly concoction used by the Brewster sisters to simply arsenic (as it already appeared in the title) when the sisters tell Mortimer their recipe. The PCA was concerned that unstable audience members may try to replicate the recipe. Their suggestion was ignored without apparent consequence.
To add to the funny-creepy mood, Frank Capra ordered a backdrop with wispy clouds in front of a full moon and countless bags of autumn leaves blown around the exterior house and cemetery sets by three wind machines.
Frank Capra cut corners wherever he could and worked swiftly and cheaply to bring the picture in on budget and within its short shooting schedule. He later said production manager Steve Trilling asked him if he was "going back to your Poverty Row quickies" where he had started his career. Capra said, "Yes, for a refresher course."
Screenwriter Julius J. Epstein complained to Frank Capra that Cary Grant's acting "was going overboard with the comedy." Capra agreed and told the writer that it would be toned down in the editing process. However, when World War II unexpectedly ensnared the USA, and Capra left the studio to do the "Why We Fight" series, it was not done.
The film actually took closer to eight weeks to shoot, not the four Frank Capra had planned, and the $400,000 initially budgeted was eventually set at just over a million, a far more realistic figure considering the salaries for Cary Grant and Capra alone.
According to "Dear Boris" biographer, Cynthia Lindsay, Josephine Hull and Jean Adair went to their graves believing that Boris Karloff was so saintly as to agree to let them go to Hollywood make this film while he stayed on, on Broadway, doing the play, when nothing could have been further from the truth: Karloff was very angry and disappointed that he was the only cast member not allowed out of his contract to do the film.
Cary Grant eventually won the role of Mortimer Brewster because of his removal from Warner Bros.' production, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Grant had been briefly cast as Sheridan Whiteside in that film, however, pressure from the theater, film industry, and the public for Monty Woolley to be cast instead led Grant to be ousted. This left one of Warner Bros.' most bankable stars with nothing to do. Since this film was getting ready to go into production, the studio insisted that Grant receive the role of Mortimer Brewster.
The cast and crew noted that Cary Grant was frequently irritable during the making of this film. Grant complained constantly about the set, the props, and the wardrobe of the cast members. At one point he admitted he would rather have starred in a film version of Noël Coward's play, Blithe Spirit. Tensions increased following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, which briefly shut down production.
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.
The rights to the play cost $175,000, and that theatrical producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse negotiated for 15% of the film's profits. Although the original projected release date of the film was September 30, 1942, the play had 1,444 performances and ran for over three and a half years, thus delaying considerably the film's release.
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.
Boris Karloff did not abandon his commitment to the Broadway version of Arsenic and Old Lace in order to appear in this film. He did, however, graciously allow Warner Bros. to use his name and likeness, an issue that the studio had considered a potentially-devastating legal obstacle had he not done so.
This marked the final major theatrical release in the career of Priscilla Lane. Lane later appeared in Fun on a Week-End (1947) and Bodyguard (1948), but neither were widely distributed nor did they have a nation-wide release.
Frank Capra preferred Andy Devine for the role of the delusional Teddy "Theodore Roosevelt" Brewster. The role eventually went to John Alexander, who received rave critical reviews for his performance.
René Clair saw the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace and approached the producers about directing the film. They then communicated Clair's interest to Warner Bros., but it is not known if the studio ever seriously considered Clair for the job.
Cary Grant: [name] Grant's birth name Archie Leach appears on a tombstone in the cemetery near the Brewster's house. In Grant's earlier picture His Girl Friday (1940), his character Walter responded to a threat by saying "listen, the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat." As a gag, the departed Mr. Leach was apparently interred in the Brooklyn cemetery by the Brewster's home.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Mortimer's repeated phrase at the end of the film declaring the secret of his birth was originally "I'm not a Brewster - I'm a bastard!" However, the censors demanded that it be changed, resulting in the phrase "I'm the son of a sea cook!"
In the play, Mr. Witherspoon, the caretaker of Happydale Sanitarium, is himself poisoned with a glass of wine by the two aunts, but adverse reaction from preview audiences to the murder caused it to be dropped. However, Edward Everett Horton, who played Witherspoon in the movie, did pose for a publicity photograph with a glass of wine in his hand.