Arsenic and Old Lace

The Brewster family of Brooklyn, New York, is descended from Mayflower settlers. Several illustrious forebears’ portraits line the walls of the ancestral home.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull and Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a writer who has repeatedly denounced marriage as “an old fashioned superstition”, falls in love with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the minister’s daughter who grew up next door to him. On Halloween day, Mortimer and Elaine get married. Elaine goes to her father’s house to tell her father and pack for the honeymoon and Mortimer returns to Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), the aunts who raised him in the old family home. Mortimer’s brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, resides with them. Each time Teddy goes upstairs, he yells “Charge!” and takes the stairs at a run, imitating Roosevelt’s famous charge up San Juan Hill.

Searching for the notes for his next book, Mortimer finds a corpse hidden in the window seat. He assumes in horror that Teddy’s delusions have led him to murder. Abby and Martha cheerfully explain that they are responsible, that as serial murderers, they minister to lonely old bachelors by ending their “suffering”. They post a “Room for Rent” sign to attract a victim, then serve a glass of elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide” while getting acquainted. The bodies are buried in the basement by Teddy, who believes they are yellow fever victims who perished in the building of the Panama Canal.

While Mortimer digests this information, his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) arrives with his alcoholic accomplice, plastic surgeon Dr. Hermann Einstein (Peter Lorre). Jonathan is also a serial murderer trying to escape from the police and dispose of his latest victim, Mr. Spinalzo. Jonathan’s face, altered by Einstein while drunk, resembles Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster makeup. Jonathan learns his aunts’ secret and proposes to bury his victim in the cellar. Abby and Martha object vehemently because their victims were “nice” gentlemen while Jonathan’s victim is a stranger and a “foreigner”. Jonathan also declares his intention to kill Mortimer.

Elaine is impatient to leave on their honeymoon but is concerned about Mortimer’s increasingly odd behavior as he frantically attempts to control the situation. He tries unsuccessfully to alert the bumbling police to Jonathan’s presence. To draw attention away from his aunts and deprive them of their willing but uncomprehending accomplice, Mortimer tries to file paperwork to have Teddy legally committed to a mental asylum. Worrying that the genetic predisposition for mental illness resides within him (“Insanity runs in my family; it practically gallops.”), Mortimer explains to Elaine that he can’t remain married to her.

Eventually Jonathan is arrested, Einstein flees after having signed Teddy’s commitment papers, and Teddy is safely consigned to an institution. His aunts insist upon joining him. Upon hearing Mortimer signed the commitment papers as next of kin, Abby and Martha are concerned they may be null and void; they inform Mortimer that he is not a Brewster after all: his mother was the family cook and his father had been a chef on a steamship. Relieved, he lustily kisses Elaine and whisks her off to their honeymoon while yelling, “Charge!”.