BORIS,BELA and ERICH : Arsenic And Old Lace

I love the history of the black comedy,ARSENIC AND OLD LACE; that on the stage, the part of Jonathan Brewster ( the bad apple of the Brewster family) was played at various times by Boris Karloff ( who created the role), Bela Lugosi and Erich Von Stroheim.

The play on Broadway ran from 1941 through 1944. Erich Von Stroheim took over the vilłain’s part from Karloff and played it for a year and a half.

Bela Lugosi played it in Los Angeles and on tour.

When it came to casting the film, Warner Brothers wanted Karloff, but the Broadway producers couldn’t afford to lose him for the 8 weeks of the filming, as he was the big draw.

They wanted Warners  to wait till June 1942 when Karloff’s contract was up.

However, they agreed to allow Josephine Hull,Jean Adair ( the dotty aunts) and John Alexander (Teddy) to take time off for Hollywood.

The producers also insisted that, although the film was made in 1941, it would not be released till after the Broadway show closed – it was a smash hit and didn’t close till 1944.

So Frank Capra shot it quickly and Warner Brothers shelved it for 3 years.


Jean Adair,Jospehine Hull,Boris Karloff on Broadway.



The wonderful,John Alexander who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt.


Edward G.Robinson was considered for the part of Jonathan, but it went to Raymond Massey who ends up looking like Karloff, after Dr.Einstein , the plastic surgeon (Peter Lorre) has given him a new face.




Cary Grant may not have been the first choice for the role of Mortimer Brewster. Bob Hope was considered , but Paramount wouldn’t loan him out.


Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane.


On Broadway, the part of Mortimer was played by Allyn Joslyn.

Allyn Joslyn,Boris Karloff

Clinton Sundberg took over from Joslyn.

Clinton Sundberg

Clinton Sundberg,Boris Karloff


Originaly   called “Bodies in Our Cellar”, Arsenic and Old Lace has been a success ever since it was first produced on Broadway. It was an enormous personal and financial success for Boris Karloff who was reluctant to do the stage role. Ten percent of the whole enterprise ,plus a salary of $2,000 a week were the persuaders!

As his percentage included the film rights, he was happy to let the line, “He said I looked like Boris Karloff” be in the screenplay.

When spoken by Karloff, the line always brought the house down.

Karloff repeated his role on television in 1955 and in 1962.

Billie Burke and Helen Hayes played the   aunts, Abby and Martha in the 50s TV version.

Arsenic and Old Lace is fast and furious and I love  it.

A sample of the dialogue.

Mortimer (Cary Grant ) is visiting his two aunts and finds a body in the window seat.

Mortimer:”Men don’t just get into window seats and die.”

Abby: “Of course not,dear. He died first.”

Mortimer: But how?”

Abby: “The gentleman died because he drank some wine with poison in it. Now I don’t know why you are making such a big deal over this,Mortimer.

Dont worry about a thing.”


Another body in the window seat. The aunts are not pleased.








Frank Capra,Cary Grant. Priscilla Lane

Frank Capra,Cary Grant. Priscilla Lane



Dont drink it,Edward!



Cary was never happy with his performance in the film – he thought he overplayed it. He gave his salary to wartime charities.




The cast in the graveyard which has a tombstone with the name Archie Leach on it.


Posters/DVd covers:


The aunts are dressed for the funeral in the cellar of their latest victims.




















6 responses »

  1. How I would have loved to see Boris Karloff in the film – or on stage. Actually, it would have been lovely to see all of them – Karloff, Lugosi and Stroheim – in the role.

    I so enjoyed your history of this film (and play)!

  2. Thanks,Christina. It is a pity Boris wasnt allowed to do the film. I’d like to find one of his TV versions.

  3. I have three (3) DVDs of Arsenic And Old Lace:

    (1) The Warners movie, with Grant, Massey, and Lorre.

    (2) The NBC version from 1962, with Tony Randall, Karloff, and Mildred Natwick and Dorothy Stickney as the aunts.

    (3) An ABC redo (updated – meh) from about 1969, with Bob Crane, Fred Gwynne, Jack Gilford, David Wayne, and Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the aunts.

    I also saw a live performance at the Shubert Theater in Chicago, sometime in the late ’70s.
    James MacArthur (Book ’em Morto!), Jean Stapleton and Marion Ross as the aunts, Jonathan Frid as Jonathan, and Larry (Lorre) Storch as Dr. Einstein.

    Great funny play – holds up no matter who’s doing it.

    Who do you suppose could do it today?

  4. That’s some collection. So many different casts.
    I expect it wouldn’t be too difficult to cast the leads from TV or film today.

  5. It is a pity von Stroheim did not play Einstein against Karloff’s Jonathan. When I saw the photo of him sitting in Boris’ lap I thought perhaps that was the case. Von Stroheim as Einstein might not have been as definitive as Peter Lorre, but he certainly had a creepy charisma all his own.

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