Mortimer: Look, you can't do things like that! Now, I don't know how I can explain this to you. But, it's not only against the law, it's wrong! Martha: Oh, piffle! Mortimer: It's not a nice thing to do. People wouldn't understand. He wouldn't understand! What I mean is... Well... This is developing into a very bad habit!
"There is a Happy Dale, far, far away..."
Arsenic and Old Lace is a 1939 play by Joseph Kesselring, a Black Comedy parody of murder mysteries. It was adapted for the big screen as a 1944 film from Warner Bros., directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant.Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster is the most normal member of his family. He has two sweet old aunts, Abby and Martha, who like serving homemade wine to lonely old men... and sometimes put arsenic in it. As the action opens, Mortimer has decided to surprise his family with his marriage, and shows up with his new bride Elaine on his aunts' doorstep.Unfortunately, no sooner is he ensconced in their parlor than Mortimer accidentally uncovers the dark secret of the Brewster insanity. Since all the bad things his family does, or almost all, are directly related to hereditary madness, he has to try to keep them out of trouble even as "Yellow Fever victims" start piling up in the basement, buried there by his blatantly insane older brother Teddy. Trying to keep his bride Elaine in the dark while also keeping her safe, he stuffs her back into her old room in her father's home next door.Then his older brother Jonathan returns after a long exile and some plastic surgery... and things get truly dangerous.
The film and play contain examples of the following tropes:
The Alcoholic: Dr. Einstein drinks to "calm his nerves", which he needs a lot with Jonathan around. Jonathan's scarring is due to Dr. Einstein being drunk while performing plastic surgery.
Aside Glance: Mortimer frequently addresses the camera with his eyes, most particularly in the scene where he's being tied to the chair. His stare at the audience serves to lampshade the Lampshade Hanging.
Ax-Crazy: Jonathan is not only homicidal but actively psychopathic.
Back-Alley Doctor: Dr. Einstein is a back alley plastic surgeon whom Jonathan keeps around so he can change his face as needed.
Beneath Suspicion: Who would suspect two sweet old maiden aunts of being serial killers?
Bluffing the Murderer, in a Double Subversion. Mortimer tries to get Jonathan to leave by threatening to tell the police about his dead body. In response, Jonathan threatens to reveal Martha and Abbey's murders. Mortimer then decides to Frame the Guilty Parties by getting his aunts preemptively committed to Happydale.
Dr. Einstein: You got twelve, they got twelve. The old ladies is just as good as you are! Jonathan: Well, we'll see about that. All I need is one more. And I've got a pretty good idea who that's going to be!
Bowdlerized: At the end of the movie, Cary Grant runs off shouting, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm the son of a sea cook!" However, this was changed from the final lines of the original play, where he joyously announces, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm a bastard!"
Cain and Abel: With Jonathan as the evil brother and Mortimer as the good one. Jonathan even plans to "sacrifice" Mortimer.
Cloudcuckooland: Brooklyn is kind of depicted as being this. To the point where a title card at the beginning of the movie takes pains to distinguish the borough from "the United States proper".
Mortimer: (muttering to himself while the cops fight with Jonathan) All I did was cross a bridge and I was in Brooklyn...
Cloudcuckoolander: Teddy, Abbey, and Martha are all "out there" in various ways. Teddy is of course the most obvious, and his superficial insanity serves to mask the deeper insanity of the entire family.
Even Evil Has Standards: Aunt Abby readily admits to poisoning 12 men, but is outraged at Mortimer's suggestion that she would "stoop to telling a fib."
Dr. Einstein is intimidated enough by Jonathan that he won't stand up to him, no matter how despicable the crime at hand, and has probably helped him commit a murder or two at least. But when Jonathan declares his intention to kill Teddy, the Doctor absolutely refuses and tries to physically stop him.
Eviler than Thou: Jonathan, upon learning of his aunts' murders, insists on proving that he is a more capable Serial Killer than they are. In fact, he's not shocked at all by the murders, but instead that Martha and Abbey got away with them while living in a comfortable home in Brooklyn, whereas Jonathan has been pursued all over the world by police.
Framing the Guilty Party: A classic example of this trope, used in at least three ways. Mortimer initially believes that Teddy is responsible for the body in the window seat, so he insists that he be sent to Happydale immediately so he can't be imprisoned for the murder. Later, when Abbey and Martha insist on going with Teddy, Mortimer jumps at the chance to get them committed too, spinning their innocent confession as proof of their insanity. Meanwhile, he sets up Jonathan to be charged not only for the body he brought with him, but by implication his aunts' murders as well.
Genre Blindness: Discussed Trope. When Dr. Einstein suggests Mortimer should be Genre Savvy enough to comprehend the danger he's in, he makes the mistake of remarking that characters in plays at least act intelligently. Mortimer then proceeds to explain the frequent use and abuse of the Idiot Ball in plays, fittingly unaware that he's holding it.
Gretzky Has the Ball: The movie opens with a fight breaking out during a baseball game... on Halloween.
Cary Grant and Raymond Massey, with Grant playing the fearless hero and Massey menacing him back like a movie monster.
Grant briefly does combat with Peter Lorre after Dr. Einstein gets frustrated with Mortimer. In his improv, Grant slips in a quip at Lorre's usual soft, quiet, decidedly non-ham style, saying, "Stop underplaying, I can't hear you!"
Mortimer: No, I am not drunk, madam, but you've given me an idea!
After getting off the phone, Mortimer sits down in exhaustion and reaches offhandedly for the wine carafe, only to have Abby and Martha warn him off. This has the side-effect of saving the life of another "Yellow Fever victim".
Poor Dr. Einstein's alcoholism is a running gag throughout, and seems to have been a deliberate, clever device to heighten suspense whenever the elderberry wine is within reach. It's also partly responsible for Jonathan's ghastly appearance.
In the film, Mortimer gets so desperate for a drink that he finishes Dr. Einstein's schnapps and sets up the elderberry wine fake-out himself. He even says the words, "Boy, could I use a drink."
Idiot Ball: In addition to Mortimer's Genre Blindness above, Officer O'Hara gets to hold it, especially after seeing Mortimer tied up upon his return to the Brewster house. Dr. Einstein tries to pass it off as something Mortimer was demonstrating as happening in a play (which is actually somewhat accurate), O'Hara refuses to untie Mortimer until he's had a chance to explain his play!
In the Blood: The hereditary madness of the Brewster family.
Karma Houdini: Dr. Einstein sneaks out the door while the police are busy with Jonathan and the family is busy committing the Aunts. Or, at least, he tries to until Mortimer notices him. He asks Dr. Einstein to sign the committal papers for him, after which the good doctor leaves without further incident.
In addition, the two aunts, who at the end of the play are all committed to Happy Dale, a fairly comfortable sanitarium, as opposed to being arrested or committed to a hospital for the criminally insane.
Lampshade Hanging: A classic example. Mortimer, a theatre critic, complains about a character in a play being handed the Idiot Ball, not realizing that he's describing himself.
Dr. Einstein: You know, you were right about that fellow in the play. He wasn't very bright.
Maiden Aunt: Abby and Martha never married, but they seem to have raised both Jonathan and Mortimer.
Mistaken Confession: Played straight, when Jonathan thinks the police have caught him, but they're really talking about O'Hara. Subverted, when the aunts innocently confess right in front of the police captain, forcing Mortimer to resort to a Sarcastic Confession plus Refuge in Audacity to convince him that the tale is a product of their insanity.
Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: A minor case; Dr. Einstein is so squeamish that he tries to convince Mortimer to leave rather than be tortured and killed by Jonathan, and he later helps the police capture him.
Napoleon Delusion: Teddy thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt. And the stairs are San Juan Hill. CHAAAARGE!... *ding*. In the film adaptation, Witherspoon asks Mortimer if he could persuade Teddy to think he's Napoleon, as they already have quite a few Theodore Roosevelts and another one would mean trouble amongst the patients.
Never One Murder: Mortimer initially assumes that the first body he discovers was an accident or an isolated event, but then Abby and Martha reveal that they have been at their "charity" work for years.
Noodle Incident: Whatever the "Melbourne Method" involves. One production of the play had a bit of improv that was kept in during the following performances - The Aztec method, which included a goat, an ostrich, and a chicken. "Where am I gonna find a chicken at this time of night, Johnny?"
Officer O'Hara: There actually is an officer O'Hara in the film, though without the Oirish accent sported by his predecessor on the beat, Officer Brophy.
Only Sane Man: Mortimer, both metaphorically and literally, and even he begins to doubt it in the end.
Pet the Dog: [Dr. Einstein's effort to get Mortimer the hell out of the house and spare him a grisly fate seems genuine. He's very sweet to Teddy and won't abide killing him when Jonathan threatens it, and when Jonathan tries to kill Officer O'Hara, the Doctor knocks him out before he can. He's also very courteous to Abby and Martha.
Playing Against Type: Cary Grant, who usually plays suave and sophisticated characters, in the movie plays a character who starts out like that, but becomes increasingly panicked and flustered as the story goes on.
Thanks to Failed a Spot Check, the beat cops are utterly clueless about what's going on in the Brewster house. This is a good thing from Mortimer's point of view with respect to his aunts, but not so great with respect to Jonathan.
In the movie, the police captain who finally recognizes Jonathan as a wanted man manages to listen and repeat a perfect description of his accomplice Dr. Einstein, who is right in front of him, without recognizing him.
Officer O'Hara is a special example. He walks into a room with a man tied up and gagged... And all he can think about is how much it reminds him of the play he's writing. The spends the next eight hours explaining the plot. He doesn't finish the first act.
Running Gag: Let's see, there's Teddy's bugle playing (and charging), the constantly disappearing and reappearing body in the window seat, Elaine misunderstanding Mortimer's behavior, the cabby and his ever-escalating fare, Dr. Einstein's drinking, everyone trying to get Mortimer to review their plays, the obliviousness of the police, who's "going to Happydale"...
Mortimer: Certainly there are thirteen bodies buried in the cellar. And I've got hundreds more up in the attic, Captain!
Serial Killer: Abby and Martha. Jonathan might or might not be one—it's uncertain whether his 13 murder victims were a byproduct of a life of crime or true Serial Killer murder-for-murder's-sake. The fact that he sometimes tortures them, as he apparently did in Melbourne and prepares to do with Mortimer, hints towards true Serial Killer.
"Shut Up" Kiss: Three times in a row! Some women just won't stop talking!
Suddenly Suitable Suitor: Zig-Zagged. Elaine is dizzy in love with Mortimer, but gets increasingly frustrated and angry with him when he seems to be brushing off their honeymoon, then is completely freaked out upon discovering the murders, and then finally folds in Mortimer's arms when he starts paying attention to her again.
Sugary Malice: This movie is based upon the notion that a certain pair of sweet old ladies are inviting gentlemen over to drink homemade wine and then poisoning them.
Mortimer: ...Now, he knows he's in the house with murderers, so he ought to know he's in danger. He's even been warned to get out of the house. And does he go? Dr. Einstein: Yes? Mortimer: No, he doesn't, he stays. This fellow doesn't even have sense enough to be scared.
Torture Technician: Dr. Einstein carries a set of precision surgical instruments with him. He uses it for plastic surgery. Jonathan uses it for... other things.
Dr. Einstein: Not the Melbourne method! [shudders] Two hours! And when it was over, what? The fellow in Melbourne was just as dead as the fellow in London!
White Sheep: Mortimer. Justified at the end when Abbey and Martha reveal that he was adopted.
Wrong Genre Savvy: Played for laughs — Mortimer is an expert in theater tropes and continually comments on how things would turn out if he were actually in a play and trapped in a house with murderers... happily ignoring the fact that that's exactly what's going on.