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!
Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster doesn't realize it, but he 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 other 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:
- Accidental Misnaming: Teddy, being a bit nutty, doesn't remember the name of Happydale's director correctly.Teddy: Mr. Witherfork!
- Actor Allusion:
- The comments about Jonathan looking like Boris Karloff in the play—Boris Karloff originated the role on the stage. In fact, the only reason Karloff didn't play the role in the film was that he couldn't get out of his contract playing that role in the Broadway production. The producers of the play were worried ticket sales would drop if they lost their big-name star, even for a short time.
- In the movie, Mortimer leans against a tombstone with the name "Archibald Leach" (Cary Grant's real name).
- The casting of Peter Lorre as a crazed German surgeon in the film may be a callback to Mad Love.
- 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.
- All Hallows' Eve: An opening title introduces the film as "a Halloween tale of Brooklyn", and the Brewster sisters are seen handing out pies and pumpkins to a gaggle of trick-or-treaters.
- Artistic License Sports: The movie opens with a fight breaking out during a Dodgers-Yankees baseball game... played on Halloween, which would have been comically ludicrous in the early 1940s when the World Series was played in the first week of October.
- 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 a psychopathic murderer who travels the world only a few steps ahead of the police. He'll kill you for any reason, or no reason, but especially if you tell him he looks like Boris Karloff.
- 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? Certainly not the Brooklyn police, who pay them social visits on a regular basis, nor their neighbors, nor even their psychopathic nephew. Mortimer only figures it out through stumbling on their latest victim.
- Berserk Button: Saying Jonathan looks like Boris Karloff will get you strangled at best, and slowly tortured to death for hours at worst. Productions of the original play change this around depending on the actor playing Jonathan.
- Better Than a Bare Bulb: Thanks to being a theater critic, Mortimer's dialogue is sprinkled with references to how characters in plays act or ought to act in various situations, which are of course precisely applicable to the situations he finds himself in. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize that he, himself, is a character in a play.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Abbey and Martha are genuinely sweet, charitable old ladies who advertise a room for lonely old men... and then poison them.
- Big Bad: Jonathan is the only truly malicious character in the movie and the only one out to get Mortimer, as well as the villain of the climax.
- Black Comedy: To get serial killers and ax crazy murderers past the The Hays Code, it was necessary to frame the story as a whimsical comedy about a theater critic discovering his family's hereditary madness.
- 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 Happy Dale.
- Body-Count Competition: Jonathan is shocked to discover that his aunts are murderers, but even more shocked to discover that they've been every bit as successful as he is. An argument ensues over how many kills he gets to count.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 it is!!!
- Body in a Breadbox: The window seat is apparently Abbey and Martha's temporary corpse storage; Jonathan finds it a convenient place to stash his latest victim as well.
- Bound and Gagged: Mortimer is tied to a chair and gagged by Jonathan in preparation for torture — Mortimer sets this up himself by describing how a victim in a play was captured. Later, when Officer O'Hara shows up, Dr. Einstein explains it away as Mortimer discussing a play, prompting O'Hara to start talking about his own play. Mortimer doesn't get loose until he gets knocked over in a brawl between Jonathan and the police, which breaks the chair.
- Brick Joke: The shoes belonging to the late Mr. Spinaldo, who Jonathan killed. Dr. Einstein takes them for himself after he and Jonathan bury the corpse. He wears them throughout the rest of the movie and eventually uses one to knock Jonathan unconscious.
- 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 a bastard!"
- The film eliminates the play's ending gag, which has the aunts offering a glass of their wine to Mr. Witherspoon.Witherspoon: You don't see much elderberry wine nowadays. I thought I'd had my last glass of it.
Abby: Oh, no!
Martha: (handing him a glass of wine) No, here it is.
- Cain and Abel: Jonathan apparently liked to torment Mortimer when they were growing up together as children, describing the horrifying things he wanted to do to him. He seizes his current opportunity to consummate that desire.
- Casting Gag: Usually invoked with some of the larger productions; aside from Karloff playing a character that just happened to look quite a bit like himself, Bela Lugosi took over the role of Jonathan when Karloff went back to Universal, the subtext now that he'd been altered to resemble Dracula. Fred Gwynne took the part in the 1969 TV movie, and for the 1987 national tour, Jonathan Frid replaced Abe Vigoda (who also looked uncannily like Boris in the right makeup).
- Chekhov's Gun: When Mortimer and Aunt Abby take a moment to look at a picture of Jonathan as a kid, you know he's going to figure in the story eventually.
- Spinaldo's shoes. Einstein appropriates them after he and Jonathan bury the corpse and later he uses one of them to knock Jonathan unconscious.
- Cloudcuckooland: Brooklyn. To the point where a title card at the beginning of the film 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.
- Creepy Souvenir: Not intended as such, but Abby and Martha have a cabinet containing the hats of all the men they've killed.
- Darkness = Death: No dead bodies are ever seen in full light.
- Dead Man's Chest: The window seat, home to two different bodies throughout the play.
- Death by Mocking:
- Mortimer spends a lengthy monologue mocking the foolishness of the protagonist in a play he reviewed, who relaxed his guard in a house with a murderer. Fortunately for Mortimer, he just barely escapes death for his own stupidity.
- It is implied that at least one of Jonathan's victims was murdered for saying he looked like Boris Karloff.
- The Dreaded: The mere mention of Jonathan inspires fear in all who know of him. Abby and Martha, who are friendly to everyone, and serial killers to boot, react with terror as soon as they realize who they're talking too. Elaine has never even met Jonathan, but as soon as he says his name, she shrinks and tries to excuse herself.
- 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.
- Extremely Short Timespan: Everything happens over the course of a single afternoon and evening. (Which, in the movie version, happens to be Halloween.)
- Failed a Spot Check:
- Famous-Named Foreigner: Dr. Einstein, although it's almost certainly an alias.
- Feel No Pain: Jonathan is seemingly impervious to pain; Mortimer stomps on his foot, then stabs him in the leg with a fork, and Jonathan doesn't even seem to notice. Mortimer is surprised when a blow to the head actually does have an effect.
- 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.
- Funny Background Event: Teddy's reaction to Mortimer's attempt to persuade the police to commit his aunts.
- Genre Blindness: Discussed Trope. When Dr. Einstein suggests Mortimer should be Genre Savvy enough to comprehend the danger he's in (Mortimer is a theater critc), 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.
- George Washington Slept Here: Referenced in the film when one of the police officers asks if George Washington slept in the old house owned by the two old women.
- Ham-to-Ham Combat: Capra said that he let the scene-stealers run wild in the film.
- 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!"
- I Know You Know I Know: Jonathan and Mortimer engage in a battle of wits over which one will leave the home, based on what each thinks the other knows about all the murders. Jonathan gains the upper hand by threatening to expose Mortimer's aunts.
- I Need a Freaking Drink:
- As Mortimer gets off the phone after a loud, aggravating conversation with the operator, he exclaims in exasperation.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."
- As Mortimer gets off the phone after a loud, aggravating conversation with the operator, he exclaims in exasperation.
- 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 Brewster family seems to be subject to hereditary madness. Aside from the characters in the story, dialog reveals that their father had delusions as well. We never find out anything about Mortimer's direct parents, until the ending reveal that he's adopted.
- Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain: Dr. Einstein doesn't seem to have overtly evil intentions; rather, his alcoholism and lack of self-esteem have led him to become entangled in Jonathan's murder spree. It's never clear what he's wanted for besides being an accomplice, and he's so pathetic that by the end nobody seems to mind him escaping.
- Insane Troll Logic: Mortimer pulls off a clever bit of verbal chicanery when trying to get Teddy to sign the papers to commit himself and his aunts to Happydale.Mortimer: The name Brewster is code for Roosevelt.
Teddy: Code for Roosevelt?
Mortimer: Yes. Don't you see? Take the name Brewster, take away the B, and what have you got?
Mortimer: Uh-huh. And what does a rooster do?
Mortimer: It crows. And where do you hunt in Africa?
Teddy: On the veldt!
Mortimer: There you are: crows-veldt!
Teddy: Ingenious! My compliments to the boys in the code department.
Police Inspector: (confused) Do that again!
- Insanity Defense: Used preemptively; Mortimer hopes that, by getting Teddy and his aunts committed to Happydale, they won't be sent to prison for murder if/when their crimes are eventually discovered.
- Insistent Terminology: Toward the end Witherspoon shows up and asks the disgruntled cab driver to drive him and Teddy back to Happydale:Cab Driver: I knew this would end up in the nuthouse!Witherspoon: We like to think of it as a rest home.
- Interrupted Intimacy: Mainly just implied — this is from The '40s, after all — but it's their wedding night, and Elaine is clearly put out by Mortimer's continued lack of, er, availability.Mortimer: (distracted) Go home and get some rest.
- It Runs in the Family: Mortimer remarks: "Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops!"
- It Was Here, I Swear!: A Running Gag with the body in the window seat, which Mortimer discovers early in the play, is missing when he goes to check on it later (because Teddy has taken it for burial), and then becomes an entirely different body after Jonathan deposits his own latest victim there.
- 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.
- The two aunts, who at the end of the play are all committed to Happydale, a fairly comfortable sanitarium, as opposed to being arrested or committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. The end of the play, which is not shown in the film, shows that the aunts go back to their old habits with the warden which leaves open the possibility that they will be revealed.
- Kill the Poor: What the aunts have been doing for some time now. They sincerely believe, in their insanity, that it's an act of kindness.
- Knight of Cerebus: Jonathan's appearance makes the story take a sharp turn into nightmareville, as he is insanely cruel and sadistic and makes the viewers take him seriously, unlike the cute and naively murderous aunts.
- Lampshade Hanging: 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.
- Large Ham: Teddy Brewster, oh so very much. Mortimer also sort of becomes one over the course of the proceedings.
- Maiden Aunt: Abby and Martha never married, but they seem to have raised both Jonathan and Mortimer.
- Minion with an F in Evil: 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.
- 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.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Abbey and Martha's psychopathic break came when a house guest died of a heart attack at their table. They decided that it left him looking so "peaceful" that they had to help other lonely men find the same respite.
- Napoleon Delusion: Teddy thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt. And the stairs are San Juan Hill. CHAAAARGE!... *ding*. In the film adaptation, Dr. Witherspoon asks Mortimer if he could persuade Teddy to think he's Napoleon, as they already have quite a few Theodore Roosevelts at Happydale 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.
- No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: Mortimer does not initially recognize Jonathan due to the latter having undergone multiple plastic surgeries. Jonathan quotes the trope almost verbatim.
- Noodle Incident: Whatever the "Melbourne Method" involves. Local productions vary on its description, which is usually improvised by the cast members portraying Jonathan and Dr. Einstein.
- Not My Lucky Day: Mortimer gets married, which should be the happiest day of his life. Then he discovers that his aunts are serial killers and things just get worse from there.
- Obliviously Evil: The sweet little old ladies genuinely have no idea that poisoning multiple people makes them Serial Killers.
- 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.
- Police are Useless:
- 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.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: The aunts' Leitmotif, used extensively in the Max Steiner score, is "Happy Land," an 1850 hymn with words by Andrew Young and music arranged by Leonard T. Breedlove.
- Quick Nip: Dr. Einstein carries a flask in his pocket. When it's emptied toward the end, he gets truly desperate, setting up the elderberry wine fake-out.
- Refuge in Audacity: It's amazing that they managed to get away with portraying murdering old ladies as sympathetic in The Hays Code-era Hollywood. Also see Mortimer's use of this in Sarcastic Confession.
- Regional Riff:
- Repeating so the Audience Can Hear: The police captain's conversation with his precinct, during which he repeats Dr. Einstein's "Wanted!" Poster description word for word so the audience can see Einstein's increasingly panicked reaction.
- 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"...
- Sarcastic Confession: Faced with his aunts innocently confessing to their murders right in front of the police captain, Mortimer desperately attempts to paint their claim as proof of their own insanity by confessing to "his own murders".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 merely 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: Just when things are about to get resolved, Elaine comes running up the stairs, having snuck in through the cellar to confront Mortimer, screaming about how there really are bodies buried down there. To keep everything from being ruined, he smothers her with kisses until she's so relieved that he's paying attention to her again that she forgets about the murders.
- Suckiness Is Painful: Mortimer, while Bound and Gagged, is forced to spend hours listening to Officer O'Hara describe the (horrible) play he wants to write.
- 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.
- Sympathetic Murderer: The aunts. Emphatically not Jonathan, though.
- Tap on the Head: Lampshaded. Mortimer tells the cops not to bother as it never works, and is surprised when it does.
- Textual Celebrity Resemblance:
- Forms Jonathan's Berserk Button. "He looks like Boris Karloff!" In the Broadway production of the play, Jonathan was actually played by Boris Karloff - in fact, the reason he wasn't in the film is that the play's producers had him under exclusive contract at the time.
- There was another run of the play that had Bela Lugosi as Jonathan. For that one the line was changed to, '"Everyone tells me I look like Bela Lugosi!"
- In yet another version, Tom Baker played the role. He recounts in an audio commentary how he one night gave the line, "He said I looked like Jon Pertwee." After that got much applause, the next night he went full out saying, "He said I looked like Tom Baker!"
- That Poor Cat: During the scene where Teddy's moving the "Yellow Fever victim" to the "canal", he apparently steps on a cat's tail. The cat is seen in an earlier scene coming out of the cellar.
- Too Dumb to Live: Mortimer, Lampshaded by Mortimer himself: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!
- Trailers Always Spoil: Subverted. A piece of promotional art spoils the original play's ending by showing Mr. Witherspoon about to take a sip of the poisoned wine as offered by Abby and Martha. However, this ending was never filmed, as Edward Everett Horton was deemed too popular an actor to kill off.
- "Wanted!" Poster: Apparently, Jonathan and Dr. Einstein feature prominently on one of these at the police station, not that anyone but the captain notices.
- 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.