Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace: The Backstory

Dark Drama Turned Comedy Slays Audiences

by Scott Gallinghouse

There’s never been anything like Arsenic and Old Lace, the horror comedy about the mad Brewsters of Brooklyn, the wackiest family in theater history.
Generations of theatergoers have laughed their heads off over the homicidal activities of two sweet spinster ladies, Abby and Martha Brewster, who just happen to be insane. These old maids sympathize with lonely old men with “good Christian backgrounds” and no families to care for them.  The sisters make good on their charitable plans to put these elderly men out of their misery by poisoning the elderberry wine which the maiden lades serve them.  Martha’s recipe for their destruction is simple:  “for a gallon of elderberry wine I take a teaspoon full of arsenic, and add a half teaspoon of strychnine and then just a pinch of cyanide.”
When the play begins, Abbey and Martha have just poisoned Mr. Hoskins, their twelfth victim.
These two old ladies have one nephew who is just plain crazy, but not murderously so.  This nephew has decided that he is Teddy Roosevelt, and is devotedly acting out the life story of his idol.
Cartoon by unknown artist of “Teddy” 
as portrayed by Bill Strange in
Slidell Little Theatre’s 1967 production
of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Whenever his loving aunts bump somebody off, they set nephew Teddy to work digging a new “lock” for the “Panama Canal” located in the cellar of their stately Brooklyn home.  The “lock” is a grave.  The aunts identify each of their victims as a yellow fever case; Teddy happily stows the victims away quietly because they are “state secrets.”
Into this house comes Mortimer Brewster, a sane nephew and drama critic involved in a charming love affair with a very modern minister’s daughter.  Mortimer’s only knowledge of murder stems from plays he has reviewed.  When Mortimer happens on the remains of his aunts’ twelfth victim, he is unnerved, to say the least, by their sweet homicides.  While Mortimer is struggling over what he should do about the homicidal behavior of his aunts, another nephew, Jonathan Brewster arrives, with Dr. Einstein, his shady plastic surgeon, as a traveling companion.  Jonathan is a homicidal maniac with an impressive international record for murder who has had his face altered to resemble Boris Karloff by Dr. Einstein’s surgery.  Jonathan has a habit of killing anyone who says he looks like Boris Karloff.
The frantic lunacies of these characters provide all of the ingredients for a riotous series of events that prove the old New York adage, “anything can happen in Brooklyn.”
Arsenic and Old Lace was the brainchild of several creative “fathers”: playwright Joseph Kesselring
Joseph Kesselring
and the comedy theatrical team of Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who were also “play doctors,” known for re-writing a number of shows on the road to Broadway.
Kesselring was born and raised in Manhattan.  As a boy, he sang at the Church of the Epiphany, and attended Stuyvesant High School in New York.  Kesselring taught voice, music and directed glee club at Bethel Mennonite College in Bethal, Kansas in the early 1920’s, where he also directed stage productions.  Kesselring left teaching and went into acting with touring companies.  He also began writing pulp stories and plays, including two Broadway flops.
In 1939, Kesselring conceived the idea for a heavy mystery drama originally entitled, “Bodies in Our Cellar.”  It is widely believed that the plot line was inspired by real-life events in which a woman named Amy Archer-Gilligan took boarders into her house in Windsor, Connecticut and poisoned them for their pensions.  Kesselring himself claimed that the inspiration for his “murderous old lady” plot was his gentle old grandmother, the “sweetest thing in the world.”  It amused Kesselring to dream up a hidden vice for his saintly grandmother; the worst, most unlikely thing he could think of was murder.
‘Play Doctors’ Propose Antidote for Murder
When Kesselring completed his script, he submitted it to Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, who were then enjoying great success with Life With Father, an adaptation of Clarence Day’s novel which would become one of Broadway’s greatest hits.  Lindsay and Crouse felt that “Bodies in Our Cellar” would be much more effective as a comedy, and began reshaping the script in collaboration with Kesselring.
By October of 1939, the title of the play had been changed to Arsenic and Old Lace, the perfect title for the completely absurd and hilarious comedy that Kesselring’s drama had become.  Originally, Lindsay and Crouse expected to have the premiere of the play early in 1940.  Further revisions apparently caused delays in that plan, and by June of 1940, entertainment columnist Elinor Hughes was reporting:
It is possible that Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, co-authors of the fabulously successful “Life With Father” may turn producers next season.  They have on hand a script by Joseph Kesselring entitled, “Arsenic and Old Lace” which revolves around two spinsters who run a boarding hose, where the boarders have a way of dying off suddenly and if Mr. Kesselring can finish there will be a tryout at Skowhegan (Maine) in August.
Russel Crouse revealed later why he and Howard Lindsay ultimately decided to produce “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  After dismissing the allure of money or fame as reasons, Crouse posed the question:
Why, then you ask, did Lindsay and I produce Arsenic and Old Lace?  Why did we do it?
Well, the only reason I can think of is that we are both nuts.  I can’t take too much credit on that score because I’m not very nuts.  Just a little bit.  You’d hardly notice it.  But that Lindsay!  He’s good and nuts!
Lindsay and Crouse were sane enough to decide that they wanted famed film bogeyman Boris Karloff for the role of mad killer, Jonathan Brewster.  With the final revisions from Joseph Kesselring in hand, Russel Crouse called Karloff in the fall of 1940 and invited the actor to lunch at Lucey’s Restaurant in Hollywood.  Since Crouse and Karloff were old friends, the actor happily agreed to meet Crouse for what Karloff expected was a social occasion only.  Karloff was floored when Crouse offered him a role in a New York play – a play that would be Karloff’s Broadway debut.  Crouse was equally stunned when Karloff immediately replied that he wouldn’t consider it!
One Line Seals the Deal
Karloff’s explanation for turning down the offer says a great deal about the actor: “In the eyes of New York playgoers I was strictly a film player and I’d be darned if I’d take a chance by starring in my first big city play.”
Crouse quickly responded, “But this is a very special kind of play.”
Karloff replied: “I’m sure it is special – I just wouldn’t consider doing a play unless there were at least three parts more important than mine.  The responsibility of stardom on Broadway is too much for me.”
Russel Crouse saw an opening, and assured Karloff that there were exactly three roles more important than his.  Karloff’s interest was kindled, and the actor asked Crouse to tell him something about the part.  Crouse knew his old friend well, and shrewdly offered, “Suppose I tell you just one line you will have?”
Karloff responded skeptically, “Can you sell me on one line?”
Crouse moved in for the kill: “I think so.  You have just murdered a man, and when questioned about it, you answer ‘I killed him because he said I looked like Boris Karloff.’”
Karloff was so delighted with the chance to make fun of his screen image that he agreed to do the
Boris Karloff told any writer
who would listen that he was
“terribly scared” at the prospect
of making his first appearance
before a Broadway audience.
play.  However, during the weeks that followed, he apparently came to regret his decision.  Hollywood columnist John Chapman reported in “Chapman Covers Hollywood” for December 5, 1940, that:
Boris Karloff leaves soon for New York, where he will appear for Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse – authors of “Life with Father” – in a Joseph Kesselring comedy melodrama called “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  And Boris confesses he is scared!
He was a legit actor for 18 years – but, he says, a provincial actor, and Broadway critics and actors frighten him.
Karloff continued to tell any writer who would listen that he was “terribly scared” at the prospect of making his first appearance before a Broadway audience; he said as much to writers Harrison Carroll and Sheilah Graham while he was finishing his mad scientist role in Columbia’s The Devil Commands.  After the completion of the film, Karloff headed east to prepare for try-outs of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” scheduled to open in Baltimore on December 26, 1940.
The actor’s worst fears were realized.  His first reading was a disaster.  Karloff stuttered, he lost his voice, and he began to lose a deal more.  Karloff recounted later,
“I weighed 175 pounds when I took this job on, but the worry and fear and strain of rehearsal . . . brought me down to 149 pounds.”
Even so, the “sheer fright” of rehearsals couldn’t prevent the kindly actor from the real life joys of the season:  An Associated Press item reported from Baltimore on December 24, 1940 that:
The Christmas spirit got Boris (‘Frankenstein’) Karloff.
At a party for crippled children tomorrow, the role of Santa Clause will be played by Karloff.  He’s the villain in a current play, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
The success of the Baltimore try-outs did little to raise Karloff’s spirits.  While the actor awaited the Broadway opening of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” he became so despondent that at one point, Karloff walked the Manhattan streets all night, trying to think of a way to back out of the play.  Karloff recalled,
I made my decision, I was lousy.  There were no two ways about it.  I was going to (Lindsay and Crouse) and (Bretaigne Windust, the director) and say ‘Forgive me – tell me how much money I owe you – I’m going home.’  Then I turned and started uptown, and all I could think of was how kind everybody had been – and I knew I had to do it.
Karloff sought help with another problem besides stage fright:  his voice was “too small to knock the dust off of the back wall of the gallery.”  However, a solution was provided, as Karloff remembered:
. . . after working so long in the movies, my voice became small . . . and when finally, for the first time in my life I got into a show on Broadway . . . my vocal chords were not up to it.  Windy (Bretaigne Windust, the director of the show) was marvelous about it.  He told me to take some cotton strewn with eucalyptus oil and stuff it into a corncob pipe and suck on it.  It soothed and strengthened the vocal chords and we all – ladies as well as gentlemen – went around sucking on corncob pipes for days.
Friday, January 10, 1941:  A few hours before the curtain rose at New York’s Fulton Theatre for the initial Broadway performance of “Arsenic and Old Lace,” co-producer Howard Lindsay approached his collaborator, Russel Crouse, shook his hand and said:
We have not long to wait.  It is my studied conviction that we either have a very big hit or we will both be run out of town.
At that moment, Boris Karloff probably feared that he, at least, would be sent packing back to Hollywood.  While he was awaiting his Broadway debut, the humble actor simply remarked, “I was scared stiff about how they would like me.”
Hours later, when the curtain finally rose, Karloff waited in the wings for his entrance while Broadway veterans Josephine Hull (Aunt Abby), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha), Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer) and John Alexander (Teddy) enjoyed tremendous laughs from an enthusiastic audience.  These excellent players showed a vitality throughout, and their timing was perfect.  Referring to the old ladies and nephew Teddy, Karloff remarked:
Those characters, so innocent and otherworldly, so sweet and naïve, despite the oddity of their behavior, must be made credible, for it they’re not, the play would cease to be funny and would become unpleasant.
Still, when Boris Karloff actually set foot on the stage to audience applause, it was a decidedly
In 1941, Boris Karloff was wowing critics with his stage work as
a homicidal maniac in the black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
The in-joke of the play was that his character was repeatedly
mistaken for Karloff due to some botched plastic surgery.
A film adaptation of the hit went into production at that time,
but unfortunately, the play’s producers would not allow
Boris to appear in the movie because he was the
main attraction for Broadway audiences.
unpleasant movement.  As the actor vividly remembers, he opened his mouth, “but nothing came forth . . . For an instant I was in a panic.  I don’t suppose the audience knew of my trembling knees and the lump in my throat but I was scared.”
Karloff needn’t have worried – the opening night audience continually burst out laughing throughout the play.  Karloff’s wife, Dorothy, recounted the scene:
The audience was all very exciting – all the critics in the first few rows, Charlie Chaplin was there, and all sorts of people.  But from the moment the curtain went up you knew it was going over.  The audience started to laugh – and just never stopped.  They were the most wonderful audience I’ve ever seen – they applauded and cheered and yelled ‘Bravo’ and ‘Speech’ – and after about the 15th curtain call, Boris and the two old ladies had tears streaming down their faces – and I was weeping – and it was just colossal – the whole thing.
Those first few rows of critics were no less enthusiastic in their reviews.  Brooks Atkinson, critic of the New York Times, wrote:
‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is so funny none of us will ever forget it.  It kept the first night audience roaring with laughter.
Richard Watts, Jr., of the New York Hearld-Tribune, hailed the play as “. . . the most riotously hilarious comedy of the season.”
New York Evening Post critic John Mason Brown summed up the critical response to “Arsenic and Old Lace” neatly by saying:
(It is) so side-splitting and terrific it can be guaranteed to make even dramatic critics care for the theatre.  Just when it is threatening to make you scream with terror, it compels you to scream with laughter.
The first-night reactions were only the start for Arsenic and Old Lace.  Ahead were months of standing-room only audiences, a road-showing touring company, a hit film, more than 1400 performances on Broadway, and more than 1300 performances at the Strand Theatre in World War II London.  And more than 70 years later, the antics of the mad Brewsters of Brooklyn still evoke laughter.  As Boris Karloff remarked, “If a play is well done people will go to see it, whether it is ‘Macbeth’ or ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’  I think I can safely say our play is a good one or it wouldn’t be going so long.”
Gregory William Mank, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff:  The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, with a Complete Filmography of Their Films Together (Jefferson, N.C.:  McFarland & Company, Inc., 2009)
Cynthia Lindsay, Dear Boris:  The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff (New York:  Knopf, 1975)
Numerous contemporary newspapers, including The Portland Oregonian; Trenton Evening Times; Dallas Morning News; Baton Rouge Advocate; New Orleans Times-Picayune; San Diego Union; Kansas City Star; Boston Hearld; Spring Field Daily Republican.

About the author:
Scott Gallinghouse
Scott Gallinghouse works as Senior Underwriting Counsel for First American Title Insurance Company in New Orleans by day, but at night and on the weekends, Scott is a lover and student of many things, including Universal Monster films. This love lead him to the Universal Horror Film Board and Scott began to research information for several authors, most recently Greg Mank and Michael A. Hoey.  Currently, Scott is working on his own book regarding the iconic Universal film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.  Researching Arsenic and Old Lace was a joy (and his wife, Tracy, asked him to do it). 

Scott grew up in New Orleans.  He graduated from the University of New Orleans with a B.A. in Political Science before attending LSU Law School from which he graduated in 1977.  

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