Arsenic and Old Lace

by Joseph Kesselring

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What are some differences between the play and movie versions of Arsenic and Old Lace?

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The play and the film are essentially the same, with only minor differences. The play takes place in the Brewster’s home and a graveyard across from a church. The film adds a few scenes to include a cab and more interactions outside of the house. Mortimer and Elaine’s relationship is slightly different in that they are already married in the film version, as opposed to engaged. The character of Happy Dale is added, which gives him an additional scene outside of the house with Mortimer’s aunts. Mortimer is also called an author in the film, as opposed to being a drama critic.

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Arsenic and Old Lace is a dark comedy that focuses around the Brewster family. The two elderly Brewster sisters believe that they are doing an act of kindness by serving poisoned elderberry wine to their lonely guests. Their nephew, Mortimer, returns home to discover his aunts’ “charity acts” and spends the rest of the story trying to get them and his brother, Teddy, admitted to Happy Dale, all while keeping both the police and his older brother, an escaped convict, at bay.

The film and play essentially follow the same plot. In fact, the differences are relatively minor and don’t largely affect the plot. Below are the major differences, which are listed in the order that they happen in the story.

Location

Play – The entire story takes place in the Brewsters’ home (mainly the dining room) and the graveyard outside (the Brewsters live across from a church).

Film – While most of the story takes place in the Brewsters’ home, the filmmakers added a few additional scenes: the license office, the inside of the cab, and more scenes that take place outside the home.

Mortimer and Elaine’s Relationship

Play – In the play the two are simply engaged. In fact, part of Mortimer’s struggle is that he is afraid to marry Elaine, because he is afraid that he could pass the Brewster insanity on to their children. He is put at ease at the end of the tale when his aunts inform him that he is not, in fact, a Brewster.

Film - In the film, the two are already married. We actually see them getting their marriage license at the beginning of the film.

The Added Character

Play – In the play, there is not a cab driver.

Film – In the film, Mortimer and Elaine arrive at his aunts’ home in a cab, and the cab driver interacts with the characters throughout the film. He is even given the last line of the film.

Mortimer’s Career

Play – In the play, Mortimer is a drama critic, and we see one of the police officers ask Mortimer to read his play.

Film – In the film, Mortimer is an author who writes against the institution of marriage, despite going against his own convictions and marrying Elaine at the beginning of the film.

The Ending

There are two differences to note about the ending of the play versus the film.

Play – When Mortimer is told that he is not a Brewster, he declares to Elaine, “Darling, I’m a bastard!”

Film – In the film the line was changed to, “I’m not a Brewster. I’m the son of a sea cook.” To which the cab driver replies, “I’m not a cab driver. I’m a coffee pot!”

The second difference to the ending is the only major change from the play to the film version.

Play – At the end of the play, the audience witnesses the Brewster sisters offering the sad, lonely head of Happy Dale a glass of elderberry wine. Thus, the audience is left with an impression that, despite Mortimer’s efforts, his aunts’ reign of “sympathetic terror” isn’t over.

Film – In the film, the scene was changed. The sisters do offer the head of Happy Dale a glass of wine, yet they are interrupted by Mortimer. So, the film ends on a happy note, and all of Mortimer’s efforts are met with success. The change was due to a Production Code that would not allow a murder to take place on screen unless the murderers were punished for the act.

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One of the major differences between the play and movie versions of Arsenic and Old Lace is that the play (which is in three acts) takes place entirely in the Brewsters' living room in Brooklyn, while there are exterior shots in the movie, including the opening shots of Brooklyn. In addition, Mortimer and Elaine appear at the clerk's office to be married in the movie.

In the play, Mortimer and Elaine are not married, while in the movie, Mortimer is married to Elaine at the beginning of the action. The play begins in September with Abby Brewster speaking to the reverend next door, who is Elaine's father, the Reverend Dr. Harper. The movie, on the other hand, begins on Halloween, when Elaine and Mortimer are secretly wed at city hall. 

The movie version is far more sanitized than the play. For example, at the beginning of the play, Mortimer asks Elaine where she learned about life, as she is a minister's daughter. She replies, "in the choir loft." Mortimer then says that he will explain to her "the close connection between religion and eroticism." Religion is not discussed in this way in the movie. In the play, it is conveyed that Mortimer cannot wait to marry Elaine, while in the movie, Mortimer is a reluctant groom who has written a book called Marriage: A Fraud and a Failure.

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Arsenic and Old Lace is a dark comedy about Mortimer Brewster, his fiance or wife, Elaine Harper (depending on whether you're referring to the play or the movie adaptation of the play) and his two spinster aunts, who have taken it upon themselves to murder old men as a way of sparing them from loneliness. The two unstable aunts serve the elderly bachelors with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide, and their brother, Theodore (who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt) buries the dead bodies in the cellar.

There are a few differences between the movie and play, among which are:

1) The play is set entirely in the Brewster living room, unlike the movie.

2) The play is set in September while the movie is set on Halloween.

3) In the play, Mortimer Brewster was a drama critic, while the movie version had him as a writer of anti-marriage books.

4) Different actors played the part of Mortimer Brewster. In the play, the part was played by Boris Karloff, but Raymond Massey did the honors for the movie.

5) The ending was also different; in the play, Mr. Witherspoon takes the aunts to the sanitarium, but ends up being the aunts' final victim. In the movie, final scenes have the two aunts telling Mortimer that he's not actually related to the Brewsters after all. Mortimer is so happy that he kisses his bride before they go on their honeymoon. The final line, "I'm not a Brewster, I'm the son of a sea cook," was changed from "I'm not a Brewster, I'm a b*s***d."

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What is the major difference between the endings of the play versus the film versions of Arsenic and Old Lace?

The play's ending is different from the movie's on a couple of points.

When Mortimer learns he is not a Brewster relation whatsoever but an illegitimate child taken in by them out of pity; in the play he tells Elaine, "I'm a bastard!" with great (and comical) joy. In the movie, the line is changed to "I'm not a Brewster! I'm the son of a sea cook!" since the Production Code which governed movie production during this period forbade strong language on the screen (Gone with the Wind's "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn" aside).

In the play, Mortimer's aunts remain out of an asylum. They learn the owner of Happy Dale is a lonely person, and the curtain falls as they offer him one of their infamous glasses of elderberry wine, implying they will continue to mercy-kill people. In the movie, once again due to the Production Code which would not allow criminals to remain unpunished for their crimes, the aunts are sent away to the asylum and the owner is spared when Mortimer intervenes.

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What is the major difference between the endings of the play versus the film versions of Arsenic and Old Lace?

The main difference between the movie and play versions of Arsenic and Old Lace is that in the movie, Mortimer's crazy aunts, Martha and Abby, go off with Mr. Witherspoon to the Happy Dale sanitarium, and the audience has the presumption that the Brewster aunts will no longer be able to be homicidal without access to their poisonous elderberry wine. However, in the play, the aunts offer Mr. Witherspoon a cup of their famous wine before they are supposed to go off to the sanitarium. The audience does not see what happens to Mr. Witherspoon, but he lifts the wine to his lips to toast them, and it is safe to assume that he becomes one of their victims. In addition, in the movie, Mortimer is already married to Elaine at the beginning of the story, but in the play, he goes off to find her at the end of the drama to tell her that he is not actually a Brewster. The audience assumes that he will now be able to marry Elaine.

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What is the major difference between the endings of the play versus the film versions of Arsenic and Old Lace?

In the movie, Jonathan is arrested and Einstein sneaks out of the house; and the papers are signed for the commitment of Uncle Teddy and the aunts to the asylum, Happy Dale.  Elaine sneaks in and finds the 13 graves in the basement.  As she "loses it," Mortimer picks her up and bodily carries her out of the house, kissing her to keep her quiet about what she has seen.  In the movie they have already married so they leave ostensibly to go on their honeymoon, and the movie ends.

In the play, Elaine enters with Mr. Witherspoon.  After the aunts tell Mortimer that he is not actually a Brewster (which alleviates his concern that insanity runs--"gallops"--in his family), delighted, Mortimer and Elaine leave to have breakfast.

In the play, both Jonathan and Einstein are arrested.  However, when the police take the arrested criminals away and no one else is there, the aunts start to ask Mr. Witherspoon about his personal life.  When they discover that he has no family, they go into action, inviting him to eat breakfast and have a glass of their elderberry wine.  The audience assumes, as the curtain drops, that there will be another "yellow fever victim" in the basement very soon, and that--ironically--they will beat Jonathan's record in the number of murders he committed.

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