Lost in Adaptation: Arsenic and Old Lace

Over the summer, I went to see the timeless play Arsenic and Old Lace at the Barnstormers Theater. What followed was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a theater; the audience was roaring with laughter, the actors were phenomenal, and even the pouring rain outside the theater couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. Then a few weeks ago, I went to a movie night hosted by Professor Nail, and what do you know, Arsenic and Old Lace was the film we watched. While watching it, however, I noticed some key differences between the play and its movie counterpart.

This classic tale follows Mortimer Brewster as he makes a visit to his two spinster aunts, only to find out they have been poisoning the lonely men in town and burying them in the basement. Bodies are hidden in window seats. Mortimer’s brother attempts to kill him. Their uncle thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt. In this farcical dark comedy, Mortimer debates whether he can marry his lover before he also goes crazy.

Here’s the first difference: our main character, Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic, is already married to Elaine at the start of the movie, while they are only engaged during the events of the play. Contrary to the play, Mortimer is even portrayed in the film as anti-marriage, and wrote a book about how he hates marriage. He is depicted as more neurotic in the play, even before he discovers the first body, and he has a healthier relationship with Elaine than what’s shown in the movie. 

Second, some scenes are completely changed. For example, when Officer O’Hara is telling a bound and gagged Mortimer about the play he wrote, the lights go out abruptly in the theater for about 30 seconds. We hear a rooster crowing once the lights return and the characters look bored and exhausted, implying Officer O’Hara has been talking all night. In the film, no such effect happens. Instead, the officer talks in real time for a minute before the action begins again. Additionally, the setting of the movie is no longer confined to the inside of the Brewster house, unlike the play which has to deal with limited stage space. A marriage registry office, a graveyard, and a taxicab with a disgruntled driver are among the things added.

At the end of the film, the two aunts have agreed to commit themselves to the sanitarium. Mortimer and Elaine finally head off to their honeymoon, with the annoyed cab driver shouting that they still haven’t paid their fare, and the credits roll on a decent chuckle. The play, however, ends with a macabre bite to the final joke. The aunts still agree to leave, but once the happy couple has gone, the aunts chat with the head of the sanitarium and find out that the man is very lonely. Quickly, they offer him the poisoned elderberry wine. “I thought I had had my last glass,” the man says excitedly. “Here it is,” one of the aunts replies. As the curtain falls, the man takes a big sip, presumably shortly before he dies.

While I see the work that went into adapting the play for the screen, I still believe the play is the superior version. Without the limitations of film censorship, the story can dig into its gallows humor unabashedly. The characters, including Mortimer, felt more human with their authentic wrongdoings on full display, unlike Hollywood’s sanitization of them. The comedic timing was more spontaneous and there was no music or unnecessary scenes, creating a more naturalistic and streamlined environment within the story. The ending was a horrifyingly amusing button on a wild experience.

I highly recommend it, if you ever have an opportunity to see it live. It’s the perfect way to start the Halloween season. Just double-check your window seats when you get home and check the wine offered at refreshments–especially if they offer you elderberry wine.