To continue yesterday’s history behind Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Broadway comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, it’s important to remember its status as more than just a record-breaker with regard to its lengthy run, closing out as the fourth longest running show ever. It went on to break the mold for how shows were done beyond Broadway.
Its producers, the long-experienced playwrights Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, took bold steps to insure that the play would have a significant afterlife. According to a Life Magazine piece written by Crouse and published in April 1944 a few months before the show closed, he wrote about the play’s historic series of firsts:
1. It was the first play to be presented in sign language on Broadway before an entirely deaf house. Crouse describes how, for one night only, the show was a triumph, especially with the inventiveness surrounding how it was got around the one scene in the play performed in a blackout. By having the actors wear phosphorescent gloves, the action could be determined by sight and not by sound, much to the delight of the audience.
2. It was the first time a Broadway cast performed a play at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for an audience of 3,000 future Army officers on a makeshift set built by the young cadets themselves.
3. It was among the first Broadway plays to be licensed to school groups and community theatres even while it was still enjoying its healthy New York run. At the time of this article’s printing, Crouse surmised there had already been 1,000 productions of the play in the U.S. alone.
This 1943 children’s production that, judging from this photo, must have been incredible.
4. Though unable to boast the most international productions of a play, Crouse felt safe in stating that its numerous stagings were most probably a record in wartime (especially considering it was refused the rights for it to be performed in fascist countries). These productions were not without pitfalls however, never more so than when a Swedish producer with the Germanic name Lars Schmidt, signed a cablegram announcing that “Arsenic opened last night big success.” The cable was intercepted by the U.S. War Department until it was properly deciphered as having nothing to do with terrorism.
5. Finally, though more adorable than noteworthy, by allowing his daughters to accompany he and his wife, King George VI took both Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, to the theatre at night for the first time in their young lives (they were seventeen and thirteen).
But the best accounting of a “first” that was achieved by Arsenic and Old Lace, is the one cited by Crouse in the Life article whereby he claims to be able to break down to the dollar exactly what one laugh cost he and Lindsay as its producers.
Throughout the play, the audience is told many times that there are thirteen bodies buried in the basement — the result of the play’s two sweet sisters, Martha and Abby Brewster — poisoning elderly men they feel have outlived their usefulness and should rightfully be put out of their loneliness and misery. Though not revealing whose idea it was, Crouse describes the enormous laugh that occurred after the entire company of fourteen took their bows, then were joined directly thereafter by thirteen men coming up from below the stage and through the cellar door to take their bows alongside the cast. It’s a guaranteed surprise laugh and one that Crouse calculated (probably for a laugh of its own) cost exactly $46,175 in the show’s first three years.
Too much for one laugh? Crouse suggests that one man in the world at that time (April 1944) would gladly have paid it — Adolph Hitler.
Though still produced the world over, Arsenic and Old Lace is probably best known to audiences for its film version starring Cary Grant and directed by Frank Capra. Bought for the then-pricey sum of $175,000, the contract stipulated that the film couldn’t be released until after the Broadway run ended. Since this was back in the day when one year was more than sufficient to pay back investors and easily secure hit status, few expected Arsenic to run three-and-a-half years.
Filmed in late 1941 with the Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander repeating their stage roles as the Brewster sisters and their addled brother Teddy, all three rejoined the stage production upon their return from Hollywood. Why Boris Karloff didn’t repeat his role as Jonathan was due to the producers’ worry that if he left the show the box office might have plunged considerably (he was the first-billed star). If you believe the press stories, Karloff “volunteered” to stay behind for the good of the show. Raymond Massey, cast as Jonathan, at the time was best known for both his stage and film performance in the title role of Abe Lincoln in Illinois. Here, he hid behind hideous makeup and was not only scary, but very funny, without ever playing into it.
Cary Grant is insanely over the top in the film, which didn’t go over too well with critics, but I personally think is hilarious. He has one of the greatest double-takes of all time when he first discovers a body in the window seat (Mr. Spinalzo), dumped there prior to his proper burial in the cellar. Bob Hope was the first actor Capra had in mind, but he proved unavailable. I think Hope would have been equally good (as well as equally over the top).
The film was finally released after the Broadway show concluded its run in late 1944, three years after it was filmed. It shows up on Turner Classic Movies pretty often. Check it out. Though it deviates from the play, it has more than enough to entertain you thoroughly.
And of course, amateur productions of Arsenic and Old Lace are always popping up, especially in summer. This September, a well-received production at the Priscilla Beach Theatre in Plymouth, Mass. (where I direct occasionally) was a sell-out in its two-week run. And last week, it won the 2017 BroadwayWorld Regional Theatre Award for Best Drama.
Chris Bailey, Nick Door and Victoria Bond in the recent Priscilla Beach Theatre production of Arsenic and Old Lace.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/