The Broadway comedy opened at the Fulton Theatre on January 10, 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances, closing on June 17, 1944. Repeating their stage roles in the movie were "Brewster siblings" Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander, all three getting time off from the New York play. Boris Karloff was denied permission to go by the play's producers, fearing that the absence of their main star would adversely affect the play's attendance.
On stage, Boris Karloff played the monstrous Jonathan Brewster, Raymond Massey's film character, who, in eerie-looking screen makeup, resembled Karloff, which was a running gag throughout the picture. Because Karloff was still appearing in the Broadway play during the film's production, he was unable to do the picture.
Jonathan describes one of his killings and Dr. Einstein says "You can't count him. He died of pneumonia," then Jonathan replies "He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him." This could describe the death of one of the pre-Theodore Roosevelt Presidents. James A. Garfield was shot in 1881 by a drifter named Charles J. Guiteau, and recovered from the wound, only to catch pneumonia from tainted surgical tools, and died 79 days after the shooting. Despite a courtroom argument that Garfield's death was only indirectly connected to the shooting, for this reason, Guiteau was held responsible and sentenced to death because Garfield wouldn't have died if Guiteau hadn't shot him.
Some 20 years before filming this movie, actress Jean Adair had helped to nurse a very sick vaudeville performer named Archie Leach back to health; by the time she was asked to reprise her Broadway "Arsenic and Old Lace" role as Aunt Martha for this film, Adair and Leach, now known as Cary Grant, were old friends.
Director Frank Capra enlisted in the U. S. Army Signal Corps in 1941 during filming. He received an extension of his order to report for active duty until late January 1942 so he could finish editing the picture.
Screenwriter Julius J. Epstein complained to Frank Capra that Cary Grant's acting "was going overboard with the comedy." Capra agreed and told the writer that it would be toned down in the editing process. However, when World War II unexpectedly began, and Capra left the studio to do the "Why We Fight" series, it was not done.
Julius Epstein thought Cary Grant mugged too much. He later said Frank Capra intended to go back and rein in the broadest scenes, but near the end of principal photography, the Japanese attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor and Capra was eager to move on to his military assignment, so retakes were never done.
Ronald Reagan and Jack Benny were offered the role of Mortimer Brewster, but turned it down. Bob Hope was offered the part and was eager to do it but Paramount Pictures refused to loan him out to Warner Bros. for the project.
The city backdrop was achieved with two-dimensional models of the Manhattan skyline and, in front of that, a foreshortened three-quarter-angle miniature of the Brooklyn Bridge. The tall buildings were covered with a scrim to make them appear farther off, and a glow was projected around the distant city. In front of the bridge were Brooklyn buildings, with a glow of lights in the windows, and still closer, the cemetery next to the Brewster home. From the front tombstone to the Manhattan skyline the 3-D perspective effect was done in 40 feet of studio space.
Frank Capra pushed his actors to the broadest comedy takes, a fact that did not sit well with Cary Grant. As a result, his (and Jack Carson's) performances were singled out by reviewers for going dangerously over the top, while Raymond Massey and the stage performers managed to look rather restrained by comparison. Grant hated working this way, although in his more generous moments he credited Capra with helping him to get the comic effect he was unable to do on his own (it may have been his subtle way of blaming the director).
The film was shot between October 20 and December 16, 1941. During 1943, the film was shown to the Armed Forces overseas. but went unissued domestically until its Manhattan debut at the Strand Theatre on September 1, 1944, followed by the nationwide release on September 23. Warner Bros. had been contractually required to wait for the Broadway play to finish its run, which finally occurred on June 17, 1944. By the time the movie opened, Priscilla Lane and Warner Bros. had ended their association.
Frank Capra also noted that while he was stationed in London in 1943, he overheard American and British soldiers screaming "Charge!" in the manner of the "Teddy Roosevelt" character and deduced that they had seen the film. He then learned that Jack L. Warner had released the picture to the armed forces a year before it was to be released to the general public.
Amy Archer-Gilligan, Americas most prolific female serial killer, has been sited as the inspiration for the play, and subsequently the film. She was charged with the poisoning deaths of her two husbands and was allegedly responsible for the deaths of 66 other elderly "inmates" of her nursing home. Her weapon of choice? Arsenic.
To add to the funny-creepy mood, Frank Capra ordered a backdrop with wispy clouds in front of a full moon and countless bags of autumn leaves blown around the exterior house and cemetery sets by three wind machines.
Although he planned to do the entire production on a single set, Frank Capra had to make exceptions for the scenes added to the story in the script adaptation: the baseball game, the marriage license office, and the sanitarium. For the most part though, Capra and cinematographer Sol Polito confined themselves to the set designed by art director Max Parker, following Capra's sketches. The house was constructed so they could shoot both interiors and exteriors in the same place.
The film actually took closer to eight weeks to shoot, not the four Frank Capra had planned, and the $400,000 initially budgeted was eventually set at just over a million, a far more realistic figure considering the salaries for Cary Grant and Capra alone.
Frank Capra cut corners wherever he could and worked swiftly and cheaply to bring the picture in on budget and within its short shooting schedule. He later said production manager Steve Trilling asked him if he was "going back to your Poverty Row quickies" where he had started his career. Capra said, "Yes, for a refresher course."
The hymnal that the aunts use to hold services over Mr. Hoskins is "Hymns For Creative Living." It was published in 1935 by The Judson Press. The hymn that they sing ("There is a Happy Place") is not in that hymnal.
The rights to the play cost $175,000, and that theatrical producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse negotiated for 15% of the film's profits. Although the original projected release date of the film was September 30, 1942, the play had 1,444 performances and ran for over three and a half years, thus delaying considerably the film's release.
Although this film was made in late 1941, it was not released until September 1944 because of a contractual obligation between Warner Bros. and the producers of the Broadway show, in which Warner Bros. agreed not to release the film until the end of the stage play's run.
René Clair saw the Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace and approached the producers about directing the film. They then communicated Clair's interest to Warner Bros., but it is not known if the studio ever seriously considered Clair for the job.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the play, Mr. Witherspoon, the caretaker of Happydale Sanitarium, is himself poisoned with a glass of wine by the two aunts, but adverse reaction from preview audiences to the murder caused it to be dropped. However, Edward Everett Horton, who played Witherspoon in the movie, did pose for a publicity photograph with a glass of wine in his hand.
Mortimer's repeated phrase at the end of the film declaring the secret of his birth was originally "I'm not a Brewster - I'm a bastard!" However, the censors demanded that it be changed, resulting in the phrase "I'm the son of a sea cook!"