The Bootleg Files: Arsenic and Old Lace

BOOTLEG FILES 598: “Arsenic and Old Lace” (1969 television production starring Bob Crane, Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The reason may be a little complicated.


Remaking a beloved classic film is always a tricky endeavor – the new offering is inevitably judged against its predecessor, and it is rare for the second effort to be found superior to the work that came first.

One of the more grueling examples of a misfired remake is the 1969 made-for-television production of Joseph Kesselring’s dark comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Not only was this production following in the footsteps of Frank Capra’s popular 1944 film version, but it also came after three different U.S. television productions that aired in 1949, 1955 and 1962; a British version aired in 1958 but was never shown in the U.S.

For those unfamiliar with “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the plot focuses on New York drama critic Mortimer Brewster, whose elderly maiden aunts live together in a Brooklyn house. The aunts have quietly been poisoning old men who arrive at their home inquiring after a room-for-rent advertisement – their homicidal act consists of arsenic-tinged elderberry wine. Mortimer’s insane brother Teddy believes he is Theodore Roosevelt, and he helps the aunts bury the corpses in the cellar – they tell him the newly deceased are yellow fever victims, and Teddy imagines the cellar is Panama during the construction of the canal. Mortimer has another brother, Jonathan, who is an escaped murderer. Jonathan sought to disguise himself through plastic surgery, but the surgeon tasked with this deed – a shady Dr. Einstein – gave him a face that resembled Boris Karloff. Mortimer finds himself in the Brooklyn home with all of these oddballs, along with his fiancé Elaine and an oblivious police officer who keeps pestering Mortimer to help him achieve his literary dreams.

I need to admit that I am not a huge fan of “Arsenic and Old Lace” – I always thought it was an amusing concept that was stretched to the fraying point. One person who also disliked the property was Cary Grant, the star of the Capra film – he felt his manic performance as the jittery Mortimer was the worst of his career. The Capra film was also manacled by the Production Code censors, who forced the rewriting of some of the more ghoulish aspects of the Kesserling play.

For the 1969 version, an all-star cast was assembled. Helen Hayes, who played one of the murderous elderly aunts in the 1955 telecast, repeated her role, and she was joined by Lillian Gish as her poison-serving sibling. Fred Gwynne was cast as Jonathan – an obvious choice, as he played the Karloff-resembling Herman Munster a few years earlier – with Jack Gilford taking on the role of his surgeon and David Wayne as Teddy. Sue Lyon, the one-time “Lolita,” was Mortimer’s fiancé, and “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane (curiously billed as “Robert Crane”) was Mortimer.

But having Crane in the Mortimer role proved to be a lethal mistake. Although he earned two Emmy Award nominations for “Hogan’s Heroes,” Crane was out of his depth in a role that required a nervous energy level that was beyond his acting capacity. Throughout the production, it feels as if he is cold reading his lines rather than inhabiting the character – Mortimer’s growing apprehension and anxiety at his family’s lunacy, which is the crux of the comedy, is nowhere to be seen here. As a result of Crane’s stolid non-performance, the sense of wacky danger that this show requires is gone.

Complicating matters is having Crane and Lyon as a romantic couple. The show opens with a newly written sequence in a disco, but Crane (who was 18 years older than Lyon) looks like her father rather than her lover. Lyon also betrays a limited acting range – and while she looks stunning in a mini-skirt, she does more justice to her wardrobe than to her lines.

Luther Davis’ adaptation tinkers with the script to make topical references that were designed to make this hoary old play more contemporary. Mortimer’s profession is changed from a theater critic to a television critic, and Dr. Einstein is renamed “Dr. Salk,” with a jokey reference to the famed developer of the polio vaccine. And in a new line designed to appeal to the liberal viewers, Dr. Salk promises Jonathan to do another surgery that will make look just like Ronald Reagan. Gwynne’s Jonathan also sounds like Boris Karloff, who originated the role on Broadway and played it again the three earlier U.S. television versions. But the impersonation is for naught, since Gwynne’s make-up looks absolutely nothing like Karloff’s fabled horror visage.

Oddly, it was decided to present as a live production “Arsenic and Old Lace” in front of a studio audience in New York, with a few filmed sequences used for quick cutaway shots. One would assume the audience was not particularly amused, as the level of laughter often has an amplified quality that was typical of sitcoms saddled with laugh tracks.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” was broadcast in color on ABC on April 2, 1969, to low ratings and poor reviews. There has never been an official home entertainment release, and a black-and-white version taken from a 16mm print is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting. It is not certain if a video of the original color broadcast is intact – if it does survive, it would certainly need restoration before it could be re-released. The home entertainment rights would also have to be cleared – as of this writing, only the Frank Capra film version can be found on DVD.

It is a shame that “Arsenic and Old Lace” didn’t click, but at least it served one good purpose: to date, there has been no further film version of this too-much-filmed work.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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