Analysis of Arsenic and old lace

Summary The movie "Arsenic and Old Lace" is a chaotic and dark comedy that follows Mortimer and Elaine on their wedding day. Mortimer discovers that his eccentric aunts have killed multiple people and stored their bodies in the window seat, while his brother Jonathan and his accomplice Dr. Einstein try to hide a dead body. The situation escalates as more bodies are discovered, people are knocked out, and the police get involved. Mortimer tries to keep everything under control while dealing with his own anti-marriage beliefs and his engagement to Elaine. Eventually, Mortimer and Elaine leave for their honeymoon, while chaos still ensues in the Brewster family home.

Screenplay Story Analysis

Story Critique The story has a good mix of comedy and darkness, with interesting and quirky characters. However, some scenes feel disconnected and disjointed, and the plot meanders at times. The resolution feels rushed and somewhat unsatisfying.
Suggestions: The story could benefit from more focus and tightening of the plot. Some scenes could be condensed or eliminated to streamline the story. The resolution could be fleshed out more to provide a more satisfying conclusion.

Note: This is the overall critique. For scene by scene critique click here

Characters in the screenplay, and their arcs:

Mortimer Brewster

Mortimer Brewster is a male in his mid-thirties. He is a dramatic critic with strong anti-marriage views, but he is also hopelessly in love with Elaine. Mortimer is playful, sarcastic, and snarky. He uses humor and wit to mask his vulnerability and internal conflict. He also has a strained relationship with his eccentric aunts, who he loves but is wary of. Despite his flaws, Mortimer is intelligent and courageous, always trying to do the right thing even when it conflicts with his beliefs.

Elaine Harper

Elaine Harper is a young woman of the 1930s, with a sweet and charming demeanor that masks her fierce independence and strong-willed personality. She is a dreamer and romantic at heart, but also practical and level-headed when it comes to making important decisions. At first, she appears to be the perfect minister's daughter - polite, well-mannered, and devoted to her family - but underneath the surface, she yearns for excitement and adventure. Elaine is a gifted communicator, with a talent for making people feel at ease and opening up to her. She is intuitive and empathetic, attuned to the emotions and needs of those around her. Her wit and humor make her a joy to be around, but she can also be serious and contemplative when faced with important challenges. Elaine is traditional in some ways but also progressive in her views, challenging societal norms and expectations in her pursuit of personal happiness.


Mortimer is a highly moralistic and quick-witted man who loves his family but is conflicted about his engagement to Elaine and has a strong belief against marriage. He becomes increasingly entangled in the chaotic events unfolding around him, trying to keep everything under control while grappling with his family's dark secrets. Despite the challenges he faces, Mortimer remains determined to do what is right and protect his loved ones.


Elaine is a kind-hearted woman who is deeply in love with Mortimer. She is eager to please him and convince him of her worth. She is innocent, but also curious and persistent. She becomes caught up in the Brewster family drama and grows increasingly scared and suspicious, adding to the tension and conflict. Despite being peripheral to the main action of the scene, her fear and growing suspicion is palpable. She is ultimately smitten with Mortimer and expresses her affection in a sweet voice.

Teddy Brewster

Teddy Brewster is an eccentric and delusional man who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. He displays odd behavior as a result and is often unaware of reality. Despite this, he is beloved by his family and the community, who are all fond of his playful and jovial nature.

Reverend Harper

Reverend Harper is a traditional and religious man who deeply cares for his daughter and the community. He is a concerned father who values family and disapproves of Mortimer's anti-marriage views. Despite his strict beliefs, he is kind and sympathetic towards others. He is also a friend of the Brewster sisters and is concerned about Teddy's mental state, given his delusions of being Theodore Roosevelt.


Teddy is an eccentric and quirky character who believes he is President Roosevelt. He is absent-minded and childlike, but also surprisingly resourceful and clever. Through his delusional acts of staging war scenarios on the stairs, Teddy adds to the surreal humor of the movie. He is a happy-go-lucky character with a vivid imagination, making him endearing to the audience.


Abby is a middle-aged woman who is one of Mortimer's aunts. She is calm, collected, and calculated. She is responsible for poisoning the men who stay at their house. In contrast, her sister, Martha, is eccentric and obsessed with death. Abby appears to be more concerned with maintaining the status quo rather than the murders themselves. However, she is shown to be a caring and protective member of the family who is worried about Mortimer's safety and well-being.


Martha is an elderly woman who, along with her sister Abby, is the keeper of a dark secret - they are serial killers who poison lonely old men. Martha is more excitable and prone to laughter than Abby, but is just as committed to keeping their secret. She is level-headed and concerned over Mortimer's odd behavior. She is shown to be a supportive member of the family, but is not afraid to question Mortimer's promises to get Jonathan and the bodies out of the house. She is also concerned about the validity of the signatures and supports Abby in revealing the truth about Mortimer's heritage.

Dr. Einstein

Dr. Einstein is a nervous and anxious plastic surgeon who acts as Jonathan's partner in crime, helping him move dead bodies. He is often flustered and prone to making mistakes, but is also clever and resourceful in his own way. Despite his participation in these unsavory deeds, he maintains a sense of humor and offers some of the comedic relief in the scene. He also appears to feel guilt and discomfort over the situation, but ultimately goes along with Jonathan's plan and is shown to be a loyal partner.


Jonathan is a menacing, ruthless, and manipulative criminal who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals and stay hidden from the police. He takes pleasure in intimidating others and exerting power over them. However, he also has a dry sense of humor and a rivalry with his brother Mortimer. He is willing to do whatever it takes to protect his secrets and stay in control.


Officer O'Hara is a talkative and naive police officer. He is enthusiastic about Mortimer's new play, and unwittingly gets drawn into the Brewster sisters' deadly scheme. O'Hara is easily distracted, often talking at great length and seemingly oblivious to the chaos happening around him. He provides comic relief throughout the movie.


Witherspoon is a practical and polite orderly from the Asylum who initially struggles to collect Teddy amidst the chaos of the house. He later displays kindness and concern as a caregiver at Happy Dale, and later arrives to get the aunts to sign commitment papers. He is ultimately distracted by the confusion in the house and presents a play pamphlet as a way to calm everyone down.

Character Arc Critique Suggestions
Mortimer Brewster Mortimer's character arc in the screenplay is a journey of redemption and growth. At the start of the movie, he is confident in his views on marriage but also struggling to reconcile his feelings for Elaine. When he discovers that his aunts are serial killers, he is forced to confront his belief system and reevaluate his priorities. Mortimer ultimately saves Elaine and helps bring his aunts to justice, demonstrating bravery and selflessness. By the end of the movie, he has learned to prioritize love and family over his beliefs, showing true growth as a character. The character arc for Mortimer is well-structured and engaging, allowing him to undergo significant growth and transformation throughout the movie. However, there are some missed opportunities to explore his relationships more deeply. For example, his conflicted feelings towards his aunts could be fleshed out more, as could his emotional journey towards accepting marriage. Additionally, Mortimer's motivations for wanting to marry Elaine could be clearer, as this is a key aspect of his character that is not fully explored.
To improve Mortimer's character arc, the screenplay could spend more time exploring his relationships with his aunts and the nuances of his beliefs. This would allow for more emotional depth and complexity in his character. Additionally, the screenplay could delve more deeply into Mortimer's reasons for wanting to marry Elaine, adding more context and weight to his internal conflict. Overall, by fleshing out Mortimer's relationships and motivations, the character arc could be further strengthened and elevated.
Elaine Harper Elaine's character arc follows her journey from a sheltered and dutiful daughter to a confident and assertive young woman who follows her heart. At the beginning of the film, Elaine is navigating the tricky balancing act of pleasing her father and pursuing a relationship with Mortimer. As the plot unfolds, she is faced with increasingly difficult choices - such as whether to cover up Mortimer's crimes or risk losing him forever. Each decision she makes helps her to shed her old beliefs and embrace her true self. By the end of the film, Elaine has become a partner in crime with Mortimer, breaking free from her past and forging a strong bond with her true love. Overall, Elaine's character arc is well-executed, with solid development and believable motivations. However, at times her choices feel too predictable and safe - for example, her decision to stay with Mortimer even after discovering his criminal past seems like it was made to fulfill the needs of the plot rather than her character's desires. Additionally, some of Elaine's early scenes at the marriage license bureau feel underdeveloped, with only a few lines of dialogue to establish her personality and relationship with Mortimer.
To improve Elaine's arc, the filmmakers could focus on providing more backstory and depth to her character's early scenes - perhaps by exploring her relationship with her father or giving her more agency in the plot. They could also introduce more conflict and tension in Elaine's decision-making process, such as by having Mortimer's behavior become progressively more erratic or unpredictable. Finally, the filmmakers could show more of the long-term consequences of Elaine's actions, rather than simply implying that everything turned out well for her and Mortimer in the end.
Mortimer Mortimer's character arc involves him initially being conflicted about marrying Elaine and critical of marriage, but he eventually changes his mind after a passionate kiss with Elaine. He then faces a much more serious dilemma as he discovers his aunts' crimes and must find a way to protect himself and his family while staying true to his beliefs. Throughout the movie, Mortimer becomes increasingly entangled in the chaotic events unfolding around him and is forced to confront his family's dark secrets. He tries his best to stay one step ahead of the police while also juggling the needs and desires of his family and friends. In the end, Mortimer learns the truth about his heritage and must come to terms with his identity, all while trying to ensure the safety of those he loves. The character arc for Mortimer is well-paced and engaging, but it could benefit from more clarity and focus. There are a lot of elements at play, from Mortimer's anti-marriage beliefs to his family's dark secrets, which can sometimes make the arc feel unfocused. Additionally, Mortimer's ultimate realization about his heritage feels somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, which undermines its impact.
To improve Mortimer's character arc, it could be helpful to streamline the different elements at play and focus more on Mortimer's inner conflict. This could involve giving more attention to his anti-marriage beliefs and exploring how they conflict with his feelings for Elaine. Additionally, Mortimer's ultimate realization about his heritage could be given more detail and nuance, perhaps by exploring how it changes his perspective on his family and the events of the movie. Overall, Mortimer's character arc is engaging, but there is room for improvement in terms of clarity and focus.
Elaine Elaine's character arc in the screenplay is centered around her love for Mortimer and her growing awareness of the danger and darkness within the Brewster family. At the beginning of the movie, she is understanding of Mortimer's hesitations but ultimately wants to marry him. She is eager to please and convince him of her worth. As the story progresses, Elaine becomes increasingly suspicious and scared of the strange behavior happening around her. She ultimately runs away from the danger, but her love for Mortimer brings her back. In the end, she helps Mortimer and the police bring justice to the Brewster family while protecting Mortimer and their love. While Elaine is a likable character, her arc feels rather flat and predictable. She starts as a supportive and loving love interest, becomes scared and suspicious, runs away, and ultimately returns to help. Her arc could benefit from more complexity and nuance that would make her character more interesting and engaging.
One suggestion for improving Elaine's character arc is to explore her motivations and inner conflicts more deeply. For example, why is she so eager to please Mortimer and convince him of her worth? What drives her to stick by him even when she is scared and unsure? Adding more layers to Elaine's character would make her arc more compelling and interesting. Additionally, giving her more agency and involvement in the main conflict of the story would give her arc more weight and significance. For example, could Elaine discover a key piece of information or take action to help Mortimer and the police in a more meaningful way?
Teddy Brewster Throughout the screenplay, Teddy's arc is one of acceptance and growth. Initially, Teddy's delusions are a source of humor and lightheartedness in the film. However, as the story progresses, we see that his behavior is causing real issues for himself and his family. Mortimer tries to get him institutionalized, but in the end, Teddy's family decides to accept him for who he is and allow him to live out the rest of his days as Teddy Roosevelt. The character arc for Teddy is well-done and fits nicely with the overall theme of acceptance in the film. However, I think it could benefit from more emphasis on how Teddy's delusions are affecting those around him. While it is mentioned that his behavior is causing issues with the neighbors, we don't really see the consequences of this until much later in the film.
To improve the character arc, I would suggest highlighting the negative impact that Teddy's delusions have on those around him earlier in the film. This could create more tension and add weight to the decision that his family ultimately makes to accept him. It would also help to flesh out the character a bit more by showing how he feels about his delusions and the effect they have on him personally.
Reverend Harper Throughout the movie, Reverend Harper learns to let go of his strict beliefs and religious values to accept his daughter's relationship with Mortimer and the Brewster sisters' actions. As he witnesses the antics of the family and their adherence to their own twisted moral code, he eventually realizes that there is not just one set of values and beliefs. In the end, he realizes that love and family are more important than societal norms and religious dogma. The character arc for Reverend Harper is fairly simplistic and lacks complexity. Additionally, his transformation seems to happen rather abruptly and without much development or nuance.
To improve the character arc, it would be useful to show pieces of Reverend Harper's past that have contributed to his strict beliefs and religious values, as well as the conflict this creates within him. Additionally, his transformation should be gradual and nuanced, with moments where he questions his beliefs and actions. This would create a more realistic and relatable character arc for Reverend Harper.
Teddy Initially, Teddy's presence provides comedic relief to the chaos in the Brewster household. However, as the story progresses, his delusions become a potential threat to the family's safety. Mortimer realizes that Teddy's harebrained schemes must be stopped, and he needs professional help. Towards the end of the movie, Teddy has a moment of clarity, where he finally realizes that he is not President Roosevelt. This realization marks a turning point in his arc, and he slowly starts to accept the reality of his situation. In the final scene, Teddy appears dressed as a normal person and acknowledges Mortimer's wedding, showing that he has come to terms with his delusions. The character arc of Teddy feels rushed and underdeveloped. While his antics provide comedic relief to the story, his arc lacks the emotional depth needed to make a lasting impact on the audience. His moment of clarity feels forced rather than organic, and the resolution of his arc seems abrupt. Overall, Teddy's arc feels like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the story.
To improve Teddy's arc, the writers can explore his relationship with Mortimer further. The moments between Teddy and Mortimer are some of the most heartwarming scenes in the movie, but they are underutilized. By showing the bond between the two brothers, the audience can understand why Mortimer wants to help Teddy overcome his delusions. Additionally, the scene where Teddy confronts his delusions can be given more time and attention to make it feel more impactful. By giving Teddy more emotional depth, his arc can become a more integral part of the story.
Abby At the beginning of the movie, Abby is presented as a villain who is responsible for poisoning the men who visit their house. However, in the latter part of the movie, she is shown to be a caring and protective member of the family who is worried about Mortimer's safety and well-being. This change in Abby's character arc is due to Mortimer's influence and her realization that her actions are wrong. Abby's character arc ends with her revealing to Mortimer the truth about their family and the commitment papers, which ultimately helps Mortimer escape the madness of his family. Abby's character arc is a bit rushed. Her change from being a villain to a caring and protective member of the family is not well developed, and the audience is not given enough time to understand her motivations for her actions. The resolution of her character arc feels forced and not completely satisfying.
To improve Abby's character arc, the movie could spend more time developing her motivation for her actions. The audience needs to understand why Abby was willing to poison the men who stayed in their house. Additionally, the movie could show more scenes with Abby and Mortimer that help to build their relationship and show the influence that Mortimer has on her. Finally, the resolution of her character arc could be more gradual and not feel as rushed.
Martha Martha starts off as a loyal accomplice to her sister Abby in the murders. As the story progresses, she becomes increasingly troubled by Mortimer's behavior and the possibility that their secret will be uncovered. By the end of the movie, Martha helps to take Jonathan and the corpses out of the house and reveals the truth about Mortimer's heritage. This shows that Martha has become more proactive and willing to take risks in order to protect the family. Martha's character arc is strong and well-developed, but it could be more interesting if there were more internal conflicts. For example, Martha could struggle with the guilt of her actions and question whether what she is doing is truly right. This would add depth and complexity to her character.
To improve Martha's character arc, you could show her struggling with guilt and questioning her actions throughout the movie. You could also give her a moment where she has to choose between protecting the family and doing the right thing. This would make her character more dynamic and intriguing.
Dr. Einstein Dr. Einstein starts off as a nervous and easily swayed accomplice to Jonathan, constantly worrying about being discovered by the police. As the movie progresses, he becomes more confident and resourceful, taking quick action when needed and helping Jonathan hide the corpses. He also becomes more loyal to Jonathan, engaging in physical brawls with him to protect their shared secret. By the end of the movie, Dr. Einstein is given the opportunity to escape but chooses to stay and fight alongside Jonathan. While Dr. Einstein's character arc was well-developed, it would have been interesting to explore his past and motivations for getting involved in such unsavory deeds. Additionally, his evolution from a nervous wreck to a confident partner could have been made clearer and more impactful.
To improve Dr. Einstein's character arc, the screenplay could have included flashbacks or conversations that shed light on his past and reasons for getting involved in Jonathan's schemes. His growth and evolution could have been emphasized through his actions, such as taking charge during moments of crisis or directly standing up to Jonathan. This would have made his ultimate decision to stay and fight alongside Jonathan more impactful.
Jonathan At the beginning of the screenplay, Jonathan is a dangerous criminal with a history of violence and a personal vendetta against Mortimer. Throughout the film, he is involved in various criminal schemes to cover up their crimes and avoid detection. However, as his situation becomes more desperate and chaotic, he becomes increasingly agitated and violent. In the end, he is captured by the police and sent to prison, where he is powerless and defeated. His arc is one of a criminal mastermind who is gradually undone by his own actions and hubris. The character arc for Jonathan is well-developed, showing his descent from a powerful criminal to a defeated and powerless prisoner. However, the descriptions of his character could be more specific and nuanced, focusing on his motivations and inner conflicts. Additionally, the arc could be improved by exploring his relationships with other characters, such as his brother Mortimer and Dr. Einstein.
To improve the character arc for Jonathan, the screenplay could delve more deeply into his backstory and motivations. For example, why does he have a personal vendetta against Mortimer? Is there a deeper reason for his violent tendencies and sadistic streak? Additionally, the screenplay could explore his relationships with other characters, such as his brother Mortimer and Dr. Einstein, to add more emotional depth to his character arc. Finally, the descriptions of his character could be more specific and nuanced, focusing on his inner conflicts and motivations, rather than just his actions.
O'Hara O'Hara's character arc sees him go from an enthusiastic and distractable police officer to someone who starts to see the darker side of the Brewster sisters' actions. He becomes more aware of the chaos around him and begins to take action to stop the sisters. When he is suspended from the force, he initially feels dejected but ultimately decides to stand up for what is right and partner with Mortimer to bring the sisters to justice. The character arc for O'Hara could be fleshed out more. While he does have moments where he starts to see the darker side of the sisters' actions, it feels somewhat rushed and could be more effectively developed. Additionally, his suspension from the force feels like a convenient way to sideline the character rather than a natural progression of the story.
To improve O'Hara's character arc, there could be more emphasis on his growing awareness of the sisters' actions and the impact they are having on the community. This could be done through additional scenes that show their effects, or through conversations with other characters who have been affected by the sisters. Additionally, rather than suspending him from the force, O'Hara could be put in a situation where his trust in the police force is put to the test. This could create a more compelling narrative arc for the character.
Witherspoon As Witherspoon makes his way through the chaos of the house, he begins to question the ethics of mental institutions and treatments like the one he works for. His experience caring for Teddy and witnessing the family's dysfunction forces him to confront the limitations of the system. By the end of the film, Witherspoon has decided to quit Happy Dale and pursue a different path in healthcare that prioritizes empathy and individualized care. The character arc is well developed and provides a subtle commentary on the politics of mental health institutions. However, Witherspoon's journey feels slightly rushed at the end, and he could benefit from more specific scenes and dialogue to solidify his decision.
To improve Witherspoon's arc, the screenplay could add in scenes where he interacts with other characters or patients at Happy Dale to showcase his growing discontent with the current healthcare system. Additionally, the final decision to quit should be reinforced through dialogue or actions that show his realization and conviction rather than just a passing statement.
Theme Theme Details Themee Explanation
Family SecretsThe aunts reveal that they have murdered several people and convince Mortimer to forget the matter.The theme of family secrets is prevalent throughout the screenplay as the revelation of the aunts' murders creates tension and conflict within the family.
MarriageMortimer struggles with his anti-marriage beliefs while also being engaged to Elaine.The theme of marriage is explored through Mortimer's conflicting thoughts and emotions towards marriage and his engagement to Elaine.
InsanityMortimer warns Elaine not to marry him due to his family's history of insanity.The theme of insanity is present throughout the screenplay as Mortimer confronts his family's history with it and warns Elaine not to marry him.
DeceptionThe characters try to hide the dead bodies and their involvement in the murders from the police.The theme of deception is prevalent in the screenplay as the characters try to keep their secrets hidden and avoid being caught by the police.
MoralityMortimer struggles with the morality of the situation and comes up with a plan to resolve it.The theme of morality is present in the screenplay as Mortimer struggles with the right thing to do in the situation and tries to come up with a plan that aligns with his morals.
IdentityMortimer tells the cab driver he's not a Brewster and Teddy finds out he's not a real Brewster.The theme of identity is explored through the discovery of Mortimer's true identity and Teddy's realization that he's not a real Brewster.

Screenwriting Resources on Themes


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