May 6, 2008

Frankensteinian : Jonathan Brewster

Can you name the actor with the stitched-up face?

In Joseph Kesselring’s play, Arsenic and Old Lace, killer Jonathan Brewster returns to his childhood home in Brooklyn where he plans to lay low for a while. The cops are looking all over for him on account of twelve murders (thirteen if you count the one in South Bend who “wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him!”). Now he’s stuck with Mr. Spinalzo, a cumbersome corpse that he needs to unload, and there’s also the matter of his plastic surgeon pal, Dr. Einstein, fixing his face. The last time Jonathan needed a new mug, the inebriated Einstein had just seen “that movie” and made him look like Boris Karloff!

In 1941, the line, “He looks like Boris Karloff!” brought the house down every night at the Fulton Theater in New York. No wonder. It was a bold self-referential joke. The man who looked like Boris Karloff was, in fact, played by Boris Karloff!

A masterpiece of jet-black humor, Arsenic and Old Lace was a Broadway sensation. When Frank Capra shot his very faithful film adaptation, the same year the play opened, principals Jean Adair and Josephine Hunt, as the cuddly but murderous spinster aunts, and John Alexander, as the comically insane Teddy “Roosevelt” Brewster, took a four week stage break to appear in the film.

Ever a trooper, Boris Karloff stayed back in New York to preserve the hit play’s marquee value.

The film part of Jonathan Brewster went to Canadian-born actor Raymond Massey, whose angular, Lincolnian features suited the sinister role to perfection.

The “looks like Karloff” line being so important, the filmmakers took steps to make it relevant no matter who played the part. On stage, Karloff appeared without special makeup, relying on his frowning, bushy black eyebrows to convey menace, and body language to evoke his famous film role. In the movie adaptation, Massey was given a pasty complexion and a network of face stitches, making the Monster connection obvious.

It’s a shame that Karloff did not get to immortalize his Jonathan Brewster performance on film when it was fresh, especially considering that Capra's film was held back and unreleased until 1944, after the play had ended its run. Karloff went on to appear in three different TV adaptations of Arsenic and Old Lace, in 1949, 1955, and 1962.

The play, a real gem and a true classic, has been in continuous revival for over sixty years, with Jonathan Brewster as the plum and pivotal villain part. Even Bela Lugosi essayed the role in a late forties theatrical version.

And the picture at the top of this post? It's from a 1969 ABC Movie of the Week adaptation, and that’s Fred Gwynne, late of The Munsters, as the malevolent Jonathan, in makeup created by Dick Smith. I haven’t seen this version, sometimes chided for its minor but unnecessary updates and tweaks. I just hope they didn’t change that famous line to “He looks like Herman Munster!”.

See the amusing original trailer for the 1944 film. “Raymond Massey… makes Frankenstein look like a glamour boy!”

A New York Times Hirschfeld caricature of the original 1941 cast.


Anonymous said...

I did see the '69 TV ARSENIC. My memory is not 100%, but I believe they changed the line to "he said I looked like Frankenstein." By 1969 I had already seen the TV ARSENIC from a few years earlier (with Karloff) as well as a nice stage production. I remember feeling that the '69 version was not up to the level of the others I'd seen.

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks, Anonymous. "Looks like Frankenstein" is ok, I guess.

Wich2 said...


One version of the story, is that Boris was NOT HAPPY that the producers would not free him for the film.

Also: though there's always the hope that a Kine of the '49 TV version will turn up (Dear Boris was too old for the part, in '62),
there ARE earlier extant radio productions starring him.

-Craig W.

Lisa said...

What I wouldn't give to see this. *is a huge Fred fan*

Anonymous said...

I have the abridged/incomplete (1/2 hour) radio production of Arsenic and Old Lace, with Karloff as Jonathan Brewster, produced during the play's original run. I've put it up on You Send It and sent it to your gmail address.

Or, you and your readers can download it from here:

That link's only good for seven days, but the .mp3 is completely public domain. Feel free to host it in a more permanent place, and share it freely.

It's no substitute for seeing Karloff on stage in the part, but it's still a must-have for the Karloff fan.

Anonymous said...

I was 10 when the Fred Gwynne version ran. Fred Gwynne as Jonathan and Jack Gilford as Dr. Einstein. That's dream casting.

And yeah, the line was, "He said I looked like Frankenstein."

Bob Crane played Mortimer. He was ok, as I recall.

daniel said...

it may interest some of you to know that in the theatrical production of the play in israel, in 1991, rather than resemble karloff, jonathan brewster was operated upon to resemble karloff's version of the frankenstein monster. i assume that is sinse karloff may be less well-known to a non-u.s.a. audience.