Old Lace opens in the living room of the Brewster home, inhabited by two
spinster aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster, and their nephew, Teddy. Rev.
Dr. Harper is chatting with Abby about her other nephew, Mortimer, who
in love with the reverendís daughter, Elaine. Soon joining the
conversation are two friendly police officers, Brophy and Klein, who
have come by (as they often do) to pick up a box for charity from the
kindly Brewster sisters. Theodore, who is rather crazy but harmless,
thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and charges up the stairs to retrieve
The reverend and the policemen leave, only to be replaced by Mortimer,
who announces to his aunts that he intends to marry Elaine, whom he is
taking to a play that evening. However, the happy family starts to
unravel when Mortimer lifts the lid to the window seat and discovers a
dead body within. He immediately assumes that Teddy has killed the man.
However, Abby and Martha tell Mortimer that it was they who poisoned the
man with their homemade elderberry wineóand that he is the eleventh (or
twelfth, depending on how you count) gentleman they have shared their
wine with. The sisters explain that these are charitable acts: They
befriend lonely older gentlemen who do not have much to live for and
then kill them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic. They continue
that Mortimer should not worry because Teddy is down in the cellar
digging what he believes is the Panama Canal, but is in reality the
Just then Elaine arrives and an exited and worried Mortimer tells her
they are not going to the theatre after all. After a brief quarrel,
Elaine leaves. About this time, Mortimer and Teddy's brother,
Jonathan, shows up. Jonathan, a true maniacal criminal, is accompanied
by Dr. Einstein, a plastic surgeon of doubtful character. Dr. Einstein
has changed Jonathan so that he looks like Boris Karloff, the horror
Teddy invites Einstein to join him in the cellar, where he is supposedly
digging the Panama Canal. Einstein quickly returns and confides to
Jonathan that there is a hole large enough to bury Mr. Spenalzo (a man
Jonathan recently killed) after everyone goes to bed. Once the lights
are out and everyone is supposedly asleep, Teddy goes to the window seat
to get Mr. Hoskins, and Jonathan and Einstein go to their car to get Mr.
Spenalzo, both planning on filling the hole in the cellar.
Thus begins several hilarious scenes of lights blinking on and off, of
bodies being moved from the window seat to the cellar to the car
outside, and of accusations and threats back and forth. Because of
the commotion at the house, Officer O'Hara stops by to make sure all is
well. When he is convinced that everything is alright, he shifts topics
and corners Mortimer in a discussion of a play he is writing.
Just then, Lieutenant Rooney bursts in and recognizes Jonathan as an
escapee from a prison for the criminally insane. Jonathan tells the
officers about the bodies in the cellar, but they don't believe him and
take him off to prison. Einstein gets away, and Theodore is certified
insane and taken to the Happy Dale Sanitarium. Trying to protect
society without sending his aunts to prison, Mortimer ecstatically
agrees when his aunts insist on going to Happy Dale with their nephew.
The aunts then kindly inform Mortimer that he is actually not a member
of the Brewster family. He was an illegitimate child and thus can marry
Elaine without fear of passing the Brewster insanity on to his children.
Mortimer happily departs, but before the women leave their house, they
offer a drink to the head of Happy Dale, Mr. Witherspoon. Witherspoon is
a lonely older gentleman, and he gladly accepts a glass of the spiked
elderberry wine. . . .