Arsenic and Old Lace’s “Teddy Roosevelt”
John Alexander as “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster
Brooklyn, Halloween 1941
Film: Arsenic and Old Lace
Release Date: September 23, 1944
Director: Frank Capra
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, was born this day 159 years ago on October 27, 1858. A son of New York City, the timid Theodore overcame his childhood asthma with his robust physical pursuits matched only by his professional ambition as a career soldier, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, and finally the youngest President of the United States when he assumed office at the age of 42 after the assassination of William McKinley.
The proximity of T.R.’s birthday to Halloween always makes me think of Arsenic and Old Lace, the Frank Capra-directed dark comedy set one Halloween in Brooklyn involving Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), his two dangerous but darling elderly aunts, and – like all of the best movies of the 1940s – Peter Lorre being Peter Lorre.
Originally a play (and doubtlessly one that your high school has performed), actor John Alexander reprised his role from the stage as “Teddy” Brewster, Mortimer’s delusional but harmless brother who believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt.
“So what?” says a friendly local cop who visits the Brewsters on his beat. “There’s a lot worse guys he could think he was.”
What’d He Wear?
Teddy: I’ll have to put on my signing clothes.
Mortimer: Oh, but you already have them on, Mister President.
Teddy: (looks at his suit) So I have. Wait here.
The Frock Suit
Teddy’s “signing clothes” are also his everyday attire, clearly based on clothing worn by the real Theodore Roosevelt when he sat for a famous portrait taken by the Pach brothers, circa 1904.
Teddy (Brewster, that is) wears a black wool frock coat with low peak lapels that are half-faced in black satin or grosgrain silk. All of the coat’s buttons are covered in the same black silk, including the six buttons on the double-breasted-style front, the two ceremonial back buttons, and the two small non-functioning buttons on each cuff.
Most of Teddy’s shirt is covered by his frock coat and waistcoat, but it appears to be pale-colored (cream if not pure white) with a soft turndown point collar that appears to be attached unlike the more common detachable collars of the real T.R.’s day.
Teddy wears a striped cravat of dark and light stripes crossing diagonally left-down-to-right on a mid-colored ground, mostly concealed by the high-fastening waistcoat.
The waistcoat itself appears to be pure white with wide peak lapels sweeping across the double-breasted front. The eight buttons form a “keystone” shape as the four rows of two buttons each taper down toward the bottom, which comes to a slight point in the center.
Teddy wears dark striped trousers in the tradition of classic morning dress, though the stripe pattern appears to be more like a white rope-stripe on charcoal rather than the traditional “cashmere stripe” found on most morning dress “sponge-bags”. His shoes are black leather cap-toe oxfords.
Teddy Brewster sports one of T.R.’s most notable accessories, a pair of small metal round-framed pince-nez spectacles connected to his clothing via a thin cord on the right side.
Off to Panama
When Teddy is called upon by his dear aunts to dig locks for the Panama Canal (and you know what I mean if you’ve seen the film or play), he dons a tan gabardine safari-inspired suit with breeches tucked into tall leather riding boots. The outfit is likely inspired by the real Theodore Roosevelt’s Brooks Brothers-made uniform when he led the Rough Riders, although T.R.’s uniform jacket was the more traditional military tunic with a standing Mandarin collar.
The single-breasted sack jacket takes its style cues from warm-weather military wear with its crested shank buttons and patch pockets. The short notch lapels end high on Teddy’s chest, and he wears all four buttons fastened down the front. The patch pockets on the chest have inverted box pleats, and the hip pockets are bellows pockets; all four close with a small button through a gently pointed flap.
Teddy wears a dark brown leather belt worn over the outside of his jacket between the lowest two buttons with an ornately eagle-engraved rectangular gold buckle in the spirit of the real Roosevelt’s uniform belt from his military service. He also wears a white point-collar shirt, plain black cotton necktie, and light goatskin work gloves.
Teddy wears an “anachronistic” American fiber helmet (or “safari helmet”), a sun helmet modeled after the traditional pith helmet. Designed by former college football coach Jesse Hawley, this khaki fiber helmet was introduced into U.S. military service in 1934 and – as of 2017 – remains the longest used helmet in American military history, most associated with U.S. Marine Corps marksmen. The puggaree on Teddy’s hat has five folds, indicating that it was likely produced by the International Hat Company of St. Louis; Hawley Products Company sun helmets only have four folds in their faux puggarees.
How to Get the Look
Teddy Brewster’s delusional disorder causes him to think he’s Teddy Roosevelt, but luckily he is given a few shortcuts for dressing the part to avoid the extra complications of turn-of-the-century dressing… particularly advantageous when Teddy’s day consists of several costume changes depending on the whims of his murderous aunts.
- Black wool frock coat with half-faced peak lapels, natural shoulders, 6×3-button double-breasted front, non-functioning 2-button cuffs, two back buttons, and long single vent
- White cotton shirt with point collar
- Striped cravat
- White double-breasted waistcoat with peak lapels and 8×4-button “keystone” formation
- Charcoal rope-striped flat front trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Black leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Pince-nez spectacles
If considering T.R. for your Halloween costume this season, don’t forget the bristly mustache that would make Ron Swanson proud!
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
A notable difference is that, in the film, Teddy’s glasses have gold rims, whereas the real Roosevelt’s were rimless. This is an important distinction because it was Roosevelt who first began the process of destigmatizing eyeglasses for men… as long as they were rimless.
Prior to Roosevelt, men wearing glasses were either seen as elderly, physically weak in some way, or believed to be members of a religious order (a stereotype harking back to the days when clergymen were some of the only literate people in town, and therefore the only ones who would need glasses to read, as reading glasses were once the most common form of visual correction). Once rough-and-tumble, ass-kicking Roosevelt was seen wearing specs, though, men began to accept that they could wear glasses without losing any masculinity points. Because Roosevelt’s were specifically rimless, though, men were only asking for rimless glasses.
True to his Rough Rider background, Roosevelt’s pince nez were modeled on a style of rimless glasses called “Riding Glasses.” The oval lenses were meant to mimic the natural shape of the eye, supposedly allowing for better vision, while the lack of rim was meant to allow the wearer unobstructed 360 degree vision. Unlike Roosevelt’s pince nez, though, riding glasses tended to have temples which wrapped around the wearer’s ears. While these would have been more efficient for Roosevelt, he stubbornly preferred his pince nez, and went so far as to taking multiple pairs with him into battle in the (likely) event they were damaged in combat.
(In a final note that only seals the link between Roosevelt’s glasses and his tough-guy image: When an assassin shot him October 14, 1912, the bullet was slowed first by the 50-page speech Roosevelt had inside his jacket, and then by his steel eyeglasses case. Had Roosevelt not had the glasses case, the shot might still have been fatal).
John Alexander gives one of the funniest performances of the ’40s in this film. That wide-eyed stare that he gives to the uniform cop (the hammy Jack Carson- who even appeared in a film as himself, admitting that he’s a ham) who meets him for the first time is priceless.
Thanks for including a screen-cap of it, under the one where he’s saluting.
Great film and interesting post. And Preston’s comment was pretty interesting too!
Funny I had to play the cop in the high school play. I didn’t think many people remembered this movie (it’s quite funny).
Trying to convince Oakley to bring back the “Crosshair 2.0”
They look as cool as Elvis on the bullet train (they make anyone look good). Help the cause by emailing email@example.com with the suggestion. Thanks.