Pumpkins and Pie: Not Quite Trick or Treat (Arsenic and Old Lace)
Last night my family decided to watch the classic Frank Capra film released in 1944, Arsenic and Old Lace. What a terrific surprise to discover that it is set in Brooklyn on Halloween!
And an even better treat: a glimpse of a very interesting early precursor to trick or treat. At about 24 minutes into the film, the aunties retire to the kitchen. Dashing Cary Grant follows, and we see some very strange action around the back door. A swarm of masked children are hollering and shouting and holding out their arms, and the aunties are passing them goodies. Sort of. They hand them: two big pumpkin jack o’ lanterns, and one pie.
I have done research into the origins of trick or treat: I wanted to know when kids started coming to the door, saying “trick or treat,” and demanding a treat or else threatening a trick. It emerges in various places in the mid to late 1930s. By the late 1940s, it is a familiar part of Halloween all across the country. For example, trick or treat features in episodes of Ozzie and Harriet and The Jack Benny Show (both 1948). By the 1950s, the trick part is gone and it’s all about the treats.
The scene in Arsenic and Old Lace was filmed in 1941. (The film is usually dated 1944; this is the release date because the film was held back while the play continued to fill houses on Broadway.) In 1941, trick or treat has just started showing up in other states, but the phrase “trick or treat” hasn’t yet arrived in New York. In the 1920s and earlier, kids on Halloween mostly went around doing pranks. What happens in Arsenic and Old Lace is trick or treat almost: the kids are at the door, but they are more unruly mob than organized trick or treat squad.
I would love to know more about what is going on in this scene. Was this what kids did on Halloween in Brooklyn in the 1930s? Or maybe even in Los Angeles? The movie was filmed in City Island, NY, and in Burbank; Frank Capra grew up in Los Angeles and made his career in Hollywood. Where did the inspiration for this scene originate?
And if this is an accurate representation of what kids either in New York or Los Angeles were doing in 1941, what did they call it? I wonder if it’s possible to deconstruct the audio and hear what they are shouting. And were these pumpkins and pies really the sort of thing a household would offer? I mean, what are the kids going to do with this stuff?
No, there was no candy at the beginning of trick or treat. In 1941, it was Jack o’ lanterns and pies. But it’s easy to see how candy eventually took over as the treat of choice.
For more on trick or treat before candy, see my piece at TheAtlantic.com.