Arsenic and Old Lace
By Charles Cassady Jr.,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Cary Grant serial-killer comedy classic is cozy and tame.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Breezy stuff doesn't go out of its way to instruct or preach; it's mostly for laffs, with the slight suggestion of how frantic Mortimer is willing to sacrifice his marital happiness for the ones he loves -- whether it's his murderous aunties or his new wife (Mortimer briefly fears that he's inherited genetic insanity himself and tries to scrap the marriage). Undertone that even sweet little old crazy ladies can rack up a body count as impressive the full-time maniac Jonathan.
Positive Role Models
Mortimer tries to cover up for murder (and frame an innocent lunatic). The two Brewster aunts, even through they killed 12 people (or maybe just 11; they debate this at length) are demure, proper, and religious, insisting on holding in-home Christian services for their victims. The mentally ill here are nuts, good only for locking up, though most folks seem to tolerate "Theodore Roosevelt" if he doesn't make too much racket. Police officers (some stereotypically Irish) seem exceptionally clueless.
Violence & Scariness
Slapstick-y fistfight, including a bench-clearing baseball brawl at the start (that has nothing to do with anything). People get hit on the head a lot, including by police billy-club. Mortimer is tied up and threatened with death via surgical-scalpel torture, though nothing comes of it. Despite the many killings that have taken place, dead corpses are hardly even seen.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Alcohol drinking by various characters, with the qualifier that some of the wine is poisoned, and would-be victims are disuaded from imbibing. Mortimer smokes.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that this popular Golden-Age-of-Hollywood comedy concerns multiple murders and madness, but without anything graphic shown. Violence is just roughhousing and a menacing display of knives. Some jokes (especially having to do with baseball stats of 1944) are badly out of date. There is an undercurrent of drinking, with poisoned wine a key plot element. This isn't in any way meant to be an enlightened view of families grappling with mental illness.
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Arsenic and Old Lace
Based on 2 parent reviews
A classic that needs more recognition!
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A Cary Grant Masterpiece
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What's the Story?
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a well-known NYC theater critic and author of a book attacking marriage, has wound up getting married himself, to the proverbial girl-next-door. About to leave with his bride on their honeymoon, on Halloween eve, he stumbles across a secret in the Brooklyn home where he grew up. His two old aunties lure and poison elderly men, believing that they're performing a merciful service by putting an end to lonely guys' lives. Insanity runs deep in the Brewster family, and while Mortimer's honeymoon cab waits outside, the ever-frantic hero tries to get legal madhouse-documents signed to divert blame for the homicides to a nuisance uncle on the premises who believes that he's Theodore Roosevelt (when "Teddy" buries the bodies in the cellar he thinks he's digging the Panama Canal). Then the the worst Brewster of all shows up, fugitive brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a glowering, globetrotting criminal/serial killer with a grotesquely scarred face and a hatred for Mortimer.
Is It Any Good?
Director Frank Capra had previously taken a classic stage comedy, You Can't Take It With You, and done a good job opening it up for the big screen; not so with this one. ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, while a favorite with critics (maybe because a critic is the hero and played by handsome Cary Grant, two extreme unlikelihoods!) remains pretty much stagebound, like the Broadway black comedy that inspired it, confined to one Victorian-mansion living-room set, with fewer scene changes than an Addams Family episode.
Though the pace is brisk, modern viewers, especially horror-overloaded kids, must gear down to the restrained, nonviolent approach to the macabre, the claustrophobia of the limited sets, the running-fast-but-getting-nowhere narrative, and the unwieldy (for a comedy) running time. Terrific actors do put lots of sparkle into this lethal concoction and remind us why the likes of Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey, etc. represent, for many, a grand old Hollywood that's long passed.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the coy, old-timey studio-censorship approach. The movie is so tasteful (or timid) that the audience doesn't even get a clear look at a dead body. Is this movie as good as it would be without the censorship? Do you think the filmmakers would have done it the same way?
The ghoulish bad guy Jonathan goes berserk whenever anyone suggests he looks like horror-movie icon Boris Karloff. Mention that when the play originally ran on Broadway as a smash hit, the role of Jonathan was played by... Boris Karloff.
What do kids know about leading man Cary Grant? What other classics have you seen? What sets them apart from current movies?
- In theaters: September 23, 1944
- On DVD or streaming: August 29, 2000
- Cast: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey
- Director: Frank Capra
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Classic
- Run time: 118 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: March 31, 2022
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