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Arsenic and Old Lace
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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 Some jokes (especially having to do with baseball stats of 1944) are badly out of date.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.
- Parents say
- Kids say
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?
For kids who love classic comedies
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.