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Arsenic and Old Lace Review

For Families provided by Common Sense Media

OK for kids 11+

Cary Grant serial-killer comedy classic is cozy and tame.

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 Some jokes (especially having to do with baseball stats of 1944) are badly out of date.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.

  • 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?

The good stuff
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    Messages: 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.

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    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.

What to watch for
  • violence false2

    Violence: 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.

  • sex false0

    Sex: Not an issue

  • language false0

    Language: Not an issue

  • consumerism false0

    Consumerism: Not an issue

  • drugsalcoholtobacco false2

    Drinking, drugs and 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.