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Viewer Guide: “Little Man Tate” and “Arsenic and Old Lace”

October 5, 2022 | Richard Peña


Little Man Tate (1991).

This week’s double feature begins with Little Man Tate, the 1991 drama marking the feature film directing debut of Jodie Foster.  

Jodie Foster also stars in the film as Dede Tate, a single-mother whose modest income as a waitress doesn’t provide for more than the basics for herself and her young son Fred, played by Adam Hann-Byrd. But as Fred gets older, it steadily becomes clear that he’s no ordinary kid, with his exceptional aptitude for math and physics along with a gift for music, all so remarkable that his second-grade teacher recommends that he skip elementary school entirely. Fred’s prodigy status brings him to the attention of Jane Grierson, a psychologist and former music prodigy herself played by Dianne Wiest, who now runs an elite school for gifted children. When Jane invites Fred to participate in her “Odyssey of the Mind” conference at Disney World, Dede at first resists, striving to give her son a more “normal” childhood, yet eventually realizing she can’t hold Fred back. Quietly awestruck by the new world he finds himself in, Fred also discovers that life among the elite isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, and that there’s less to academic excellence than meets the eye. 

Also featured in supporting roles are David Hyde Pierce as Jane’s assistant, P.J. Ochlan as a “mathemagician” whose high IQ doesn’t translate into friendliness, and Harry Connick, Jr., as a college student who briefly takes Fred under his wing. 

Reportedly, Jodie Foster found the script for Little Man Tate in a slush pile of screenplays at Orion Pictures. Intrigued by the story of a child prodigy that contained echoes of her own experience as a child star, Foster took over directorial duties after director Joe Dante departed the project. Foster’s first foray into directing had actually been with the “Tales from the Darkside” TV series for an episode co-written by Bob Balaban, who makes an uncredited appearance in Little Man Tate as the MC of the math panel. With an early career experience similar to Foster’s, Harry Connick, Jr., had been performing piano concerts since age five and began his recording career at age ten. In 2020, Little Man Tate’s screenwriter Scott Frank returned to the story of a child prodigy with The Queen’s Gambit, one of the big streaming hits of the COVID-19 shutdown. After winning two Best Actress Oscars for her performances in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster’s subsequent film directing credits now include Home for the Holidays, The Beaver and Money Monster


Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

 Tonight’s double feature continues with Arsenic and Old Lace, the 1944 black comedy directed by Frank Capra. 

Adapted from the hit Broadway play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace stars Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a New York City drama critic whose well known anti-marriage views are making his impending Halloween Day wedding a public relations headache. However, unbeknownst to his fiancé Elaine Harper, played by Priscilla Lane, Mortimer’s squeamishness about marriage may have something to do with his eccentric Brooklyn family, beginning with his brother Teddy—who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt—and who is already destined for the Sunny Dale Rest Home when his aunts Abby and Martha, played by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, are no longer around to care for him. And as for Abby and Martha, well, no sooner has Mortimer shared his happy nuptial news when he makes the shocking discovery that his dear aunts have gotten into the habit of ending the lonely lives of single old men, utilizing their homemade Elderberry wine laced with arsenic to do the deed. As for the bodies, Mortimer learns that Teddy has been busy in the basement digging “new locks” for the “Panama Canal.” But when Mortimer’s estranged brother Jonathan, played by Raymond Massey, makes a surprise return after escaping from an asylum for the criminally insane, no one recognizes him, thanks to his unsettling resemblance to Boris Karloff, courtesy of his accomplice “Dr. Einstein,” played by Peter Lorre. Considering the mental health history of Mortimer’s family, is it any wonder that he may be scared of frightening away his fiancée? 

At first glance it might not seem that Arsenic and Old Lace was prime material for Frank Capra, but the director was looking for a lighthearted change of pace after his socially minded signature films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe, so the crowd-pleasing Broadway blockbuster Arsenic and Old Lace initially seemed to fit the bill for a fast and relatively low budget production. As contractually agreed with the stage producers, the film was shot in 1941 but held for release until 1944 after the Broadway production had ended its unexpectedly long run. Capra received special permission for an eight-week loan-out of original Broadway cast members Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander to reprise their roles on film; however, Capra was not able to secure Boris Karloff, who was the Broadway production’s biggest marquee star and provided the show with its running gag of Jonathan resembling Boris Karloff. Raymond Massey filled the vacancy with the help of Karloff-inspired prosthetic makeup. To play Mortimer, Bob Hope and Jack Benny were considered until Cary Grant became available. Capra directed Grant to play his comic moments with gusto, but Grant became increasingly unhappy during production, feeling that he just hadn’t found the right tone for his performance. While Capra had reportedly been planning reshoots to placate his leading man, the attack on Pearl Harbor put a stop to any further shooting. Factoring in the salaries for Grant and Capra, the film was not the low-cost production Capra had originally anticipated, but happily it proved to be both a critical and box office success, with Grant donating his earnings to the British War Relief Fund. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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