Arsenic, Old Lace, and Mennonites?

I’d seen Frank Capra’s classic Arsenic and Old Lace before, but Andrew recently purchased the Blu-Ray, so it was time for a re-watch. Andrew always insists on listening to the commentary track afterwards and that’s how I discovered the film has a Mennonite connection! Let me explain.

Loosely based on a true story, Arsenic and Old Lace is a dark comedy about a pair of elderly sisters who poison lonely elderly men. It stars Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre, and others, and was based on a hit Broadway play written by Joseph Kesselring. Kesselring was not Mennonite himself, but in the 1920s he was a music professor at Bethel College, a Mennonite college in North Newton, Kansas.

Apparently he took inspiration for the old mansion in the play/film from the historic Goerz House at Bethel College. A major plot point involves the hiding of bodies in the “window seat.” This was apparently lifted straight from the real life window seat at the Goerz House. I don’t know how common window seats were in architecture of that day, but it does remind me of the sleep benches I’ve seen in other historical Mennonite houses (the MHV in Steinbach itself must have about six of them!).

I do wonder whether Kesselring took inspiration from more than just the building itself. The murdering sisters in the film, for example, were portrayed as highly religious. There are loads of jokes about Methodists. There’s even a hilarious line where a character is warned not to swear in front of the sisters, to which the character says he’s not a swearing man. The reply? “Oh, but you’d be surprised what they consider swearing.” Whether this was taken from 1920’s-era Bethel College or not, I have no idea, but it does seem reflective of the traditional Mennonite prohibition on all forms of profanity.

The commentary track also pointed out that while the film and play were credited to Kesselring, both versions were significantly changed from his original script. In Kesselring’s version, for example, the one character believes himself to be a giant infant, whereas in the film he thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt. Another character, in Kesselring’s version, has a petrifying fear of pickles. This detail, too, was changed. Who knows what other changes were made? One thing that seems quite certain is that the home itself was inspired by Bethel College.

For more information about Kesselring and his connection to Bethel College, check out this 2013 article by Keith L. Sprunger from the Bethel College publication Mennonite Life.

I guess I should also point out that the film co-stars Jack Carson, born in Carman, Manitoba. He’s among the very few Manitobans with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

More Mennonite connections? Do you know which cast member of Arsenic and Old Lace has an entry on the Russian Mennonite genealogy website Grandma Online? Yup, it’s Cary Grant, who later married Dyan Cannon (birth name Diane Friesen). So there you have it! Loads of Mennonite connections to this film. Okay, maybe I’m stretching a bit…