By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 8 in the series)
June 26, 2020: Judging by the dearth of shows that opened in the last days of June during the twenties, thirties, and forties, it almost looked like there would be barely anything to record in this week’s installment or, for that matter, in the weeks to come. Summertime has always been a time when theater activity slowed down, even after the advent of a/c. Just considering June 26 to June 30 in our chosen decades, we find only 13 openings for those four days across 30 years.
The most prolific date was June 26, which gave us the following seven shows, most of which you probably never heard of: Shooting Shadows (1924), Say When (1928), Bomboola (1929), A Church Mouse (1933), Turpentine (1936), and Laura (1947). As always, when looking back on this ephemeral art, there are definitely a few intriguing things to discover, even in the flimsiest efforts.
For Shooting Shadows, we enter the Ritz Theatre on June 26, 1924, to encounter a mystery comedy-drama by Henry Fisk Carlton and William Ford Manley, a mixture of melodrama and farce that might never have seen the light of day but for the cheap theatre rental prices of summertime. To the Times it was little more than “an infirm conundrum.”
In it, a varied assortment of mystery-play characters gather at a New England haunted house, where a handsome young millionaire (Howard Miller) is involved with a pretty blackmailer (Ann Reader), who finds herself unable to carry out her devious scheme against him. That’s because his presence causes her heart to do flip-flops. As the action progresses, dire deeds transpire, including a couple of killings, the search for ghosts, the millionaire’s proposal to the blackmailer, her arrest, the return to life of the presumably “dead” bodies, and the discovery, instead, of real corpses. After 12 performances, Shooting Shadows joined the body count.
Our next June 26 example lasted only three more showings than that, for a total of 15 after opening at the Morosco in 1928. Its title was Say When and it was an eccentric musical version of a 1924 play, Love in a Mist, which had starred Madge Kennedy and Sidney Blackmer. One of the show’s curious features was the use of songs by well-known celebrities, such as the Hon. Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York City.
The Times concluded: “Banal numbers and routine uninspired direction [by Bertram Harrison] . . . make what occasional sparkle of line and situation the book possesses stand out in sharp relief.” The book writer was rumored to be Marc Connelly (The Green Pastures), working under the pseudonym of Calvin Brown.
Highlights included a radio broadcast scene featuring Alison Skipworth that spoofed cigarette commercials and a performance by black dancer Cora LaRedd, considered the best thing in the show.
An all-black musical that arrived at the Royale Theatre in 1929, and lasted 27 performances, was Bomboola, written and directed by D. Frank Marcus. Broad comedy, furiously paced dancing, and the talented Isabell Washington gained this ill-fated show a few kudos, but it was basically a conventional effort stocked with clichéd songs and gags.
Its simple story was of a Savannah girl (Washington) who leaves home to venture into northern show biz in a revue with the same title as this show. She becomes a star and marries the show’s composer.
It had songs titled “Dixie Vagabond,” “Ace of Spades,” and “Rub-A-Dub Your Rabbit’s Foot,” and dance groups called the Bamboola Dusky Damsels and the Bomboola Steppers. The Times complained that halfway through it all grew tedious. Richard Dana Skinner reflected a widespread concern that such shows were too imitative of white ones and did not do enough to exploit “the superb, naïve genius of the race.” (Note: Some sources spell the title Bamboola.)
Dismal as this survey of June 26 shows of the twenties is, those of the thirties were even drearier. The first, in 1933, was a revival, of a Hungarian play from1931, Ladislaus (Lazlo) Fodor’s A Church Mouse, which overcame negative notices to acquire 162 performances. The 1931 version featured the inimitable Ruth Gordon in the leading role.
The unexceptional new staging was produced by a stock company managed by top theatre agent Chamberlain Brown. Louise Groody took on Gordon’s role of Susie Sachs, a dowdy church mouse who nibbles her way into her bank president employer’s trust and affection.
“Miss Groody is of the musical comedy stage,” noted Lewis Nichols, “and she is not Miss Gordon in the manner of playing Susie Sachs.” It took eight performances for the show to close up shop at the Mansfield Theatre.
A bit more historical significance accrues to the only other June 26 offering of the decade, Turpentine, which opened at the Lafayette Theatre Off Broadway (a term not yet coined) in 1936, and ran 69 times. Written by J. Augustus “Gus” Smith and Peter Morell, and directed by Emjo Basshe and Smith, it was produced by the Negro Theatre Unit of the Federal Theatre Project.
Given that backing, it is not surprising that it was about hungry workers, black and white, at a central Florida camp for collecting and refining turpentine, where the workers are oppressed by their northern, white bosses. The workers must also defend their women against the encroachments of the bosses. Although watched by armed overseers, the laborers seize the chance to unionize when it presents itself. Author and co-director Smith played Forty-Four, the chief organizer.
Lewis Nichols said, “It is not the greatest play of the year, but it is far from the worst one; it is written and played with sincerity and spirit and so received.” Several critics thought it on a par with any of the protest dramas staged at such leftist theatres as the Theatre Union. “The piece has impact,” declared Robert Garland.
Although not commercially successful, the most notable of the June 26 plays of our decades was the only one to open on that date in the forties. It was Laura, a 1947 suspense drama based by author Vera Caspery (with the assistance of George Sklar) on her best-selling novel of that name, which had been made into a now classic 1944 movie, starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. You may recall its haunting theme song, eventually a standard. Several other plays of the period also were based on popular movies, a major example being Rebecca. Like that effort, Laura, which played 44 times at the Cort Theatre,was deemed inferior to its movie version.
A few critics mildly appreciated it, one being Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt, who placed it “in the upper register of melodramas. True it never acquires the eerie atmosphere not continued thrills of Angel Street but its characters come to life and dominate the action.” But Brooks Atkinson felt that none of the unappetizing characters “seems worth a whole evening in the theatre, despite the ingenious plot.” George Jean Nathan thought that more talented hands might have handled it better, “but in these it has become simply another garrulous and stenciled failure. A crucial problem in transferring the story to the stage was the need to offer important exposition in dialogue that the movie was able to convey in flashbacks.
The tale is sparked by the discovery of a murdered woman found in the apartment of Laura Hunt (K.T. Stevens, daughter of film director Sam Wood), an advertising writer. It is believed that the beautiful Laura is the victim, although it is impossible to verify because the face has been shot away with a sawed-off shotgun. Laura’s fiancé, Shelby Carpenter (Tom Rutherford; Vincent Price in the movie), is a suspect. After the funeral, Laura herself turns up, still alive, having spent the weekend in the country. The victim turns out to be a friend who had been using the apartment.
Before he meets the living Laura, handsome, literate Detective Mark McPherson (Hugh Marlowe) falls in love with her from her portrait. After he gets to know her, he marries her. The clues implicate Laura herself in the murder, but Mark refuses to believe her guilty. The perpetrator turns out to be the witty, middle-aged, hedonistic writer Waldo Lydecker (Otto Kruger; Clifton Webb in the film), in love with Laura, but impotently unable to physically express his feelings.
Kruger (who replaced John Loder during the tryout period) received strong reviews for his unctuously superior manner, but K.T. Stevens was not widely approved. During the previous season, the play had failed out of town with Miriam Hopkins playing Laura.
If you don’t hear from me for a bit, it’s likely because there’s not much to hear from me about. Still, the search for worthwhile dates about what happened in New York theatre back in the dog days of the twenties, thirties, and forties continues!