Around The Town

On This Day in New York Theater: May 14 in the 1920’s

By: Samuel L. Leiter

May 14, 2020: It’s hard to believe that, for the moment, almost all theatre in the world has come to a screeching halt. Some of us whose lives are inextricably entwined with writing about the theatre (I even have a polo shirt that says: EAT, SLEEP, THEATRE, REPEAT) can’t keep our rubber-gloved hands off the Fabulous Invalid, and hope to share news of it, even if the news is decades old. That’s become my own beat during the pandemic. 

John Barrymore as “Hamlet”

By: Samuel L. Leiter

May 14, 2020: It’s hard to believe that, for the moment, almost all theatre in the world has come to a screeching halt. Some of us whose lives are inextricably entwined with writing about the theatre (I even have a polo shirt that says: EAT, SLEEP, THEATRE, REPEAT) can’t keep our rubber-gloved hands off the Fabulous Invalid, and hope to share news of it, even if the news is decades old. That’s become my own beat during the pandemic. 

On the one hand, I’ve been posting daily entries on my Theatre’s Leiter Side blog about shows from the early 70s, borrowed from the unpublished manuscript of my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, 19 70-75. That project was superseded by my published volumes for the twenties, thirties, and forties before the series ended.

Further, in addition to preparing a series called Leiter Looks Back for Theater Pizzazz, which will describe major shows from each year from 1921-1950, I’m starting this biweekly series for TheaterLife.com. It will be based on specific dates during those years. Called On This Day in New York Theater, it will describe what shows opened on the day in history that the posting appeared. 

To keep the pieces from being too long, only shows from a single decade will be included in any entry, but the decades represented will vary from posting to posting. Thus, the first entry, for May 14, will cover that date in the 1920s. Later entries will move from decade to decade, although only one at a time.

Frank Reicher in FROM MORN TO MIDNIGHT

To start then, we turn to May 14, 1922, when the 1917 German play From Morn to Midnight, by Georg Kaiser,made its New York debut in a Theatre Guild mounting translated by Ashley Dukes and designed by Lee Simonson.  

Considered one of the finest examples of the German expressionist style (then experiencing a European vogue), From Morn to Midnight was the first such play to reach Broadway. It had been premiered under the direction of the great Max Reinhardt in 1917, a year after its publication, which itself was five years after it was written. 

Only the adventurous Theatre Guild had the courage to show this unique work, first in a subscriber-only pair of performances at the Garrick Theatre and then to audiences at large at the Frazee Theatre. The play’s influence on Americans who attempted to borrow its techniques was seen in works like John Howard Lawson’s Processional and Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine.

From Morn to Midnight concentrated on evoking in two parts and seven “stations” the inner world of an automaton-like Everyman, the Cashier (Frank Reicher, who directed), whose fantasies of escape are spurred by the presence in his bank of the beautiful Lady (Helen Westley). He seizes a 60,000 marks deposit and flees. 

The play follows his eventful day as a fugitive, “from morn to midnight.” Ultimately, he’s turned in to the police for the reward by a Salvation Army girl (Ernita Lascelles), and kills himself, dying as all of the lights go out from a short circuit.

This gripping modern allegory on a person’s useless martyrdom to money was written and produced in a manner designed to evoke a vivid fantasy world of people without names or individual identities, all seen from the viewpoint of the Cashier’s feverish brain. Critic Alison Smith said the production was “extraordinary.”

Bessie Smith

Other shows that opened on May 14 in the 1920s were The Kreutzer Sonata, in 1924, In Love with Love, in 1928, a revival of She Stoops to Conquer that same day, and Pansy, in 1929. The first, adapted by Jacob Gordin from a story by Leo Tolstoy, was a Yiddish theatre work that debuted locally in 1906, starring renowned Yiddish star Bertha Kalich (a.k.a. Kalish). It was revived by the Jewish Art Theatre in 1920, but in 1924, adapted by Langdon Mitchell, it had its English-language premiere, again starring Kalich. It ran for 61 performances at the Frazee, where it was now considered old-fashioned, although Kalich’s acting was praised.

In Love with Love, by Vincent Lawrence, directed by Robert Milton at the Ritz Theatre, was a romantic comedy that achieved a sturdy run of 122 showings with a cast headed by England’s Lynn Fontanne. She, of course, would become one of New York’s brightest stars when she paired with her husband, Alfred Lunt. 

Ralph Morgan, Henry Hull, Lynn Fontanne, Robert Strange in IN LOVE WITH LOVE

Fontanne played a girl who finally admits that she was “in love with love” when she accepted an engagement ring from an older suitor (Robert Strange) while also toying with a shy pursuer (Henry Hull), whose friend (Ralph Morgan) encouraged his suit. The girl realizes that she actually loves the friend and chases him in act three. 

The most notable feature was a scene in which the girl dared to flaunt the theory that audiences don’t like to see women openly pursue a man. 

Also opening on May 14, 1928, was the decade’s second revival of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy classic, She Stoops to Conquer, which, as directed by William Seymour (who also directed its 1924 production), racked up 16 performances at Erlanger’s Theatre. It was one of the “all-star revivals” produced in those years by George C. Tyler. Pauline Lord read David Garrick’s prologue, and the cast proper included such famous names as Fay Bainter as Kate, Mrs. Leslie Carter as Mrs. Hardcastle, Glenn Hunter as Tony, Lyn Harding as Squire Neville, and Wilfred Seagram as Young Marlow. 

The Times claimed the play had “been splendidly directed for the ruddy, knockabout humor of bewigged and furbelowed persiflage.”

Al Jolson in BOMBO

For this recollection of May 14 in the twenties to be complete, I must also mention that on that date in 1924, Al Jolson opened a return engagement of his 1921 show, Bombo, more a revue than a musical, in which Jolie cavorted, as usual, in blackface. And, on May 14, 1924, the same night on which The Kreutzer Sonata opened, so did a return engagement of The Wonderful Visit, a 1924 British play based on H.G. Wells’s novel of the same name. 

The only other significant May 14 opening of the 1920s was 1924’s Pansy, a black musical, with music by Alex Belledna and lyrics by Macco Pinkard, that rang up only three performances at the Belmont Theatre. This was despite the presence of Bessie Smith, the great African-American blues singer, who played herself.

 It was deemed a dismal, loosely strung-together show with a theme about romance on a college campus in the South. Brooks Atkinson called it “the worst show of all time.” He reported, dolefully, that “the obese and wicked-orbed Bessie Smith was shouting that ‘If the blues don’t get you’ neither she nor the devil would know what to do.” Her admirers in the audience actually “howled ‘Bessie Smith’ until the poor woman, with a moon-shaped face,’ was completely exhausted.”

Hoping you find these comments of interest, I’ll return next week with other dates.