By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 17 in the series)
November 13, 2020: As per the last entry in this series, I again confine myself to a single decade—in today’s case, the 1930s—in describing what shows opened on a particular day. The one I’ve chosen, November 13, was not especially prolific or even productive of more than a single memorable work. What most attracted it to me was a play that opened at the very start of the decade, Grand Hotel, which would become the inspiration for one of my all-time favorite movies (Garbo! Barrymore! Crawford!), produced in 1932, and the source for a modestly successful 1989 Broadway musical, each known by the original play’s name.
Five other shows opened on November 13 in the thirties, which provides sufficient content for a single entry and prevents it from going on forever: If Love Were All (1931), I Was Waiting for You (1933), Brittle Heaven and Drama at Inish (both 1934), La Sera del Sabato (1936), and Washington—All Change! (1939). Not a particularly exciting group, albeit with some dashes of interest here and there. (An Italian-language play, La Sera del Sabato, part of a visiting company’s repertory, received only fleeting mention in 1936 and is not considered here.)
Let’s get right to Grand Hotel, Vicki Baum’s 1929 German drama, based on her novel, known in its native tongue as Menschen im Hotel. It was translated by William A. Drake and directed by Herman Shumlin (assisted by Fritz Feld) at the National Theatre, where it became a blockbuster running 444 performances. The original, staged by the great Max Reinhardt at Berlin’s Theater am Nollendorfplatz, almost failed to find an American producer willing to put it on because it needed the expensive adjunct of a revolving stage.
This Best Play of the Year selection had a now commonplace but then unconventional structure that reminded some of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene. It was described by Stewart Beach as “a chambermaid’s-eye view of the life of a great city, concentrated with extraordinary centrifugal force within the rooms of a large hotel.” Brooks Atkinson said, “It weaves many destinies into a pattern of moving life, touching briefly on each one individually, binding them together with a slight strand of a story.” The dramatist had actually worked as a chambermaid to gather material for her work.
For the thirty-six hours covered by the action, five volatile and self-indulgent human beings from various walks and levels of society are thrown into one another’s paths in Berlin’s Grand Hotel; the sparks ignited flame into brief conflagrations and are extinguished as life continues to move relentlessly forward. The episodic, seventeen-scene play uses blackouts to shift swiftly from place to place, with action in the suites, lobby, conference rooms, and cabaret.
Its five principal characters are the temperamental ballerina Grusinskaia (Eugenie Leontovich), based on the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova; the aristocratic, debt-ridden fortune hunter, Baron Von Galgern (Henry Hull); the lustful and conniving textile manufacturer, Preysing (Siegfried Rumann); his beautiful stenographer, Flammchen (Hortense Alden), who is willing to sacrifice her virtue for her pocketbook; and the pathetic, fatally ill bookkeeper in Preysing’s employ, Kringelein (Sam Jaffe), who is spending all his hard-earned savings in the one and only fling of his life.
The action tosses the baron and the ballerina together when—after using Kringelein’s adjoining room to enter Grusinskaia’s—he tries to steal her jewels to pay off his debt, but ends up falling in love with her and she with him. Preysing later shoots the baron when the latter—already having failed to rob Kringelein—is caught burglarizing the manufacturer’s room. Kringelein is sent off by Preysing with Flammchen, and Grusinskaia leaves for the station, where she will wait for the baron, who will never arrive.
Most reviews were highly favorable for this first directorial effort of Herman Shumlin, equally successful as a producer in the years to come. “Brilliantly directed, sensitively acted by an excellent cast, written with clairvoyant understanding of the great fabric of metropolitan life, Grand Hotel is one of the season’s finest achievement,” exclaimed Atkinson. Francis Ferguson stated, “The noises of the ceaseless jazz orchestra are well-managed, sometimes near and sometimes far, to keep the frayed nerves aquiver.” But, for all his respect for the staging, he found the play “pernicious, with its Mittel-Europaische pretentiousness, its undigested and aggressive gloom.”
Of the various distinguished performances, the standout was the Russian-born Leontovich’s, who captured all the physicality and poignancy of the aging ballerina, played unforgettably on screen by Greta Garbo.
Exactly a year later, Broadway’s Booth Theatre hosted If Love Were All, a comedy by Cutler Hatch directed by Agnes Morgan of Grand Street Follies repute. If love for it were offered it might not have vanished after only eleven showings. Brooks Atkinson scratched his head over the well-acted work, which apparently condoned adultery: “The situation is farce; the theme appears to be tragic; the characters are cut out of pasteboard; the ideas come out of books.”
Margaret Bryce (Aline McMahon) is in love with Frank Grayson (Hugh Buckler), which state of emotions they believe to be unknown to their respective daughter, Janet (Margaret Sullavan, at the beginning of her illustrious career), and son, Ronald (Donald Blackwell). The young ones are themselves an item. Fearful of the repercussions for their other parents (Walter Kingsford and Mabel Moore), Janet and Ronald scheme up a situation in which Margaret and Frank will hopefully have their fill of one another by spending an entire summer together.
Not only does this have the opposite effect of more firmly bonding the illicit lovers, it also leads to the disclosure that their spouses have known everything all along and that they have chosen to wink at the relationship.
It took two years for November 13 to witness another opening night, this one an adaptation from the French called I Was Waiting for You, also at the Booth, where it faded after eight showings. The original author was Jacques Natanson, the adaptor Melville Baker, the director Arthur J. Beckhardt, and the set designer the one name still remembered, Jo Mielziner.
Various well-known artists were involved in this reticently played adaptation, which John Mason Brown considered “disjointed and unpersuasive.” The symmetrical plot concerns a young man (Bretaigne Windust) who lives with an older woman (Vera Allen), but falls for a younger woman (Helen Brooks), who herself lives with an older man (Glenn Anders). The younger pair had known each other as kids; they realize they have been waiting for one another during the passing years. The older couple, former lovers themselves, reconcile themselves to their fates and recognize that they, too, have been waiting for each other.
The fine cast could do little to raise the play to Broadway standards. Minor roles were taken by Myron McCormick and Joshua Logan, both of whom, like Bretaigne Windust and Margaret Sullavan, had been part of the University Players, founded in Falmouth, MA, in 1928, and also included James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Mildred Natwick, among other illustrious names. Buffs will remember that McCormick later created the role of Luther Billis in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which Logan directed. Windust, for his sake, soon found his niche as a topnotch director.
In 1934, Brittle Heaven, by Vincent York and Frederick Pohl (Vanderbilt Theatre, 23), was another November 13 loser. It was based on Josephine Pollit’s eponymous biography of New England poet Emily Dickinson, and was staged by actor Clarence Derwent. Dickinson’s life would be dramatized a number of times, of course, the best version being The Belle of Amherst. A 1930 play, Alison’s House, had already done the job, albeit in a veiled, à clef manner. Brittle Heaven, called by Richard Lockridge a “stiff little play” had one saving grace, an expert performance of the poet by Dorothy Gish.
It centers on the romantic relationship established during the Civil War between the belle of Amherst and Captain Edward Bissell Hung (Albert [Van] Dekker), which affair is historically controversial. Other Dickensonian factions support different candidates for the position of the writer’s unrequited lover. At any rate, Hunt is married to Emily’s best friend, Helen (Edith Atwater). The lovers reveal their feelings in a touching scene, but the captain is killed in the war, putting an end to any possible romantic future for them.
On the same night that Brittle Heaven opened, so did a revival of Lennox Robinson’s Irish play Drama at Inish, whose provenance needs some explanation? Almost precisely a year earlier, November 9, 1933, to be exact, Robinson had directed a New York cast in the same play at the Masque Theatre, but under a different title, Is Life Worth Living? It gathered only a dozen performances.A number of critics agreed that the reason they didn’t care for it—despite its recent London success—was that it needed a first-rate ensemble, like that of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, of which Robinson himself was the head.
In 1934, then, the play returned, using its original title, and performed by at the Golden Theatre by the visiting Abbey Theatre itself—albeit for only three showings—during a season of repertory. The critics found their views of the play’s satire on realistic drama (Strindberg, Ibsen, and Chekhov) vindicated, and rejoiced in the indigenous quality offered by the authentic Irish cast. John Anderson observed, “From the way I was laughing and poking my neighbors or myself in the ribs, I could scarcely believe that here was the same play which seemed so dismally unfunny when it was done lamely . . . only a year ago.”
Cast members included brothers Arthur Shields and Barry Fitzgerald, as well as May Craig, W. O’Gorman, and F.J. McCormick. Three years later, the Abbey was back with more repertory, and brought this play with them again, but, with some new casting, it failed to capture critical approval.
We close with an Off-Broadway trifle from 1939 called Washington—All Change! (Labor Stage, 8), written and directed by Helen Howe, a monologist who also starred in what was a one-woman evening of leftist-oriented satirical sketches and characters based on various Washington, D.C. types and themes. Brooks Atkinson appreciated Howe’s basic talent, but discerned a lack of depth in the material. “Most of her evening is bright chit-chat, better suited to social clubs than to the theatre,” he said. In his view, the most impressive character was the Jewish refugee from Germany, Frau Bernstein, whose words reveal the anguish of her plight.
Howe also played a bespectacled Jewish radical lawyer, a fashionable hostess, a congresswoman who wants people to stop thinking, a Boston right-winger, and so on. It was all tenuously tied together by a tale about an aging senator’s trying to pass civil liberties issues legislation inspired by the persecution of a teacher who calls for America’s isolationism from the European war.
The latter part of November promises nostalgic riches as well, whatever the date chosen might be. See you then.