By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 18 in the series)
November 29, 2020: For the time being, this column will be settling into the groove of covering only one decade at a time in its description of shows that opened on a particular date during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s. Those decades, even as their overall numbers slid following the Depression, were unusually active, and only the sparse summer months slowed down enough to allow for coverage here of more than one decade at a time.
From today’s column on (or at least until the theatres reopen), the fall, winter, and spring months will be devoted to a single decade, alternating from the twenties to the thirties to the forties. The date chosen for today’s column, November 29, offered 10 new shows between the seasons of 1920-1921 and 1929-1930, each season—as was then the custom—beginning in June and lasting until the end of May. There were also two return engagements. None of these shows was of notable significance, although several were not only popular but highly regarded in their day. Perhaps the one with the longest life in terms of later revivals was W. Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Circle, which, for all its excellent assets, is unlikely to find itself on anyone’s list of the last century’s 100 best.
So, if you’re interested in using your digital comps to accompany me to the November 29 openings in the Twinkling Twenties, step lively as you enter the era’s theatres to see 1920’s The Broken Wing and The Young Visitors; 1921’s Kiki; 1922’s It Is the Law; 1923’s In the Claws of Life; 1926’s The Constant Wife and Ned McCobb’s Daughter; 1927’s The Centuries; and 1928’s New Americana.
You may never have heard of it, but The Broken Wing (Forty-eighth Street Theatre), a comedy-drama by Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard, managed 248 performances in 1920 with its plot replete with a panoply of wild Mexican bandits (reminiscent of The Bad Man, another recently successful South of the Border play). The focus is on American aviator Philip Marvin (Charles Trowbridge), who crashes during bad weather in Mexican territory and is discovered by Inez Villera (Inez Plummer). The beautiful Inez considers him the answer to her prayers for a husband. (A film version was advertised as “A Husband from Heaven.”) Bereft of memory and money, Philip is held for ransom by the not so innocent Capt. Innocencio (Joseph Spurin), who is later undone by the American Secret Service. While waiting for the ransom payment, Philip and Inez, who nurses him back to health, marry. His amnesia vanishes, he repairs his plane’s broken wing, and flies back to the States with his bride.
The highpoint was the crash of Philip’s airplane into the scenery, tearing away part of a wall. The audience heard a great whirring sound and moans from the injured as they viewed the wreckage through a cloud of smoke. The play’s admixture of “ethnic phraseology, a naïve heroine, and mawkish sentiment achieved its burlesque purposes with an ample dose of melodrama,” declared Heywood Broun. Louis Wolheim, later to gain fame in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and George Abbott, who became one of Broadway’s most successful directors, were both in the cast.
In 1923, the play became a silent movie directed by Tom Forman, followed by a 1932 talkie starring Lupe Velez, Melvyn Douglas, and Leo Carrillo.
Multiple openings on the same night were relatively frequent in those days, so November 29, 1920, also saw a musical trifle called The Young Visiters (Thirty-ninth Street Theatre) make its bow. Its book was by Mrs. George Norman and Margaret MacKenzie, based on the eponymous novel (full title: The Young Visiters, or Mr. Salteena’s Plan) by Daisy Ashford, an English girl who wrote it in 1890 when she was a nine. It wasn’t published, though, until 1919, following the author’s rediscovery of it and the fascinating path it took—involving famous author J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan)—before being made public. Long rumored to be a hoax, written not by Ashford but by Barrie himself, the book has been reprinted often and is still widely read. It was made into a TV movie with Jim Broadbent and Hugh Laurie in 2003.
The Young Visiters (its misspelled title reflective of the writing’s multiple errors) expresses how young Daisy saw the world in the fashion of a morality play, its people like dolls with allegorical qualities. This was transposed to the stage in a “burletta” using props and sets resembling toys, with the actors behaving like marionettes. The songs were familiar ones, like “The Spanish Cavalier” and “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay.” The show, which arrived after what the Times called “a mildly successful and somewhat fugitive engagement in London,” was a slice of late Victoriana offering a child’s idea of life among London’s upper crust as experienced in a series of adventures undergone by young Ethel Monticue (Marie Goff) and told by Daisy herself (Grace Dougherty).
“Daisy’s vision . . . is purely subjective and wholly uncritical. . . . And it is the vision . . . that has, with the utmost skill and delicacy, been transferred to the stage,” approved Ludwig Lewisohn, who nonetheless noted the triviality of the material. The Times said the novel “has been turned into a play by the simple use of a pair of shears and a pot of paste. Probably no novel was ever so reverently dramatized since the world began.”
A year later came André Picard’s Kiki (Belasco Theatre, 580), adapted from the French, directed, and produced by the great David Belasco at the theatre that still bears his name. I recently described this hit play elsewhere, so interested readers are requested to find it by clicking on this link.
Jumping forward another year, to 1922, we come to Elmer Rice’s crime drama, It Is the Law (Ritz Theatre, 121), based on an unpublished novel by Hayden Talbot. Rice, a former lawyer, who had brought the film technique of flashbacks to Broadway in his popular 1914 courtroom drama On Trial, turned to it again for another stirring melodrama exposing the workings of the legal system, the focus being double jeopardy. It Is the Law had coincidence and improbability in good measure, as many pointed out, but its hair-raising action and suspenseful development gave audiences little chance to contemplate the inadequacies of the plotting.
Told in seven scenes, the play begins with a shooting and then moves back eight years to explain why the killer cannot be prosecuted. The final scene returns to the present. The action—based on a case of mistaken identity—reveals that the murderer has already done time for killing the same man, but that the first crime was a fake. The dead man was a crook made up by the killer to look like himself; the killer escaped and contrived things so that the betrothed of the woman he desired could be framed, even being arrested on his wedding day. It was all the killer’s scheme to win his rival’s wife.
The villain, Albert Woodruff, was played convincingly by Arthur Hohl, the female love interest, Ruth Allen, by Alma Tell.
Heywood Broun complained of inconsistencies and obvious foreshadowing, but agreed that it did “possess suspense and several striking situations.” “Mr. Rice is . . . is . . . a complete master of artful ingenuity” added the Evening Telegram. The playwright, said John Corbin, “has handled his situations so adroitly and has embroidered it with so many fresh turns and happy inventions, the audience has no time for second thoughts or breath for expostulations.”
Interestingly, Rice himself was less than excited about the play. In his memoir, Minority Report, he claims of the pre-Broadway tryout period, “It was all just so-so: the script, the acting, the direction [by Lester Lonergan], the reviews, the audience response.” He had the same feeling in New York. “The play was neither good enough to evoke enthusiasm nor bad enough to be dismissed. How many such plays open and close every season!” In 1924, a silent film adaptation was produced.
In the Claws of Life (Jolson’s Fifty-ninth Street Theatre, 3), a 1910 comedy by Nobel Prize-winning (1920) Norwegian playwright Knut Hamsun, arrived in the repertory of the Moscow Art Theatre during their 1923 visit to America. (Hamsun was later found guilty of treason for supporting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis after they invaded Norway).
Directed by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, with music by Ilya Sats, the four-act play’s star, Olga Knipper-Chekhova ([spelled Tchekhova at the time] widow of playwright Anton Chekhov), won kudos for her portrayal of Mme. Gihle. Once a celebrated player on the international vaudeville stage, the aging Mme. Gihle’s beauty was worshiped even by noblemen. She is married to an elderly, doting husband (Vassily Luzhsky), but, refusing to accept the march of time, still hungers for romance outside the marriage bed. She keeps a lover, Alexander Blumenschon (Nikolai Podgorny), whose wish to break off the affair and leave the country she desperately tries to subvert. There are also melodramatic elements introduced via other prospective swains, an Argentine nabob named Bast (Vassily Katchaloff), who dies of a cobra bite, and a Lieutenant Lynum (Vladimir Yershoff) who kills himself with a pistol.
John Corbin, noting that, for the first time, the critics had not been provided with a translation by producer Morris Gest, said he found the work difficult to follow; in fact, his review is an amusing attempt to make sense of the play based purely on the stage action. The Telegram’s reviewer, however, thought the piece was the most readily accessible work in the Russian company’s repertory.
In 1926, famous British novelist and playwright W. Somerset Maugham provided Broadway (where it premiered after a Cleveland tryout) with a mildly naughty, protofeminist, drawing-room comedy, The Constant Wife (Maxine Elliott’s Theatre, 295). Even now, its thoughts on marital relations—advanced for the times—make it an attractive item for occasional revival. Dealing with the double standard in marital relations, it scored both because of its stylistic felicities and the graceful comic charm of its star, Ethel Barrymore. Following its New York run, it toured for a year, and then had even greater success in London, after opening there in 1927. The 1929 movie version was called Charming Sinners.
“It is a deft and sparkling comedy of an overwhelming importance,” judged the Times. Some, like the moralistic Richard Dana Skinner, inveighed against the play’s suggestion that the way to handle infidelity “is to abolish all standards whatsoever,” but most accepted the thesis as an example of sophisticated modern thinking.
Maugham’s heroine, Constance Middleton (Barrymore), discovers that her husband of 15 years, John (C. Aubrey Smith), a surgeon, has been having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise Durham (Veree Teasdale). She takes her revenge by becoming self-supporting as a successful interior designer. She also indulgently extricates John from disaster when the friend’s husband finds him out. However, she gets even, to her mate’s consternation, not only by virtue of her profitable business but by running off to Italy for six weeks with an old flame, Bernard Kersal (Frank Conroy), while also paying John for her “board and lodging for the last twelve months.” John, repentant, is now more enamored of her than ever, and hopes she will return to him for a promising future.
The play’s problems were noted, some finding the theme trivial, others, like Gilbert Seldes, thinking the epigrammatic dialogue “machine-tuned and . . . heavy-handed.” “But it is well written,” countered Arthur Hornblow, and “it sparkles with the usual Maugham wit.” Barrymore seemed younger and more attractive than in years, it was thought. The Constant Wife was chosen by Burns Mantle as one of his Ten Best Plays of the Year.”
As noted above, it was not unusual for more than one play to open the same night, but it was rare to have two potentially important ones do so. Ned McCobb’s Daughter (John Golden Theatre, 144) was less successful than The Constant Wife but it did have imprimatur of the Theatre Guild as its producer. Its author, Sidney Howard, its director, Philip Moeller, and its designer, Aline Bernstein, were all leading theatre artists of the day.
Although revivals have been rare, this was a highly respected contribution, given a superbly staged production boasting a cast of luminaries. The play—one of many inspired by Prohibition—was “tense, often very poignant, and certainly . . . thoroughly virile,” observed Richard Dana Skinner. It was set in Merrybay, Maine, and portrayed the marriage of angular, hardworking spa-operator Carrie (Clare Eames) and shiftless George Callahan (Earle Larimore). The industrious Carrie, who supports the family with her business, is confronted by her immoral, ex-con, bootlegging brother-in-law Babe (Alfred Lunt) from New York. This happens just when she needs to raise $2,000 to cover a theft of George’s.
Babe pressures Carrie to let him use her barn to store his hooch in return for his providing the cash. Carrie must engage in a battle of wits to deal with the overbearing gangster while also contending with Jenny (Margalo Gilmore), George’s mistress, and George himself. These struggles constitute the essence of the plot, which is basically a study of Carrie’s sturdy character.
The actors made an enormous impression. In a minor role, Edward G. Robinson did a striking job as a lawyer. The play was flawed but appealing. “Although the construction is loose-jointed, this is rather good old-time melodrama. The dialogue has genuine folk-flavor,” enthused Time. In 1928, Ned McCobb’s Daughterwas made into a film starring Irene Rich.
That November 29 was a propitious day for New York theater in the twenties was made even clearer when Em Jo Basshe’s The Centuries (New Playwrights’ Theatre, 31) opened Off Broadway in 1927. The play may no longer be remembered, but it had several notable components. It was a fervid, sprawling, experimental work employing a large company, including future notables Franchot Tone and Eduard Franz. It tells in episodic form of the travails of Jewish immigrants in the land of plenty.
John Mason Brown may have believed it was “muddled, inchoate and meagerly acted,” but Richard Dana Skinner declared “It is full of telling and sharp character studies [and] it has moments which aspire toward poetic beauty.” Unhappily, its stress on a thesis gave it “all the stilted artificiality of a marionette.”
Basshe’s “portrait of a tenement house” pictures various rooms in a Lower East Side dwelling, where a Russian-Jewish family experiences the jarring transition from life in the old country to life in the new amid poverty, strikes, brothels, synagogues, and gangsters. In the end, they move to greener pastures in the Bronx.
Well designed by John Dos Passos—best known, of course, as a writer—and staged expressionistically, it was interesting to observe but too confused to sustain audience interest.
Of all the November 29 shows in the decade, the last, a revue called New Americana (Liberty Theatre, 12), was actually the least. It had begun in 1926 as a satirical revue, written by J.P. McEvoy, called Americana, which got good reviews and ran for 224 performances. A new edition—one of its scenes being a parody of Strange Interlude acted on roller skates—opened on October 30, 1928, but it bombed and closed in a little more than a week. It was revised and revived shortly afterward, on November 29, as New Americana, but, emceed by Julius Tannen, with music by Roger Wolfe Kahn, it couldn’t survive notices like the one in the Times that called it “dull, mediocre entertainment.” I could say more, but fair’s fair.
Hoping the above, though long, was neither dull nor mediocre, I will say farewell until we meet again in December.