(No. 14 in the series)
By: Samuel L. Leiter
As readers of “On This Day in New York Theater” know, this series seeks to survey the most productive days for theatrical production for our inclusive decades. Our last installment having looked at August 31, we now rush into September, which, with summer’s heat gradually backing off and milder temperatures arriving, has always signaled a natural increase in the number of new openings. While that was true, overall, for the twenties, thirties, and forties, it wasn’t the mad rush of shows one might have expected. Still, September 12, the most prolific of days during those three decades, provides us with 17 openings, too many too cover here. Thus, what follows remains rooted in the twenties, with a brief overview at the end of the next two decades.
Starting things off, in 1921, is W. Somerset Maugham’s British drawing-room comedy, The Circle (Selwyn Theatre, 175). It was, in fact, one of three plays that opened the same night, something not uncommon back in the Twinkling Twenties. A Burns Mantle selection for his Ten Best of the season, The Circle was called by Alexander Woollcott “a searching, malicious and richly entertaining” contribution in which Time, ever repeating itself in circular fashion, plays the principal role.
Maugham’s ironic offering brought back to Broadway the seasoned Mrs. Leslie Carter, who had not been seen on a New York stage in years, and paired her with one of Broadway’s grand old men, John Drew. This veteran duo played Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney and her lover of more than 30 years, Lord Porteus, a couple who eloped in their youth, leaving only a note on a pincushion for the lady’s unhappy husband (Ernest Lawson). No longer avid lovers, the pair yap at each other like the aging spouses they indeed are.
When they pay a surprise visit to the lady’s son (Robert Rendel), whom she has not seen in lo these many years, they learn that his young wife, Elizabeth (Estelle Winwood), is planning just as they did to run off with someone else (John Halliday). Lady Champion-Cheney and Lord Porteus do their best to dissuade Elizabeth and her lover from their planned elopement, but even the tale of their own woes can do nothing to cool the pair’s ardor, and they depart, much to the scandalous pleasure of the 1921 audience.
Arthur Hornblow said the play contained “sparkling lines, keen satire, distinguished acting, added to an absorbing story.” No wonder that it remained a part of the British and American repertory for many years. Five months after it opened, The Circle rolled along to the Fulton Theatre.
Love was also the subject of Launcelot and Elaine (Greenwich Village Theatre, 32), a period piece by Edwin Milton Royle set in the mythical English past and based on Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” It was considered a respectable adaptation, with Royle doing his work “in a manner which is at once scholarly, faithful to the original poetic conception, and finally impressive,” as Hornblow praised it. The poetic drama was staged Off Broadway in a widely admired mounting that offered Royle’s two actress daughters, Selena and Josephine, a fine opportunity for their professional debuts.
Royle borrowed liberal portions of Tennyson’s blank-verse dialogue, resulting in a long, literary, but often touching piece about the unrequited love of Elaine (Josephine) for the sad knight who suffers inwardly for his illicit love affair with King Arthur’s queen, the beauteous Guinivere (Selena). The loveliest and most moving part of the presentation was the arrival near the end of a funeral barge bearing the white body of Elaine to Camelot.
Ten years later, in 1930, the play was revived with the Royle sisters on Broadway. It now seemed a pompous bore.
The final offering of September 12, 1921, was a comedy by Augustin McHugh called True to Form (Bramhall Playhouse, 15), also Off Broadway. It was a flop only a few moments of which had any value, the rest being “a disappointing work,” in the Times’s opinion, one that frittered away what little promise it had.
True to Form looks at the problems created by a narrow-minded, inflexible old couple (Eugenie Blair and George Graham), who exert undue influence on the lifestyles of their daughter and son-in-law (Verna Wilkens and John Warner), the latter choosing to rebel against their conservatism. The young couple experiences marital problems as a result, and these are exacerbated by the appearance of a platitudinous, half-cocked philosopher (Edwin Nicander), who harangues others with his drink-inspired theories. His ideas cause trouble between the young marrieds, but all gets ironed out before the final curtain.
A year later, September 12, 1922, also witnessed three openings: the fourth edition of The Greenwich Village Follies, Why Men Leave Home, and Dreams for Sale.
The Follies, no longer in Greenwich Village but now at the Shubert Theatre (209), continued under the direction of the revue series’ founder, John Murray Anderson. With exquisite curtain, scene, and costume designs (by Reginald Marsh, Cleon Throckmorton, Howard Greer, James Reynolds, Erté, Ingeborg Hansell, Early Payne Frank, Blanding Sloane, Alice O’Neill, Georgianna Brown, Dorothy Armstrong, and Pieter Myer), the 1922 edition was a visual knockout. From the moment the audience entered to witness Marsh’s show curtain depicting famous Villagers of the day, like Donald Ogden Stuart, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, they knew they were in for a feast of “pictures brilliant, flashing and bizarre,” as Woollcott observed.
Dancing was a vital part of the show’s success, with Ula Sharon, Marjorie Peterson, and Alexander Yakoleff competing for terpsichorean honors. The highlight—and the gorgeous centerpiece of the program—was the Ballet Ballad, the first example of an item found regularly in later editions. It was an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Nightingale and the Rose,” interpreted by Sharon and Yakoleff.
The comic partnership of Bert Savoy and Jay Brennan struck gold with naughty antics in which Savoy, a blatantly swishy female impersonator, told risqué, limp-wristed anecdotes about his friend Margie. Nothing else was as hilarious.
Tableaux and spectacles were represented by one picturing a famous mezzotint, accompanied by Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Another featured dolls in movement. “Sweetheart Lane” was set in Washington Square Park. And “You Are My Rainbow,” a lush Louis M. Hirsch ballad, supported a colorful ballet. The show’s best-known song was an interpolation by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson called “Georgette,” heard here in a Ted Lewis interpretation.
Avery Hopwood was a popular playwright of bedroom, and his Why Men Leave Home (Morosco Theatre, 138) had a solid enough run. It also was the source of a 1924 silent movie. In fact, it had recently been announced that his plays had earned him more than a million and a quarter dollars. This one went a little too far for some, Kenneth Macgowan calling it “salacious,” “made worthless by wholly superfluous, distasteful, and puerile execrescences.” This was the kind of critical verbiage one usually associates with 19th-century puritanism, not the decadent twenties. Even the Morosco Theatre’s cat expressed its displeasure when it sauntered on stage on opening night during the Act Two seduction scene, crawled over the footlights into the house, and hid under someone’s seat.
The subject was the rebellion of three men against their wives, who annually leave their menfolk behind in order to travel freely about in Europe. When Tom (John McFarlane) tells Fifi (Florence Shirley) that he’s finished with her gallivanting around, she attempts to seduce him in a set consisting of “an enticing chamber with a soft brooch of beds and couches,” while wearing a new, guaranteed-to-please negligee, as the critic signed B.F. observed. By the end, when the wives have been brought into line by the fear that their husbands will divorce them, all falls into place.
Q.M. said it was “extremely funny at times and . . . a well-made play throughout,” but the Times labeled it “a distinctly commonplace piece of work.”
The third show opening that night in 1922 was Dreams for Sale (Playhouse Theatre, 13) a weak comedy by the prolific Owen Davis. The only light in the gloom emanating from this “well-meaning little fiasco,” as Lawrence Reamer called it, was the appearance of Helen Gahagan, just beginning the exceptional career that would lead to stardom, the House of Representatives, and marriage to leading actor Melvyn Douglas.
This is a New England play involving a pair of feuding families, with rival forests and pulp mills a motivating force. There is also a romantic plot involving Ann Baldwin (Gahagan), Arthur Nash’s (John Bohn) girlfriend, in love with Jim Griswold (Donald Cameron). Ann only realizes how much Jim means to her after she shoots him. Following this and other explosive situations, all ends happily.
Romance, melodrama, comedy, and farce banged noisily together in what Woollcott snubbed as a “rickety” construction. The Telegram laughed at this “most disastrous production of this and many another season.”
We move on to September 12, 1925, for Kenneth Matthews’s Courting (Forty-ninth Street Theatre, 4), a quaint Scottish Cinderella comedy brought to New York with its London company. It was an “amusing, simple, clean little play [that came] like a breath of Spring bearing the fragrance of a field of heather,” thought Hornblow. John Anderson added, “It is charming, wistful at times, but much too slight.”
Courting is the familiar tale of a Scotch farm family ruled by a stiff-necked, Bible-fearing patriarch (J. Nelson Ramsey). He heeds the preachments of his preacher (John Duncan) and attempts to stifle the amorous yearnings of his son (Kenneth Grant) and daughter (Jean Clyde). The daughter disobeys her pa and goes to the Laird’s ball, where the young English boarder (Vernon Sylvaine) has taken someone else, but she and the Brit are eventually united in romantic bliss.
The year 1927 provided not three but four plays opening on September 12, Baby Cyclone, Half a Widow, My Maryland, and Revelry. Two were hits, two were misses, but even the latter had interesting things to remember about them.
Baby Cyclone (Henry Miller’s Theatre, 187) was a George M. Cohan comedy, its title referring to an adorable Pekingese dog belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Hurley (Spencer Tracy and Nan Sunderland) of New York. In Mr. Hurley’s eyes, the pooch is far too much his mate’s preoccupation. He sells her to a lady in the street for five dollars, leading to a tiff with the missus and the interference on her part of a stranger, Joseph Meadows (Grant Mitchell), who takes Baby Cyclone home with him. Mr. Hurley arrives to straighten matters out, but Mr. Meadows’s fiancée (Natalie Moorehead) walks in and turns out to be the Peke’s purchaser. Various complications follow regarding the pup’s ownership until all is amicably resolved.
The critics were amazed at how nimbly Cohan could spin his tenuous tale to sustain an audience through a full evening’s enjoyment. (Well enough, apparently, for the play to have been adapted for a 1928 silent film.) Joseph Wood Krutch asserted that “extraordinarily expert writing keeps it continuously funny,” and the Times found it “amusing, workmanlike and interesting.” Grant Mitchell, the star, was admirable, but Spencer Tracy, in his first principal role (specifically written for him), stole the show. Richard Dana Skinner said, “Spencer Tracy’s masterly delineation . . . is quite the best piece of acting of its kind I have seen in many months. He is not only convincingly at ease at all times, but the variety and sincerity of his facial expressions add sumptuously to the force of every line.” Sounds like he might have had a great career looming.
Half a Widow (Waldorf Theatre, 16), on the other hand, had nothing comparable to offer, albeit it was a rare musical of the day about World War I, with a book and lyrics by Harry B. Smith and Frank Dupree and a score by Shep Camp. It took 10 years to bring it to Broadway, with its story about a wartime romance between an American soldier and a French girl. Interest in it after it opened was minimal as that preceding it. George Jean Nathan decided it was “a deadly stupid hoof and yodel show.”
Its plot, bearing some resemblance to the hit World War I play, What Price Glory?, concerns an Army captain (Halfred Young) in love with Babette (Gertrude Lang), whom he marries before leaving for the front, where he expects to be killed. His money will go to her, and she can then marry the French lad she loves. But the officer survives, of course, and Babette chooses to wed him on his return.
Much closer to a high water mark was another musical, My Maryland (Jolson’s Fifty-ninth Street Theatre, 312), book and lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly, music by Sigmund Romberg, and a story based on Clyde Fitch’s 1899 play Barbara Frietchie. The legend of this woman, first made famous in Whittier’s poem, takes place during the Civil War, and concerns the love of young Barbara (Evelyn Herbert), a Southerner, for Northern officer Captain Trumbull (Nathaniel Wagner). (In fact, the real Barbara was 96 at the time of the events depicted.) Barbara defiantly waves the Union flag in the path of Southern General Stonewall Jackson (James Ellis), although the captain lies wounded in her own bedroom. Moved by her valor, the general commands his men to “March on.”
Despite its stirring premise, the book (Donnelly’s last before she died) was no more than a hokey heart thumper, and the Times wrote that it as “notable rather for theatrical competence than for wit or taste.” Time declared that “the melodramatics are so naïve that a rousing march song by Sigmund Romberg, accompanied by stagy gestures, failed of the usual operatic magic.” Actually, Romberg’s score was the saving grace, and the songs “Won’t You Marry Me,” “Silver Moon,” “Mother,” and, especially,” “Your Land and My Land,” were accorded thunderous applause.
Regardless of its title, there was little revelry surrounding Revelry (Theatre Masque, 49), a crime drama by Maurine Watkins, the courtroom journalist best known as the author of another crime play, Chicago (before it became a musical). Based on the novel of the same name by Samuel Hopkins Adams, it was a poorly conceived play on a significant theme, corruption in the White House. Intended as a thinly disguised attack on the administration of Warren Harding, the “choppy, disjointed” drama, as Brooks Atkinson called it, told of the genial poker- and booze-loving President Willis Markham (Berton Churchill), whose political cronies are crooked grafters. He, however, for all of his loose ways, is basically honest. When, through certain implausible developments, he comes to learn of just how crooked his administration has been, he poisons himself.
Churchill was made up to look like Harding in what Atkinson termed a “flimsy and amateurish drama,” but which several others saw as an apt dramatization of the muckraking book from which it was drawn. Stark Young, disappointed by its flaws, nevertheless saw a striking image of a powerful figure’s confrontation with the insidious nature of his position.
Revelry had run into considerable legal trouble in Philadelphia before opening in New York. An injunction was sought to close it down because of its ridicule of the federal government. The injunction was not granted, and the surrounding controversy did little to stir interest at its box office. For all that, the play became the pre-code 1930 movie, The Woman Racket, with Blanche Sweet as Julia.
We put this installment of “On This Day in New York Theater” to bed in 1928 with Night Hostess (Martin Beck Theatre, 119), a crime comedy by Philip Dunning, who co-wrote the smash twenties’ hit Broadway, which bore some resemblances to his new offering. The milieu is that of an illegal New York gambling casino, but even under the estimable directorial talents of Winchell Smith, the play was assailed for copy-catism and shopworn methods. Joseph Wood Krutch, for example, discovered in it “the same melodramatic incidents recounted in the same jazz rhythm.” Brooks Atkinson averred, “Heavily decorated in the lavish, baroque style of its environment, fairly crawling with hostesses, tipplers, gamblers and victims, saturated in cigar smoke, ‘Night Hostess’ still lacks the centrifugal speed that kept ‘Broadway’ spinning.”
As in Broadway, a killing is at the core, this one the suffocation with a napkin by casino manager Chris Miller (Averell Harris) of a discarded mistress, Julia (Gail De Hart), both to shut her up about what she knows of a murder he committed and to allow him the freedom to seduce virginal casino hostess Buddy Miles (Ruth Lyons), herself in love with piano player/barkeep Rags Conway (Norman Foster). The body is in a trunk ready to be shipped to Chicago, but the foul deed is uncovered by Rags and the cops. Miller dies when he steps into an open elevator shaft.
And thus completes our survey of September 12 openings in the 1920s. Anyone curious about what followed in the thirties and forties might enjoy knowing that the former provided two openings, both curiously interesting, plus the 1932 return engagement of Elmer Rice’s hit legal drama of 1931, Counsellor-at-Law of 1931.
One of the new plays was Rice’s anti-Nazi Judgment Day (1934), the other Murder at the Vanities (1933), a musical combining elements of an Earl Carroll’s Vanities revue with a murder mystery. Less interest accrued to the three 1940s plays opening on our date: 1941’s Brother Cain, about family troubles, a coal mine tragedy, and legal issues; 1944’s Star Time, a vaudevillian revue emceed by Lou Holtz; and 1945’s Devil’s Galore, a flop about a skyscraper crime and a Faustian bargain with one of Satan’s henchmen—its lesson being that hell has nothing on the devilish behavior of New Yorkers.
This New Yorker will continue to dig, come hell or high water, for a suitable date with which to continue this series. Let’s make a date to get together then.