By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 12 in the series)
August 14, 2020: Round and round she goes, and where she stops for this installment of “On This Day in New York Theater” is August 14, the most active August date over the course of the three decades covered by this series. For the thirties and forties, August beat time on the doldrums, sometimes nearly standing as still as the ship in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with theatres, theatres everywhere, but very few that blinked.
The twinkling twenties were the most active, with five shows on August 14 alone, although only one is likely to mean anything today. Those least likely to stir your pot were Lights Out, The Good Old Days, and Easy Street. See what I mean? Buffs of old-time revues, however, are far more likely to recognize the title of Murray Anderson’s Almanac, while a much broader swath of fans will need little prodding to recall The Front Page. All the threatening thirties had to say for themselves on the 14th day of August was—apart from something in Bulgarian (I kid you not)—was a so-so revival of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The fighting forties offered nothing but the reopening of The Two Mrs. Carrolls, a long-running drama that had closed for a summer break.
The producer of Lights Out (Vanderbilt Theatre, 8/14/22, 12) chose the hottest night of the summer to open what the Times labeled a “moderately amusing” comedy-melodrama that lingered little more than a week. The critic for Variety correctly guessed that “The high-brows won’t like it,” but he was dead wrong when he assumed it would go over with the masses, who would savor its “neat love story, . . . mystery, . . . corking crook angle and . . . touch of the motion picture stuff.”
When a band of thieves learns that the satchel they wish to steal from would-be writer Egbert Winslow (Robert Ames) contains film scenarios, they hatch a scheme whereby Egbert will create scripts based on their real-life adventures. One such piece, designed to expose another crook (C. Henry Gordon), is produced, leading to the crook’s capture and Egbert’s landing the daughter of the bank president, who is cleared of suspicion for the crime.
The Good Old Days (Broadhurst Theatre, 8/14,23, 71), an A.H. Woods production, did a bit better, lasting two months with its script by Aaron Hoffman, directed by Hoffman and Howard Lindsay in his pre-Life with Father period. Kidding the Volstead Act, this comedy (originally called Light Wine and Beer) featured two saloon keepers whose friendship is tested by Prohibition. Nick (George Bickel) becomes a bootlegger, but Rudolph (Charles Winninger) is converted at Madison Square Garden by famed evangelist Billy Sunday and becomes an enforcement officer. After several skirmishes, Rudolph decides he was wrong and frees his daughter to marry Nick’s nephew with his blessing.
“A good deal the sort of farce at which you are likely to laugh in haste and repent at leisure,” judged Burns Mantle. Percy Hammond thought, “This is a good example of the hot-dog drama, providing, as it does, much mental nutrition for those whose thoughts are of ice-cream cones and all-day suckers.”
In 1924, the play that opened on August 14 was another clunker, a drama by Ralph Thomas Kettering called Easy Street (Thirty-ninth Street Theatre, 8/14/24, 12). It was, in fact, on easy street during its 19-week pre-Broadway run in Chicago, but met with horse laughs and raspberries from the New York community. An uneven work that veered radically from melodrama to domestic comedy, Easy Street was about a narrow-minded suburban husband (Ralph Kellard), who suspects his wife’s (Mary Newcomb) motives in frequently going into town. Although he thinks she’s having an affair, she has actually been working to supplement the family income but has not told him because of fear of wounding his pride. He tells her to leave; she packs; he looks inside her bag and finds a baby’s garment. “Darling, can this be true?” he asks. Reconciliation and . . . curtain.
“Easy Street is amateurish, dull and absurd throughout,” carped the Times.
We get to something really first-class only when the curtain rises on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page (Times Square Theatre, 8/14/28, 281), a now classic hit comedy epitomizing the rough and tumble of newspaper crime reporting. For all its ostensibly dated atmosphere and circumstances, it remains a popular standby, including several terrific movie versions, one—His Girl Friday—with a clever gender switch in which a leading male becomes a leading female.
It was commonly believed among critics that stories about newspaper life didn’t make good plays, but The Front Page was a groundbreaking example that stopped the presses as the exception that proved the rule. Ward Morehouse’s Gentlemen of the Press, another heralded play about the fourth estate, opened only 13 days later. With 128 performances, it was what then constituted a modest success and further demonstrated that an effective script could make journalists and their world both entertaining and profitable.
The Front Page, one of Burns Mantle’s Ten Best Plays of the Year, is a side-splitting comedy about rough-edged Chicago crime reporters written by two former Chicago newspaper men. Its juicy dialogue was considered pungent and honestly expressive of the salty speech native to its milieu, and the tag line, “The son-of-a-bitch stole my watch,” became one of Broadway’s favorites.
The play’s inside look at the profane behavior and dedicated professionalism of its subjects gained it a reputation for honesty, while offering audiences a group of characters and a number of situations that kept them continuously engaged. “Most admirably directed by George S. Kaufmann [sic], The Front Page simply swept along and swept its audience off its feet with its speed, boisterousness, veracity and that quintessential hokum which is ‘good theatre’,” wrote one critic. Lee Tracy, Osgood Perkins, and Dorothy Stickney gave what were considered among the sharpest portrayals of their careers.
Set in the press room of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, it gathers together a motley crew of vulgar, card-playing, unkempt, wise-cracking reporters, placing them in the midst of a plot in which reporter Hildy Johnson (Tracy) wants to quit the Herald–Examiner to marry Peggy Grant (Frances Fuller), much to the chagrin of his hardboiled editor, Walter Burns (Perkins), who schemes to stop him.
Meanwhile, Earl Williams (George Leach), condemned murderer, escapes his captors and, wounded, hides out in the press room’s rolltop desk. To Burns’s delight, Hildy is drawn into covering the case while the bride waits at the station. Once all is resolved, in a swirl of cops, politicians, and the gunman’s hooker girlfriend (Stickney), Hildy leaves, but Burns manages to put one last obstacle in the path to his departure.
Richard Dana Skinner and a few others argued that the play’s success was owing strictly to its brilliant staging and acting. As writing, he said it was “a hodgepodge of plot mechanics, vast improbabilities, deliberate hokum and faked sentimentalities.” But Robert Littell maintained that “The Front Page, farcical and improbable as it may seem when you take a second look at its framework, at the time of seeing it first has the sharp taste of novelty and the tumultuous unexpected surprises of real life.”
It should, perhaps, be added that producer Jed Harris claimed in his memoir A Dance on the High Wire that he was responsible for much of the plotting. He also noted that director Kaufman oversaw much of the writing and came up with the title. Harris declared that the play was based on real Chicago journalists. “It was one of the marvels of The Front Page that although all the characters were actual people, nobody ever thought of suing us for invasion of privacy.
Indeed they all turned up for the opening night in Chicago and simply wallowed in delight. When the curtain fell at the end of the first act, the roar that rose from the auditorium sounded like the bellowing of a herd of wild animals. . . . Above the din one great monster of a voice could be heard: MAKE IT MORE PERSONAL!”
Dorothy Stickney, who played the tart Molly Malloy had a scene where she had to jump out of a window to her death. To accomplish this, a hole was created in the stage floor outside the setting window. The actress dove onto a mattress in the basement. On the dress rehearsal night, she banged her elbow in the process and didn’t realize until three days later that she had chipped the bone. She had to play for three weeks in a cast with her arm in a sling matching her black lace dress.
The Front Page was the first play for which Kaufman received sole directing credit. He went on to become one of Broadway’s greatest comedy directors as well as one of its most successful playwrights, although always except for 1928’s The Butter and Egg Man in collaboration with others. A major problem he had in The Front Page concerned Stickney’s reluctance to speak her entrance line: “I’ve been looking for you bastards,” a rather coarse one in those linguistically cautious days. According to Howard Teichman’s George S. Kaufman, the director got the prim actress to speak the line by taking her aside and telling her that the words were “inserted solely for the purposes of arousing sympathy for the character she was playing.”
The final August 14 show of the twenties, and the last about which I’ll offer any details, was Murray Anderson’s Almanac (Erlanger’s Theatre, 8/14/29, 69). It was the brainchild of John Murray Anderson, progenitor of the Greenwich Village Follies series, which had come to an end by 1929, when Anderson replaced it with this new show. Unfortunately, aside from a 1953 show with the same title, this was its only edition.
Anderson’s “revusical of yesterday, today, tomorrow” failed to do business despite its novel magazine format covering the half-century from 1880-1930. Numerous top talents—the writers included Noël Coward, Peter Arno, Rube Goldberg, and Harry Ruskin, among others—contributed to its writing and design. Tin Pan Alley perennial was first showcased here: Milton Ager and Henry Sullivan’s “I May Be Wrong,” introduced by Jimmy Savo and Trixie Friganza. Here it is, sung here by contemporary singing star Libby Holman, in her very distinctive way.
A Reginald Marsh show-curtain highlighted theatre history during the theme period; vaudeville clown Savo shot into stellar prominence as a comic to be reckoned with; comedienne Eleanor Shaler, with her Bea Lillie-like humor, could have used more material; Jack Powell did a first-rate blackface routine—not easy when blackface was so common and rarely criticized as racist—making music with a pair of drumsticks on miscellaneous objects; magician Fred Keating served as a clever M.C.; an Oscar Wilde story, “The Happy Prince,” was transformed into a Ballet Ballad; and an assortment of other sketches and routines scored high and low.
Still, it all failed to coalesce. “[S]omehow,” sighed Brooks Atkinson, “its mixture of the good with the mediocre leaves you lacking a little in enthusiasm for it.”
Apart from a tiny exception, which I’ll note in a moment, the sole August 14 offering of the thirties was a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1888 The Yeoman of the Guard (Majestic Theatre, 8/14/33, 8), part of a G&S repertory directed and produced by Milton Aborn, a regular part of the era’s offerings. This just passable staging was actually a return engagement of a production that had given eight showings from May 1, 1933, at the St. James Theatre.
The exception I hinted at—and which I mention here for no other reason than completeness—was Ivan Vazof’s The Rebels (Heckscher Theatre, 8/14/3, 3), part of a three-play repertory shown Off Broadway by the touring Bulgarian National Theatre of Sofia. Also along for the visit were their productions of The Cricket on the Hearth and Racho Stoyanov’s The Masters. Language and cultural barriers kept the critics at bay, so there is nothing left to report.
Potentially more worthy of remembrance was The Two Mrs. Carrolls, a thriller best known today for its 1947 movie version starring Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, and Alexis Smith. Unfortunately, this British import, whose Broadway version starred Victor Jory, Viennese actress Elisabeth Bergner, and Vera Allen, with Irene Worth making her strong Broadway debut in a secondary role, actually had opened at the Booth Theatre on August 3, 1943. Despite mediocre reviews, it was a hit that ran nearly for 585 performances, allowing it to go on vacation in July and August 1944. August 14 was the date of its reopening, so we’ll save space here by abandoning the title characters to their fate.
The search now begins to find a date in late August of the twenties, thirties, and forties worthy of being a memorable day in New York theatre. If only one show as good as The Front Page turns up, the search will have been worth the effort.