By : Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 13 in the series)
August 31, 2020: A survey of the most active dates for theater openings in late August during the twenties, thirties, and forties turns our attention to the last three days of the month. As noted in previous installments of this column, August was the weakest of each season’s months during our focal decades, July being a close second. In fact, there were years, like 1938, 1939, and 1947, in which only one show opened in August; even more shockingly, not a single August show opened in 1940, 1941, 1945, or 1946. Wherever people were spending their sizzling summers—traveling, the country, or the beach—it wasn’t at un-air-conditioned theaters.
Over the thirty years covered by this column, only three late August days—8/29, 8/30, and 8/31—had as many as a dozen openings; in a few cases, these were not true premieres but the beginning of return engagements or of a move from Off to on Broadway. And, while none of these shows came close to having the impact of The Front Page, a mid-August show noted in our last installment, there were definitely a few of more than passing interest, even if only because some household name revered by entertainment buffs—like Ruth Gordon or George M. Cohan—was involved in the proceedings.
The date I’ve chosen—mostly for arbitrary reasons, like the fact that at least one show opened on it during each of our decades—is August 31. As with each of the dates I’ve mentioned, the bulk of that day’s offerings was in the twenties, with just a sprinkling later on. And, as with our first examples, more than one show sometimes opened on the same day despite the many days lacking even a single offering.
This was the case with Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting and the Greenwich Village Follies of 1921, both born on August 31, 1921. After those examples are dispensed with, we’ll also look at Her Temporary Husband, The Fall of Eve, Potash and Perlmutter, Detectives, She Couldn’t Say No, Such Is Life, Friendship, I Killed the Count, and Sleep No More. Honestly, how many have you heard of?
Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (Plymouth Theatre, 129) was by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Zoë Akins, one of the small number of highly respected female playwrights of the era. Directed and produced by the eminent Arthur Hopkins, and designed by the equally eminent Robert Edmond Jones, it was an intensely promising, but incompletely fulfilled, marital drama about a poor young couple. The husband (Frank Conroy) tries to shed his family obligations so he can pursue his artistic goals. The wife (Marjorie Rambeau) turns to another man (Lee Baker). Five years later, the husband returns to be near his dying child, but remains true to his vision and will not rekindle his marital relationship.
Some of the reviews reveal how powerfully and directly Akins’s writing had broken new ground in its truthfulness and integrity to the people it portrayed. Alexander Woollcott thought this “finely wrought and distinguished play,” so similar in outline to many conventional dramas, was unique to itself, “so distinctive is the thought and expression” of the writer. But Ludwig Lewisohn was sorely irked by the sentimental deathbed contrivances of the final act. Still, he admired Akins’s “peculiar grace” in avoiding a happy ending. In 1925, the play was adapted as a film, stills of which can be seen here.
Happier times were had at the third edition of the Greenwich Village Follies (Shubert Theatre, 167), the serial brainchild of producer-director John Murray Anderson, which, after its 1919 inception in its eponymous Off-Broadway neighborhood, was now beginning its tenure as a Broadway occupant. Having already covered this show in a column for “Theater Pizzazz,” however, I will save myself both time and space by referring you to those comments, which you can study here.
On August 31, 1922, an ephemeral bauble called Her Temporary Husband (Frazee Theatre, 95), by Edward A. Paulton, was deemed by Alexander Woollcott “the kind of reckless and infrequently incredible piece we used to see oftener in the early nineties than in these later seasons.” It was activated by a conventional plot device of the time, a will, in this case one that cautions a young heiress (Ann Andrews) that she will forfeit her inheritance if she weds one Clarence Topping (Henry Mortimer).
Hoping to outfox the will maker, she decides to marry some decrepit senior citizen, get the money, and then, when he kicks the bucket, move in with old Clarence as she had wanted to do in the first place. However, young Tom Burton (William Courtleigh) learns of her scheme, makes himself up as a senile fogey, and weds the girl, only to then reveal himself and attempt to win her on his own—which he does.
Despite its mediocre showing, Her Temporary Husband was adapted as a film in 1923, one of its stars being Sydney Chaplin.
Three years passed before another August 31 opening arrived, in 1925. It was a flabby marriage comedy titled The Fall of Eve (Booth Theatre, 48), by John Emerson and the redoubtable Anita Loos, best known for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with a cast led by an equally redoubtable star. There was little dissension from Joseph Wood Krutch’s assessment that “the irresistibly amusing Ruth Gordon takes complete charge of a poor play . . . and makes it very funny in spite of itself.”
Gordon portrayed Eva Hutton, the wife of young lawyer Ted (Arthur Albertson), whose business relationship with a beautiful actress from whom he has been working as a tax consultant leads, via the agency of a rumor-mongering spinster (Cora Witherspoon), to Eva’s great jealousy. However, when she gets drunk and finds herself having spent the night at the home of two bachelor friends of Ted’s, she believes she has betrayed him. Of course, her fears are unfounded, the bachelors never touched her, and her spouse is completely innocent.
Objections were typified by Richard Dana Skinner, who censured the unoriginal story, lack of subtlety, “artificial thesis, . . . cumbersome exposition and situations that are far from exalted.” A movie adaptation appeared in 1929.
A year later, 1926, almost as if to make up for lost time, there were THREE openings on August 31. (There would be only three more August 31 shows over the next two decades.) One of the 1926 trio was Potash and Perlmutter, Detectives (Ritz Theatre, 48), the last in a successful (until now) series of comedies featuring the two Jewish immigrant partners of the title. The pair, whose first names were Abe and Mawruss, had benefited from the performance of Abe by dialect comedian Barney Bernard, whose recent death did not deter producer Al Woods from this final offering in the beloved series. Yiddish theatre actor Ludwig Satz assumed the Abe Potash role, his first in English. There was also a new Mawruss Perlmutter in the person of Robert Leonard, replacing the popular Alexander Carr.
In their present low comedy incarnation, subtitled Poisoned by Pictures, Potash and Perlmutter were farcical sleuths who take on their duties when named as executors of a private detective agency. Pursuit of a purloined jewel case lands the “schlemiels” in the clink, various amusing circumstances are whipped up, dialect yocks bounce around, moments of tear-jerking pathos intrude, and everyone goes home happier than when they came in.
Saltz and Leonard did not succeed in replacing Bernard and Carr in the affection of audiences, nor was their vehicle, by Montagu Glass and Jules Eckert Goodman, as sturdy as its predecessors. One of the more acidulous notices, by Arthur Hornblow, said the play was “so utterly puerile and so foreign to the spirit in which these two Hebraic characters were originally conceived that it has no excuse for being.”
Plays whose titles started with “She” were rather common in the twenties—She Couldn’t Say No, She Knew What She Wanted, She Had to Know, and that old chestnut, She Stoops to Conquer. Our example is the first of these, a farce of small town life by A.B. Kaye (Booth Theatre, 72). Hornblow called it “little more than a vaudeville sketch, elongated,” but it enjoyed a tour de force performance by comedienne Florence Moore that made a visit worth one’s while.
The story was illogical, implausible, and impossible, but such objections meant nothing to those who laughed their heads off. The Times compared the star to Groucho Marx in her comic inventiveness, and reviewer Charles Belmont Davis suggested that she improvised many of her gags.
It tells of a stenographer (Moore) in love with her poor lawyer boss (Ralph Kellard). She takes on a breach of promise suit in an upstate small-town court and assumes the role of an attorney from New York City, her comic foils being the local yokels.
Brooks Atkinson described Moore’s shenanigans during the trial: “She invents tricks with two hats, wields a golf club, plays a tune on the brass checks of the hotel keys, looks through the back of a chair as though the bars were prison cell, and bounces around the stage good-naturedly from start to finish.”
The last example from 1926, and the decade itself, was a drama called Such Is Life (Morosco Theatre, 22), by Peter Glenny and Marie Armstrong Hecht, in which Noel Gignon (Ralph Sprague) has married Barbara Sterling (Sydney Shields) but run off with her sister Agatha to Paris. Both sisters have a child by him about the same time, and Barbara raises them as her “twins.” Two decades later, Noel returns and asks Agatha and her hunchbacked son (Hardie Albright) to come back to him. He is soon sent packing, however, as a bigamist and scoundrel.
The play concentrates on the relationships of Barbara, Agatha, and two spinster sisters of theirs who reside with them and get on one another’s nerves.
“The play has solid merit in spite of certain crudities,” acknowledged Joseph Wood Krutch, while the Times, noting its portentous stabs at symbolism, claimed that if it turned “out to be no more than a showy play . . . , sputtering with vague emotions and seldom coming into sharp focus, the rag-bag method of playwriting must bear the blame.”
Only something called Friendship (Fulton Theatre, 14), by the onetime Broadway superman, George M. Cohan, found its way to a stage on an August 31 in the thirties, 1931 to be precise. Rumor had it that Friendship was the first Cohan play to be fully written before rehearsals commenced. Some questioned whether this might not have been the reason it seemed, for all its actability, to lack the insistent freshness and theatricality of the showman’s earlier work. Brooks Atkinson called it “a slight play, not a little monotonous, somewhat confusing, and thoroughly conventional in pattern and idea.”
Several critics used the phrase “morality play” to describe what Richard Dana Skinner described as a three-act diatribe against the “consummate self-centeredness and amoral philosophy of the younger generation.” Cohan played Joe Townsend, middle-aged keeper of a mistress named Louise (Lee Patrick), whom he took from a nightclub job and spent three years improving culturally and educationally (shades of Pygmalion).
The plot observes Joe’s efforts to get her back after she decides to become a novelist, leave Joe, and marry a conceited writer named Cecil (Clifford Jones), the target of much of Joe’s anti-youth disgust. In the end, Louise returns to Joe and the promise of marriage.
Closing out this August 31 survey are two shows from the forties, I Killed the Count and Sleep No More. The former (Cort Theatre, 29), by Australian writer Alec Coppel, arrived in 1942, being a comic British murder mystery dating back to its London production in 1937 and a British film of 1939. Seen Stateside at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse before venturing to Broadway, it proved a wasted effort, one the Variety critic signed as Ibee. attacked as “repetitious to a degree and quite incredible.”
The body of a slain foreign nobleman, Count Victor Mattoni (Rafael Corio) is found in his London flat. Divisional inspector Davidson (Louis Hector) questions the three prime suspects (Robert Allen, Guy Spaull, and A.J. Herbert), one by one. Each confesses, and each confession is followed by a fadeout and the reenactment of the crime before the Scotland Yard detective and his assistant (Bertram Tanswell). The examinations are all plausible and supported by circumstantial evidence, which is corroborated by Samuel Diamond (Clarence Derwent), resident of a nearby flat. The grumpy Davidson’s frustration grows greater when a woman (Louise Rogers) also confesses.
All becomes clear upon the eventual revelation that the multiple confessions are part of a plot to get rid of the dastardly count by a conspiracy wherein no single individual is identified as the killer. Actually, it was the woman who did it, but neither she nor anyone else can be arrested because of a loophole in the law about charging more than one person for a crime known to have been perpetrated by a single person.
Pointing to the dramatis personae of conventional types, Atkinson asserted, “Mr. Coppel goes about the writing job as if he were making out a laundry list. The organization . . . is routine. The dialogue is commonplace. The plot would be suitable for a clever charade of bored week-end guests who have rad all the crime fiction on their bedside tables.” I Killed the Count didn’t totally die with this showing. It was resurrected as a TV movie in 1948 and, among other video versions, an episode of TV’s “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in 1957.
I sense you’re getting weary so I’ll wrap it up with Sleep No More (Cort Theatre, 7), a flop by Lee Loeb and Arthur Strawn, Hollywood scriptwriters who struggled to keep their audience awake despite a breakneck farce jam-packed with familiar gags, many of them sexually suggestive.
Its plot tells of a shady promoter named Clifford Gates (Robert Armstrong) threatened by a woman demanding her money back for one of his phony products. Gates and a trio of larcenous barbers promote a pill invented by druggist William Jennings Brown (George Offerman, Jr.) that kills sleep so you can be active 24 hours a day. Brown marries his sweetheart (Patricia Ryan) but, because the pill needs testing, he takes it for six days, getting no sleep at all. When a mattress manufacturer (Ed Latimer), fearful that his product will become useless, tries to buy the formula, Brown sinks into a deep snooze. Complications ensue. Brown’s snooze turns out to be caused by punctured eardrums; the pills actually can cure dogs of worms; Brown earns big bucks; and the cash is diverted into another invention.
“Sleep No More has a central situation which inspires laughter, but it has been treated in a yawning manner,” sighed Howard Barnes.
The dog days of summer now being just about over, we look forward to more abundant offerings as September and the reawakening of theatre activity roll into view. If only that were also true in 2020.