By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 23 in the series)
February 24, 2021: Three Broadway plays opened on February 24 in the 1930s, two of them significant, the other quickly over and done with. All three became movies that can still be seen. Their titles are Hangman’s Whip, Dodsworth, and Love on the Dole. The first, Hangman’s Whip, was one of the frequent plays of those days set in tropical climes where sexual desire among white expats kindled melodramatic heat, while restless natives kept raising the temperature in the background. This one, by Norman Reilly Raine and Frank Butler, is set on the deck and saloon of the “Dei Gratia,” a jungle riverboat in the Congo. It sweated through eleven performances at the St. James Theatre in 1933.
Hangman’s Whip pictured an obese, heartless, corrupt, white trader, Prin (Montagu Love), who has been exploiting and forcibly mistreating the locals for thirty years; his sensual wife, Judith (Helen Flint); a fugitive ex-German officer named Kurt Von Eltz (Ian Keith), in love with Judith, who loves him back; a fearless young American named Ballister (Barton MacLane), the only man brave enough to stand up to Prin. Ballister overcomes his own passion for Judith so she can run off with Von Eltz, but to journalistic disapproval, is slain by the natives.
These ingredients mingled with the threat of the restless locals to create a tom-tom melodrama that Gilbert Gabriel swatted away as “pretty awful.” Brooks Atkinson declared that Barton MacLane played Ballister “in the flamboyant style of sneers, swaggers and leather puttees. Surely he would make a stirring spectacle if the play permitted him to finger a neat trigger when the curtain comes down.” MacLane, of course, went on to a substantial movie and TV career, usually as a heavy.
The play was transformed considerably into a steamy pre-code 1933 movie called White Woman, starring Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard, Charles Bickford, and Kent Taylor, with the the action moved from Africa to a rubber plantation in Malaya.
The 1936 film made from 1934’s Dodsworth (Shubert Theatre, 147) was far superior to White Woman, chiefly because of Walter Huston’s performance in the title role, which he’d played on Broadway. Here’s a clip from the movie. This Best Play of the Year selection adapted by Sidney Howard from Sinclair Lewis’s bestseller, brought Huston back to the stage after a five-year hiatus in Hollywood—to play Samuel Dodsworth, a recently retired Midwestern automobile manufacturer, married to the younger, self-absorbed Fran Dodsworth (Fay Bainter).
The wealthy Dodsworth departs for a European jaunt with his vain wife, who fears the thought of growing old. Instead of searching out Continental culture with her patient spouse, Fran allows herself to be wooed by various romantically inclined Europeans. The simple Dodsworth is frustrated by his wife’s affairs, but is helpless to prevent them until he meets Edith Cortright (Nan Sunderland, Huston’s actual wife). Edith is an American widow living in Naples, an understanding and worthy woman with whom he falls in love and who gives new meaning and direction to his life.
“It seems incredible that Mr. Howard could have condensed the many pages of the story into such a compact and tersely written play,” approved Euphemia Van Rensselaer Wyatt. Cy Caldwell contributed that “Dodsworth is a deeply interesting, thoroughly human, entirely believable, and utterly entrancing character study.” Brooks Atkinson, however, considered the play “an aimless chronicle,” and suggested that Howard had “not succeeded in fusing the story or in keeping the drama from running downhill.”
Huston’s acting gained kudos. Most conspicuous of the supporting cast was Russian actress and beloved acting teacher Maria Ouspenskaya who had come here in 1922 with the Moscow Art Theatre, and stayed. She played a small role as the aristocratic German mother of one of Fran’s lovers (Kent Smith).
Our final entry for February 24 in the 1930s has the perfect title for a show born during the Depression, Love on the Dole (Shubert Theatre, 145). It was a British play by Ronald Gow and Walter Greenwood based on the latter’s popular (and still read) novel of the same name. Yet another picture of the doleful effects of the vast economic downturn, it was first seen in London with Wendy Hiller, whose performance (seen even earlier at the Manchester Rep) made her a star that would remain undimmed for many years. The twenty-four-year old Hiller headed the cast of the Broadway version, too, in her American debut.
The Depression is treated here from the English angle, with action occurring near Manchester in a place called Hanky Park, where the Hardcastle family lives in squalor induced by lack of employment. Nevertheless, they maintain their sense of respectability. Although they technically meet the requirements of the welfare system, their dole is seriously insufficient to their needs. Son Harry (Alexander Grandison) supports the ménage and loves a local girl (Rita Davies). Pretty daughter Sally (Hiller) loves Larry Heath (Brandon Peters), a tuberculosis victim who loses his job because of the machinations of gambler Sam Grundy (Ross Chetwynd), who has a thing for Sally.
Harry also loses his job and has to marry his pregnant girlfriend. Larry dies during a labor demonstration. Things go from bad to worse, and Sally, seeing the futility of adhering to worn-out beliefs, decides to take Sam Grundy’s money in return for living with him as his “housekeeper,” which makes her a prostitute in her parents’ eyes. Sam also finds work for her father (Reginald Bach) and brother, who must swallow their pride and accept the work.
Hiller’s acting as the self-sacrificing daughter was one of the finest things about this grim but excellently written work about how poor English folk must cope with the pressures of poverty and an indifferent system. Some may see a reflection here in English terms of Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! about a Bronx Jewish family undergoing similar hardships as they confront a heartless system. Grenville Vernon said Hiller displayed “an arresting talent. This young English girl has beauty, charm, pathos and tragedy. She ought to go far.” Hiller’s part was taken by Deborah Kerr in the 1945 film version. Here’s a clip of Kerr as Sally giving her parents what for. The play itself continued to appear on British stages for many years.
The drama was appreciated for its not being overtly propagandistic, but allowing the characters and situations to make their own point without excessive slanting, which was judged a far more powerful way to convey a message. Brooks Atkinson labeled Love on the Dole “one of the most honest social dramas of our time.”
And that’s what opened on this day in New York theater in the 1930s.