By: Samuel L. Leiter
(No. 15 in the series)
October 11, 2020 After a several week hiatus, I’m finally digging my way out of a huge pile of suddenly accumulated personal responsibilities that have taken up more time than I would have liked. These forced me to postpone the next in my series of reports of what shows opened on specific dates over the course of the twenties, thirties, and forties, but I’m happy to be back with this survey in which I touch on close to 20 shows that opened on October 11.
I looked at everything that opened from October 11 through 15 to find a date that was not only prolific but also provided enough worthy contributions to make it deserving of attention. Each of the possible dates had its share of wheat among the chaff. October 11 satisfied my criteria; in fact, so many shows opened on that date over the three decades this column covers that I have time and space to include only those from the first two. Thus the sad but necessary omission of the forties, whose offerings included at least two significant works, The Eve of St. Mark and Where’s Charley?
Our first October 11 opening was in 1923, an eight-performance debacle by Sidney Rosenfelt called Forbidden; or, Virginia Runs Away (Daly’s Sixty-third Street Theatre), produced by John Cort, which a reviewer signed L.W. dismissed as “An Ibsen theme Mack Sennetized.” It was about a 17-year-old girl (Josephine Stevens) who tries to elope with a callow youth, is sent by a sympathetic aunt to a Freudian analyst (Harry Minturn), and, within 36 hours, has gained his understanding and won his heart.
A year later came The Saint (Greenwich Village Theatre 17), by distinguished critic Stark Young, produced Off Broadway with scenery by leading designer Robert Edmond Jones. Young, who also directed, put himself on the firing line with this weakly received drama about a saintly young man, Valdes (Leo Carrillo, later Pancho on TV’s “The Cisco Kid”), who abandons his religious studies at a Texas seminary near the Mexican border in order to join a traveling vaudeville show. During his search for life’s meaning, he falls for Paris Pigeons (Maria Ouspenskaya, another leading artist), performs a Chaplin routine, is abandoned for a knife-thrower by Paris, and returns to the seminary. There, tempted to remain, he moves on into the world to continue his quest.
Reviewers contended with their respect for their colleague and their disrespect for his play. E.W. Osborn called it “morbid” and noted that it was for those seeking “matter . . . for meditation” rather than “diversion.”
Two shows opened on October 11, 1926, each with some claim to attention. One was Patrick Kearney’s An American Tragedy (Longacre Theatre, 216), the first of several adaptations of Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, including two major films: Josef von Sternberg’s pre-code An American Tragedy (1931), starring Phillips Holmes and Sylvia Sidney, and the far better known A Place in the Sun (1951), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters.
A prologue and four acts totaling a dozen scenes were used to transform Dreiser’s voluminous book, inspired by an actual homicide case, into an occasionally stiff, but generally engrossing drama that gradually built from an uncertain start to a compelling finish in its courtroom scenes. Morgan Farley played Clyde Griffiths, Katherine Wilson was Roberta Alden, and Miriam Hopkins, destined for screen success, was Sondra Finchley, the chief characters in this tale of a collar-factory employee who impregnates the employee he seduces. Then, having been attracted to a socialite, he allows the pregnant girlfriend to drown during a rowing accident, is convicted of murder, and electrocuted for his crime.
“[F]rom the dramatic standpoint little that really matters has been omitted and the result is an absorbing, human, intensely interesting play,” commented Arthur Hornblow. But George Jean Nathan thought the adaptor had put only the novel’s “bare bones” onstage, overlooking Dreiser’s “cloak of understanding, meticulous detail and ploughing, earth-turning pity and sympathy.” The result was “an obvious murder mystery,” he sniffed.
Although no official action was ever taken against it, An American Tragedy was placed on the list of questionable works to be investigated by the District Attorney’s office in the wake of complaints by censorship advocates. In fact, the play was revived on Broadway in 1931 for a substantial run of 137 performances.
Less impressive but important because it was produced by the Theatre Guild was German playwright Franz Werfel’s Juarez and Maximilian (Guild Theatre, 42), directed by Philip Moeller and designed by Lee Simonson. It was a 13-scene, large-cast, philosophical history drama about the ill-fated 1865-1867 reign of Austrian ruler Maximilian as emperor of Mexico. Despite some warm reviews, Norman Nadel’s Pictorial History of the Theatre Guild notes, it was “the only one of fifteen consecutive plays [at the Guild] which was not financially successful.”
Werfel’s pessimism informed this epic work. It was a feeling that led him to see life “not as a struggle between good and evil . . . but between two principles inscrutably complex, even, perhaps, between two evils,” as Joseph Wood Krutch defined it. The play presented an idealistic monarch, encouraged by Napolean III to form a Mexican empire, only to desert him to the guns of Benito Juarez, leader of the insurgent Mexicans. Juarez himself is never seen in the play, which focuses on the Hamlet-like character of Maximilian (Alfred Lunt), a man tragically out of joint with the circumstances swirling about him.
Despite a lavish production, this was one of the Guild’s less polished offerings. Lunt looked the emperor to a “T,” but his diction was said to be garbled. The play was too disconnected, seeming sluggish and uninvolving. Good work was turned in by Edward G. Robinson (as Porfirio Diaz), Dudley Digges, Clare Eames, and Arnold Daly.
It wasn’t a new opening, but the record requires noting that on October 11, 1926, there was a second return engagement of the 1922 smash hit Rain, which put in 16 showings at the Century Theatre.
October 11, 1927, provided three openings: Just Fancy, a musical, The Nineteenth Hole, and White Lights. Just Fancy (Casino Theatre, 79) had some well-known creatives in charge: book by Joseph Santley and Gertrude Purcell, music by Joseph Meyer and Philip Charig, and lyrics by Leo Robin. Based on a 1920 farce by A.E. Thomas called Just Suppose, in which English actor Leslie Howard made his Broadway debut, it was dominated by Santley, who not only co-authored, directed, and produced it, but also played the Prince of Wales.
Opposite him was the Linda Lee Stafford of Ivy Sawyer (Santley’s actual wife), the American belle the prince falls for while visiting these shores. Possibly to avoid embarrassing the current heir to the throne, the show set its action back in Victorian days, making the prince the future Edward VII. A prologue set in the present revealed an aged Aunt Linda Lee (Mrs. Thomas Whiffen) recalling her youthful escapade before the lights dimmed and the story flashed back to the crinolined past.
Apart from the appealing presences of Santley and Sawyer, the show was overproduced, with heavy, slow-shifting sets. Star comic actors Raymond Hitchcock and Eric Blore were subdued by the inanity of their material, but the dances, largely proffered by the Chester Hale Girls, were a highlight.
The 19th Hole (George M. Cohan Theatre, 119), as its name suggests, was about golf. Its playwright and star was Frank Craven, one day to create the role of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. He portrayed a writer who becomes so fascinated by golf that he alienates his wife (Mary Kennedy), gets involved in a tournament whose winner has to be decided by the playing of a 19th hole, loses, and returns to marital amity, although his wife is herself putting balls when the curtain falls. Craven was fine but the play was of interest only to other linksmen.
As for White Lights (Ritz Theatre, 31), a musical, it had some decent talents behind it—book by Paul Gerard Smith and Leo Donnelly; music by J. Fred Coots; and lyrics by Al Dubin and Dolf Singer—but its show biz tale of a the romantic and professional problems faced when a virtuous cabaret singer (Marion Marschante) with aspirations to Broadway stardom meets a wealthy gent willing to back her. Slick but shallow, and more like vaudeville than musical comedy, it contained an extensive nightclub floor show.
Thus ends our survey of October 11 openings in the 1920s. The next year in which anything opened on October 11 was 1932, which saw three openings: The Great Lover, I Loved You Wednesday, and Peacock. The first (Waldorf Theatre, 23) was a revival of a seriously dated 1915 play by Leo Ditrichstein and Frederick and Fanny Hatton, with faded matinee idol Lou Tellegen in the role originated by Ditrichstein. He was way past his prime, though, even for the role of an aging opera star who loses his young wife (Ilse Marvenga) to a youthful baritone (Grant Gordon). It was “a rather hollow entertainment,” decided Howard Barnes.
I Loved You Wednesday (Sam H. Harris Theatre, 63) was a sentimental, bittersweet triangle drama that employed the services of two eventually prominent actors, Humphrey Bogart and Frances Fuller, as a pair named Randall Williams and Victoria Meredith. They had been lovers during their Paris student days, although Bogart’s character was already married to a wealthy socialite, Cynthia (Rose Hobart) in New York. Each becomes successful, he as an architect, she as a dancing star. The question as to whether they’ll relight their flame is doused when Victoria, having met and liked Cynthia, nixes the idea.
Attempts at flip repartee were sunk by shallow characters. “The epigrams and wisecracks sprinkled about are leaden and lifeless,” thought Creighton Peet. Newcomers in a speakeasy scene were Henry Fonda and Arlene Francis. Despite its ill-fated Broadway showing, I’ll Love You Wednesday became a 1933 film.
Peacock (Forty-ninth Street Theatre, 6), by, starring, and directed by the once-popular stage star George Fawcett, whose later career on the screen earned him the title, “The Grand Old Man of Films,” was the least of the lot. It was about the complications surrounding the finances, health, and romances of an aging boulevardier (Fawcett), and his avoidance of a family scandal. Despite Fawcett’s charm, the play, said John Byram, was “a turgid trifle.”
Her Man of Wax (Sam H. Shubert Theatre, 14) was a flop from the pen of German author Walter Hasenclever, as adapted by Julian Thompson. It failed largely because the bright satirical idea in its original conception was muddled in this adaptation starring the glamorous Lenore Ulric as an actress named Josephine who is preparing to play Empress Josephine in a film about Napolean. It proposes that the star’s study of a wax statue of Napolean (Lloyd Corrigan) is so profound he comes to life, beds the actress, becomes a great leader, participates in international disarmament talks, lectures France on its follies, and finally decides he is better off back on his museum pedestal.
“Dull, boring, and very, very sloppy,” snapped Cy Caldwel.
The October 11 offering in 1934 was a revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, of Bunthorne’s Bride (Martin Beck Theatre, 10), given three productions during the decade, this one by the famed D’Oyly Carte Company as part of their visiting repertory. “They can sing with gusto, they have good voices, they are articulate, and they let no comedic opportunity slip,” wrote Arthur Pollock.
One year later, 1935, came Jubilee and Sweet Mystery of Life. The former (Imperial Theatre, 169) was a mildly successful musical with a powerhouse group of creatives, from book writer Moss Hart to composer-lyricist Cole Porter to director Hassard Short, who also did the lighting. To top off those top-of-the-line names, Albertina Rasch choreographed, Jo Mielziner did the sets, Irene Sharaff and Connie de Pinna handled the costumes, and the producers were Sam H. Harris and Max Gordon.
This gorgeous confection, one of just a small handful of book musicals during the 1935-1936 season, was written during a world cruise on the Franconia and inspired by the British Royal Family’s Silver Jubilee. Its reviews were mainly hot, but a few tepid ones appeared as well. Although some at first thought the score not up to Porter’s standards, it provided several standards, including “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things.” Surprisingly, neither was deemed worthy of publication after the opening, unlike, for example, “Why Shouldn’t I?”
At the heart of the satirical story—which jibed at many current figures of the day—was an engaging royal family heading a fictional monarchy. The king (Melville Cooper) is preoccupied with rope tricks; the queen (Mary Boland) dreams of Mowgli the Ape Man (Mark Plant), a Johnny Weissmuller-like film star; Princess Diana (Margaret Adams) yearns for an encounter with dashing, Noel Coward-like playwright Eric Dare (Derek Williams); and Prince James (Charles Walters) feels his heart thump for nightclub dancer Karen O’Kane (June Knight).
When a radical royal nephew heads up a palace revolt, the family escapes into hiding where they don the mask of anonymity and indulge their secret pleasures. Eventually, the political issues are resolved and the family resumes its royal duties.
Among the encomiums was Brooks Atkinson’s that it was “an aristocrat of American festivals in music. It is the dome of many-colored glass that Broadway artisans know how to stretch above the raw materials of entertainment.” The small role of Prince Peter was played by young Montgomery Clift, while May Boley relished the role of Eva Standing, based on party hostess Elsa Maxwell. The show was sailing along until it ran out of steam when Mary Boland withdrew because of illness and was replaced by Laura Hope Crews.
Sweet Mystery of Life (Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 11), a farce co-written by Richard Maibun, Michael Wallach, and George Haight, died quickly, despite the direction of Herman Shumlin, the sets of Donald Oenslager, and the return to Broadway from Hollywood of character actor Gene Lockhart. The plot—about a chain-store magnate, his embezzling partners, the insurance scam they devise, and a June-November romance—was in 54 scenes requiring three turntables. John Mason Brown’s verdict: “It not only suffers from delusions of Grand Hotel, but a chronic attack of St. Vitus’s dance.” The cast included Broderick Crawford as a football player.
On October 11, 1937, an Irish comedy by Lennox Robinson called The Far-Off Hills, first seen here in 1932, when given four performances in repertory by the visiting Abbey Theatre of Dublin, received a return engagement at the John Golden Theatre when the troupe visited again. It was liked well enough to total 51 showings.
One year later, two downtown, Yiddish-language plays competed for opening night attention. David and Esther (Downtown National Theatre) was a sentimental, old-fashioned, Yiddish-language musical by Louis Freiman (book), Ilya Trilling (music), and Chaim Tauber (lyrics). Covering 50 years, its stereotyped story, set in a shtetl on the Polish-Russian border, tells of the romantic conflict created when the conservative father of Esther (Ola Lillith) insists she marry the man of his choice, while she, of course, is in love with a boy named David (Julius Nathanson). Comic stars Leo Fuchs and Diana Goldberg won critical hearts.
The other show, A Wise Fool, was at the Public Theatre (no, not that one) on the Lower East Side. Its book was by the same guy who wrote the one for David and Esther, so one wonders what was going on. Joseph Rumshinsky, a major composer of the genre, did the music, and the producer and star was one of the most popular Yiddish comedians of the day, Menasha Skulnik, familiar even in non-Yiddish circles. But poor, nebishy Menasha was uninspired in this dull concoction about meshuggenah romantic mix-ups in a family, resolved when the immigrant played by Skulnik steps in to patch everything up.
Our last entry for this edition of “On This Day in New York Theater” had the longest run—256 performances—of any October 11 show of the two decades we’ve been looking at. It was Samson Raphaelson’s Skylark (Morosco Theatre), based on his novel, The Streamlined Heart. Lukewarm reviews could not kill it, partly because of the scintillating work of British star Gertrude Lawrence. Considerable work was done on the script in several out-of-town tryouts.
Kelcy Allen provided its warmest notice: “While its plot is not entirely new, it has brilliant dialog, many amusing incidents and the character analysis is one of the play’s outstanding merits.” More critics, though, agreed with Grenville Vernon, who considered it “a very flabbily conceived and poorly constructed play, and even the dialogue unworthy of the author of Accent on Youth.”
Lawrence played Lydia Kenyon, who, married to successful advertising executive Tony Kenyon (Donald Cook), finds herself after 10 years of wedlock playing second fiddle to her spouse’s business. The dramatic action is precipitated during a cat fight between ex-chorine Myrtle Valentine (Vivian Vance, later of “I Love Lucy” fame), wife of Tony’s biggest client, Harley Valentine (Robert Burton), and Lydia. Myrtle accuses Lydia—with some accuracy—of longing for bibulous lawyer Bill Blake (Glenn Anders), who is actually Myrtle’s own bored lover.
Myrtle threatens to have Harley drop his account with Tony. Lydia could wish for nothing better, since she will then be able to have Tony for herself. She talks him into retiring, but he reneges when offered a major automobile account. Lydia resigns herself to making the best of her marital dilemma, but an adopted baby is in the offing.
Vernon summed up Lawrence’s appeal: “Her vitality, her grace of movement, her charm, her magnificent speaking of the lines, in short her ability to make dead matter live are positively stupendous. She is never still a moment, and yet every movement has meaning and is instinct with Lawrence charm.”
So long as more unexpected burdens don’t appear, I hope to be back with another report toward the end of the month. See you then, whenever “On This Day in New York Theater” happens to be.