Vanity Fair, August 1917
THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME
And Some of the Shows Thereof
By P. G. Wodehouse
IT saddens me a good deal now and then when I realize how little influence for good I have upon managers and promoters of theatrical enterprises. Instead of being a Force and all that sort of thing, I am merely among those present. It’s all wrong. A dramatic critic ought to be one of those fellows at the very mention of whose name people tremble like aspen leaves. Instead of which he is just a plaintive bleater, moaning his preferences and prejudices and getting absolutely ignored. Take three recent instances. I said that there must be no more Thackeray dramatizations. What happened? They sprang “Colonel Newcome” on me one fair Spring evening. I stated definitely that I would consider it a deliberately unfriendly act if I were asked to attend any further Viennese operettas. What transpired? They defy me by producing “My Lady’s Glove.” Lastly—and it is this that has cut me to the quick—did I or did I not make it perfectly clear that “mother” songs must cease? I did. With what result? Along comes “The Follies of 1917” with one of the motherest mother songs ever written.
IT is not as if they did this sort of thing carelessly or heedlessly. If Mr. Ziegfeld could come to me and say honestly, “I’m sorry, old man. Now that you have called my attention to it, I can see it is a mother song; but, on the level, when we were rehearsing it, I give you my word, I thought it was a trick cycling act or performing dogs or something,” I would be the first to let bygones be bygones. But I met Mr. Ziegfeld about a week before the Follies opened in Atlantic City, and his manner was furtive: he avoided my eye. I remember saying to myself at the time, “That man has the air of one who has a song about Dear Old Mother tucked away somewhere on his person.” I dismissed the thought as unworthy. Conceive my pique, chagrin, and exasperation, therefore, when the gray-haired old totterer slid out from the wings on the O. P. side and goggled up into the face of the baritone, while he sang:
For I must tum-tum-tum-tum-tumty,
But I’ll come back to you, mother dear.”
or words to that effect. However, enough of a sad subj.
IT is my pleasing task to announce that this year’s Follies is almost up to the level of the Follies of the year before last and a good deal better than last season’s entertainment. As usual, Bert Williams is poorly supplied with material; but he must be getting so used to that by this time that, if you handed him a really funny scene, he would be as startled as a native of Berlin who was suddenly confronted with a genuine ham sandwich instead of his customary two ounces of pink blotting-paper and cement. He has a good song, anyway, written by Ring Lardner, who puts them over the plate as deftly in verse as in prose. As far as the comedians were concerned, the new importation from the Amsterdam Roof, Eddie Cantor, walked away with the show. He is the best thing that has happened along in many seasons, and could give Al Jolson a run for his money. He sings his song as well as he used to sing “It’s a Wonderful Place” on the Roof. Walter Catlett is another newcomer who will go far. He has, in fact, already done so, for he came here from San Francisco. He has two good scenes. Will Rogers, the old reliable, who always pops up somewhere in every show one goes to see, is as good as always; and W. C. Fields not only juggled with the aplomb and dexterity which have caused so many heavy drinkers to hit the trail under the impression that their eyesight was playing them tricks, but—for the first time, I believe, on record, he bursts into speech. I had always looked on him as one of those strong, silent men who could contribute little to a friendly chat beyond throwing a billiard ball into the air and catching it on his left ankle; but now, indeed, he has developed into a perfect babbler.
And so, briefly alluding to Fanny Brice—excellent as ever—and Urban’s scenery, let us dismiss the 1917 Follies as all right, and pass on down the street to “Hitchy-Koo,” at the Cohan and Harris (not to be confused with the Cohan or the Harris).
THE best argument in support of the statement that “Hitchy-Koo” is a very fine evening’s entertainment is the fact that, on the night I went to see it, the audience was glued to its seat at half-past eleven and seemed perfectly willing to remain there indefinitely. And it is a recognized theatrical axiom that you cannot hold an audience later than five minutes past eleven. Indeed, as a rule, the hat-groper begins to grope at about five minutes to the hour. But “Hitchy-Koo” seemed to exercise a spell which held both the late-supperer (vividly alive to the fact that restaurants now close at one) and the commuter (still more vividly alive to the fact that the last train waits for no man) motionless. Goodness knows how many digestions and homes the review has wrecked by this time. In fairness to both the metropolitan and suburban sections of the public, the management (which is—for the first time in his career—Mr. Hitchcock himself) ought to cut something out of the show and give people a chance to get away at a reasonable hour.
A BEGINNING might be made with that “Watching the Ducks Go By” song, which not even Frances White can make very entertaining. We nearly got that song wished on us for “Oh, Boy” at a moment when the local talent was beginning to find the strain too much for the old bean and had sent out a hurry-call for extraneous reinforcements, and, hearing it in “Hitchy-Koo,” I was thankful that they had got the oxygen to work on us in time to enable us to turn out something of our own after all. This, I believe, is the only remaining fragment of the English review “Some,” from the ashes of which “Hitchy-Koo” arose like the well-press-agented Phœnix. The entertainment would be better without it. Another ruthless cut might be made in the Ghost scene. But how else the management can shorten the piece without losing something good, I do not know.
“HITCHY-KOO” is certainly the best review which New York has seen in many years. Mr. Hitchcock has relied—wisely, in view of the fact that he is competing with the Follies—on cleverness rather than splendor. There are no gorgeous scenic effects, and the whole entertainment maintains that fascinating note of intimacy which is struck by the manager-star in the first minute of the evening, when he rises in the front row of the orchestra chairs and proceeds to harangue the audience as man to man, till Leon Errol appears in the stage box and announces that he is holding up the show. After which the curtain rises, and the entertainment opens with a finale.
Raymond Hitchcock is, of course, the backbone of “Hitchy-Koo.” If ever there was a man shaped by destiny for the single end of appearing in intimate review, it is Hitchcock. His dry humor crackles across the footlights. He is irresistible.
Frances White achieves the triumph of her meteoric career. Never before has she had such scope for her versatility. With the exception of Elsie Janis, there is no review actress in her class. One of these days someone will write a musical comedy round her, and she will make the biggest hit on record.