Vanity Fair, February 1918
The Trials of a Hard Winter
An Honest Attempt To Boyscout Some of the Midseason Theatricals
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
I SOMETIMES think that one of the most enviable people in this tough world is the dramatic critic of the Evening Journal. Nothing daunts that boy. He sees sweetness and light in everything. He has a knack of being easily pleased, which must make his job a perfect bed of roses. Every play that comes under his notice he describes as a smashing hit, and, if one had nothing else but his opinion and the advertisements in the Sunday papers to go by, one would imagine that the poor old Drama was whizzing along like a two-year-old instead of having stubbed its toe on the worst snag of its career. I seem to see the Journal critic walking home on air after the premiere of “Good Morning, Rosamund.” “This is the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen!” he chortles to himself. “I must go and see this every night for weeks. This is certainly the high spot of the dramatic year.” But, lo! a few brief days go by and Mr. Cain is instructing his corps of assistants to shove “Good Morning, Rosamund” into vault No. 27498573 of his well-known storehouse. Does this depress his buoyant soul? Not a bit of it. Next week another masterpiece comes along, every bit as good. When I think of the fun he must have had this season, with a new play produced nearly every night, I only wish I could borrow his rose-colored spectacles.
FOR it is my opinion that what is wrong with the present theatrical season is not the War or the Tax or the Weather or the Movies or the fact that Sister Susie is knitting socks for soldiers instead of rolling up to the Wednesday matinee, but the poor quality of the plays presented. I hold stoutly to the belief that, war or no war, the public will go to see a good play; and my faith would seem to be justified by the success of “The Gypsy Trail” at the Plymouth. There was no earthly reason why people should have decided to spend their good money on seats for “The Gypsy Trail” beyond the reason that it possessed charm, atmosphere, humor, and interest. It contains no star. It is not intensely dramatic. Its author, Lawrence Housum, is not only an unknown man, but is suspected of having lived in Cleveland. But, because of its freshness and pleasantness, it has succeeded at a moment when every Gloomy Gus along the Rialto was prophesying that there would never be another success till the war was over.
THERE is something Winchell-Smithian about “The Gypsy Trail.” Mr. Housum has discovered Mr. Smith’s secret of taking old stuff and freshening it up almost beyond recognition. The breezy, open-air loving young man, the romantic girl, the millionaire father—all these have been seen before;—in fact, the line-up in Douglas Fairbanks’ last play, “He Comes Up Smiling,” was almost identical with the formation of Mr. Housum’s team. But, just as there was nothing new in “Turn To the Right” except the personal touch of the author, so does the old stuff cease to be old through the author’s treatment of “The Gypsy Trail.”
It is a treat nowadays to see a perfect cast. “The Gypsy Trail” has the good fortune to possess one. Nobody could play the two juvenile parts better than Ernest Glendinning and Roland Young, and Phoebe Foster, as the heroine, and Effie Ellsler as the grandmother are supreme; while, in a part that is not showy but must be well played if the balance of the play is to be held successfully, Robert Cummings lets nothing get by him. The tout ensemble, in fact, as we say in Paris, is just right; and the touter it gets as the performance goes on, the ensembler it becomes.
IN a way, the arrival of a new dramatist who shows all the signs of being a good right and left hand writer is an occasion for rejoicing; but we have been “had” so often in this particular direction that we have become wary. Where are the second plays of all those bright young men who lined out three-baggers on first coming to the bat? Where is Elmer Reizenstein’s second “On Trial” or Carlyle Moore’s sequel to “Stop Thief!”? It is an axiom among literary critics that what counts is a writer’s third novel. In other words, if he has real stuff in him, he must be able to stay the course. The indications are that Lawrence Housum has the right shape of head. We shall await his next with timid hope.
WHILE we are waiting, let us cast an eye on some of the other plays of the moment. I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed “Blind Youth” and thought that Lou Tellegen had at last got a part which gave him a chance to show what a great actor he is. The Latin Quarter act is the best of the three; though the third, in spite of its thrills being rather machine-made, holds up well to within a minute of the final curtain. It would be an easy thing to fix that last minute; and it should be done at once. My suggestion is that the mother be restrained—forcibly, if necessary—from saying “My son!” before falling into the clinch. The words are not needed, and they make people laugh. It would be far better to end with a genuine laugh-line, so as to hit the comedy note at the finish. Of course, what is really needed is to bring Mark Smith on somehow—he gives one of the most delightful performances of the season as the American art-student—to roll his eyes at everybody. I give the suggestion gratis. I am a Boy Scout, and that is my act of kindness for today.
“YES OR NO” at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre—it is a lion-hearted thing to produce a play these days at the Forty-eighth Street Theatre, so heaped has it been with the bodies of the slain—is one of those freak things, constructed very much in the manner of a sketch which Alan Brooks does in vaudeville, where the stage is divided into three parts, representing three different houses in which the action proceeds more or less simultaneously. In “Yes or No,” one side of the stage shows an aristocratic home, the other a room in a tenement house, and the action pops from one to the other and back again rather in the manner of a Californian jack-rabbit crossing its native prairie. It must have been a bit of a shock to first-nighters who had been stocking up against the advent of prohibition; but, once you get used to it, it is quite entertaining. It may, moreover, provide a solution for the theatrical slump. Managers in future may fire on us with double-barrel guns, giving us two plays in the same evening. With a little ingenuity, the system could be worked so as to minimize the chances of failure. If you saw that the audience were getting bored with the play on the prompt side, you could switch that one off and concentrate on the sure-fire hit on the O. P. side. It’s a good idea, and would do much to alleviate the suffering among our starving managers.
OF “Flo-Flo” at the Cort, Louis Sherwin says, “The quality that pervades it is a leering, fleering, smirking, eye-to-the-keyhole suggestiveness.” I do not think I can add anything to his verdict.
“Words and Music,” under the management of Raymond Hitchcock and his partner, Ray Goetz, opened at the Fulton, a day late after a false start. It will not be another “Hitchy-Koo.” There is a world of difference between a revue that is “presented by” Hitchcock and one that contains that king of revue-artists. I think I had better do my tomorrow’s act of kindness now by recommending Mr. Hitchcock not to risk his good money on any revue in which he cannot manage to appear personally. Revue is a pretty ghastly form of entertainment, anyway, with its minutes of brightness sandwiched in between quarters of an hour of depression, and the fewer we have, the better. The best thing in “Words and Music,” which starts off in its first scene as if it were going to be really clever and then sinks into a Slough of Despond, is Marion Davies. One peevish critic complained that all she did was to swing her left foot. I hold that there is vastly more entertainment in watching Marion Davies swing her left foot than in seeing the Dooley Brothers tumble on their spines. The chief Great Thought For Today to be derived from “Words and Music” is that there is only one Jerome Kern, for nobody else seems capable of writing a real song-hit.
Of “Lord and Lady Algy,” revived in a blaze of triumph with William Faversham, Maxine Elliott, Maclyn Arbuckle, and Irene Fenwick in the cast, not to mention Eva le Gallienne and Florine Arnold as being among those present, more next month.