Public Domain Texts

National Institutions

Ainslee’s, September 1920

All's practically well with the world: the Follies has had its presentation. Once again, on a moonlit midsummer's evening, the diligent Mr. Ziegfeld obliged with his annual expected theatrical offspring, and, judging by the advance sales, both are doing perfectly splendidly. Nightly, the cheering citizens wedge themselves into the New Amsterdam Theatre to pay tribute--and four dollars and forty cents apiece-to the most widely advertised of our national institutions, the only dangerous rival of baseball and profiteering as an all-American sport. For the sake of the rhetorical effect, let us repeat that the Follies has had its presentation. The great event has crashed into civic history, and the local nervous strain is again down to normal. Now, at last, we can sit restfully back and call it a season.

This year's Follies is in the nature of a dancing carnival. Terpsichore, who, it is safe to say, is the only one of the muses who has never been heard of on Broadway, where, by the way, they pronounce her name to rhyme with “more” — Terpsichore heads the list of Follies patronesses. Those muses who preside so efficiently over song and comedy I should be only too glad to mention names and give the girls a little publicity, but someone has borrowed the “Mus to Nal” volume of our encyclopedia, and I'm practically helpless without it-must have been away for the weekend while the entertainment was in the process of construction.

The songs are of the “love” and “kissed by moonlight from above,” and “her style is neater, her smile is sweeter" school of lyrics, set to tunes strikingly like those contained in “A Garland of Pianoforte Pieces for Ten Busy Little Fingers.” Last season, the Follies supplied a generous percentage of the most popular numbers in the repertoires of the local orchestras, but this year none of the songs can be retained even long enough to be whistled under the next morning's shower. Irving Berlin, it is true, has done an amusing syncopated scene and an effective finale, but neither contains any strain that will strive you to reproduce, by ear, on the living-room upright.

Even Eddie Cantor, who makes a brief appearance in the last act, succumbs to the prevailing influence and renders two notably poisonous selections, in particular a burlesque Spanish song. Some day somebody will revise the penal code to include all those writing burlesque Spanish songs, and then this country will be the greatest one on earth.

Well, anyway, a few good songs would undoubtedly help the show along greatly-not, of course, that the Follies needs or has ever needed any help, but just to give the audience something to remember the evening by.

But, as for the dancing, that is indubitably something else again. Carl Randall, who is so mercifully unlike the usual male ingénue of the revue stage, dances amazingly and does it as if it were really no trouble at all, and Mary Eaton improves on the hit she made last year as a dancer in The Royal Vagabond. She has taken to singing, also, this season. Well, it was, I suppose, to be expected; so many of our prominent feminine dancers seem to have a curious prima-donna complex. Miss Eaton's voice is the usual ballroom soprano.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the evening is the eccentric dancing of Jack Donahue, whose name had had little or no publicity in connection with the entertainment, but who carried off the majority of the honors. He proved to be, as you might say, the Harding of the occasion. Bernard Granville, though he has, unfortunately, little dancing to do, still throws in an odd step here or there, and the more strenuous member of a team called Moran and Mack contributes some acrobatic dancing, mostly done on his shoulder blades. The Follies is, in short, a sort of Terpsichorean field day.

The local press worked itself up considerably, in the advance notices, over the fact that James Montgomery was doing the book for the Follies, but it develops that there was nothing in that for anyone to run a temperature about. Writing a book for the Follies seems to be about as profitable an occupation as furnishing flannel petticoats for the showgirls. The management's method of procedure is evidently to hire some well-known man to write the book, and then, as soon as it is written, to give it away to some deserving family, and go out and engage an assortment of specialty acts.

There remains in the finished production of the Follies but one scene of Mr. Montgomery's. This is a little thing called “Creation,” treating of the birth of Eve, and employing such characters as “The Slenderness of the Reed,” “The Bloom of the Flower,” and “The Timidity of the Hare.” Undoubtedly, the management had the right idea about the rest of the book, if that was the way it was inclined.

In the line of comedy, fond memory seems softly to whisper that last year's offering had it irrefutably over this season's. True, the current edition has an enormously funny motoring skit, with W. C. Fields, Fanny Brice, and Ray Dooley, and there are several songs sung by the invaluable Miss Brice. She is, in fact, the bright light of the show, and when she leaves the stage it is almost more than one can do to keep from shedding tears. But her scenes are pitiably few, and there is not much else to laugh at. Bert Williams' absence is painfully conspicuous.

Ray Dooley and Charles Winninger have but little to be funny about, and a team of black-faced comedians has even less, although they do not appear to realize it. Van and Schenck put their songs over so skillfully that it isn't until their act is all done that you realize what extremely indifferent songs they are. Now, when John Steel is singing, on the other hand, you are never fooled for a moment.

But, of course, all this is beside the issue, as the saying goes. The real point of the production, as it is of every Follies, is the girls. And the girls are there in luxuriant profusion, not, perhaps, so much in evidence as in former seasons; not, certainly so flatteringly equipped as to costumes and Urban backgrounds as of late years; and not, unfortunately, rising above the absence of Marilyn Miller, the Fairbanks twins, and Dolores, but still undeniably there, in all senses of the word. So the success of The Follies of 1920 may be set down as complete.

The Scandals of 1920, produced by George White at the Globe Theatre, is the second annual installment of what shows every sign of becoming another national institution. Mr. White's offering shows him to be a young man of almost Ziegfeldian accuracy in the choice of girls and settings, and of prettily childlike naïveté in his selection of humorous scenes. While one does not quite like to go so far as to proclaim that the Scandals contains some of the first jokes ever written, it is surely not overstating the case to say it contains a goodly quota of the second-known batch. William Jennings Bryan, rent profiteering, the Mexican situation, and prohibition are satirized with much the same subtlety that characterizes the work of the Hippodrome troupe of trick elephants.

Of course, humor is all in the eye of the beholder, and it would doubtless be an ever rougher world than it is at present if we all laughed at the same things; nevertheless, it sometimes seems to me that if I have to hear one more joke on near-beer, I would just as soon end it all then and there. I was once as good as sold on the eighteenth amendment, but now that I have seen what it has done to our stage, I cannot help wondering if, after all, there has not been a terrible mistake.

But this, it seems, is just a personal bias, for the Scandals audiences practically have to be carried from the theatre, so limp and helpless are they from prolonged laughing over the prohibition wiggeries.

The mainstay of the Scandals is Ann Pennington, dancing indefatigably, also singing, roughly speaking. There is disappointingly little of George White's own dancing, for he appears for only a few minutes at the end. A lady, named, for no obvious reason, La Sylphe, gives her conception of the poetry of motion by lying down on the floor and twining a foot tenderly around her neck.

There is a bevy of energetic comedians, headed by Lou Holtz, a black-faced artist who succeeds in being sustainedly vulgar without once being funny, which is no mean feat. George Bickel is in a bad way for material; whoever wrote his lines, particularly those he delivers while impersonating Bryan, should even now be doing time up the fair, blue Hudson.

A pretty touch is the introduction of four showgirls, wearing, instead of tights, coats of fresh and glistening paint, some of which they smear off with their hands, to show the audience that there is no deception. And yet, there are those who say that the American stage has not advanced artistically!

After the Scandals and the Follies, there is nothing, at the present writing, for the student of the drama but non nonmusical exhibits. Of these, it is a little difficult to speak, owing to the cruel changes that a few brief weeks can work on Broadway. Even now, An Innocent Idea, at the Fulton, is in a serious condition; while there is an ominous pallor about The Fall and Rise of Susan Lenox, at the Forty-fourth Street Theatre. There are grave indications that, by the time the magazine comes out, they are liable to be but memories. Perhaps, indeed, it would be safe to write about them in the past tense.

An Innocent Idea started out as if it were going to be a big evening. But, early in the second act, something seemed to slip, and from then on the suffering was intense. Martin Brown, the author, began to burlesque the bedroom farces, but, before he was fairly started, evidently tired of the idea and just wrote down anything that came into his head. The result is sort of a dramatized bad dream, with people rushing madly about, shouting, slamming doors, getting into wrong beds, climbing through windows, misplacing their outer clothes, and then abruptly disappearing and giving place to an assortment of unexplained other people, who go through the same maneuvers. Robert Emmett Keane leads the cast in its hysterical dash through the piece.

The Fall and Rise of Susan Lenox was, according to the program, dramatized by George Hobart from the book by the late David Graham Phillips. One is deeply indebted to the program for this information, for otherwise one would never have known. Mr. Hobart has discarded everything about the novel but its name, only using that, doubtless, for the prestige it attained through the book's having been banned by the public libraries.

It might seem a bit free, to take the name of a deeply earnest, though perhaps somewhat tiresome, book by a dead man, and calmly attach it to an entirely foreign dramatic opus; but it is evidently considered by Mr. Hobart to be all in a day's work. His play resolves itself into a series of extraordinarily hackneyed episodes in the extraordinarily persecuted life of an extraordinarily virtuous heroine, played by an extraordinarily poor company.

It is a little brighter to turn toward the Playhouse, which shelters Seeing Things, the farce by Margaret Mayo and Aubrey Kennedy, but the brightness is by no means dazzling. It may be that the fault lies in a defective notion of the truly humorous, yet it does seem as if the suffering of the young husband who believes his wife to have been drowned is not the most uproarious of spectacles. However, this is doubtless captious; most of the audience considered the idea a perfectly screaming one. That the lines seem to be a trifle flat is no drawback whatever.

Frank McIntyre is the leading comedian, and devotees of Frank McIntyre, like those of all other stout comedians, do not consider it necessary for him to be supplied with amusing lines. They laugh loyally at whatever he says, even before he has finished saying it. The cast includes John Westley and Dorothy MacKaye.

There is a delicate air about the attraction now at the Thirtyninth Street Theatre, and I fear that it is not long for this world. Deborah Bierne's Irish Players are there, dispensing anti-British propaganda, in the form of three one-act plays. It seems that the Irish Players started out at the Provincetown Theatre, that miniature playhouse that was made from an old stable — I forget what they did to remodel it; I think they just put in an extra stall, to serve as the stage. Then part of the company then got ambitious, left the rest downtown, and came up to the white-light district. Now, almost anything that can be crowded under the head of acting goes, down in the Provincetown Playhouse. But when the players appear in a regular theatre, somehow it does not seem so refreshingly quaint for them to have learned by heart approximately one speech in each play, and to have to interrupt their rôles standing almost in the wings, repeating each line word for word after the prompter.

The three playlets are A Minute's Wait, Lady Gregory's The Rising of the Moon, and Shaw's O'Flaherty, V.C. The last named, it appears, was suppressed by the British government. The government must have had a clairvoyant vision of what the acting was going to be like.

But when all's said and done, a great and noble work is being done by the Irish Players. I can think of nothing that would so quickly convert one into a rampant Anglophile as an evening spent in witnessing their efforts.