Vanity Fair, December 1917
Fred Stone and a Few Others
Jack O’Lantern and Other Dramatic Successes—and Failures
By P. G. WODEHOUSE
A WEEKLY paper with a taste for morbid statistics has just printed a list of this season’s theatrical failures; and it fills about a quarter of a column of close type. Every theatrical season always seems the worst on record, but there surely must have been more out-and-out frosts this year than ever before. Forty-eighth Street, for instance, is so thick with the ghosts of dead plays that traffic is impeded. It is only fair, then, by way of compensation, that Fred Stone’s periodical appearance in New York should have taken place this season, and that his present vehicle, Jack O’Lantern, should be the greatest success he has ever had. Fred Stone is unique.
In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything. And why? (I’m glad you asked me that, dearie.) Because he takes trouble and learns how to do things. Four months ago, for example, he did not know how to skate. In Jack O’Lantern he does a skating specialty which is admitted to be as good as anything even Charlotte ever did. If some of our slack actors had a little of his industry, there would be fewer failures.
Suppose the hero of “Branded” had been able to ride a bicycle up the side of a house and through a window and had made his exits in that way, the piece would be running still. Suppose “The Barton Mystery” had contained a character capable of jumping half-way up a tree, turning a somersault, and flying backward over the heads of the pursuing police, what a run it would have had. It is just because Fred Stone takes the trouble to acquire these obvious little social accomplishments (which should be mere commonplaces of everyday life to all of us) that the ticket speculators buy two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of tickets in advance whenever he is in town. I raise the Wodehouse hat (owing to the increased cost of living, the same brown one I had last year) to Fred Stone.
JACK O’LANTERN is not a dramatic masterpiece. It is one of those pieces where the villain of the first act wanders on as the Good Old Man of Act Two; but it would be idle to deny that it is a rip-snorter of a show. Ivan Caryll’s music is delightful, and the Sunshine Girls and the Brown Brothers are alone worth the price of admission. My only complaint is that the structure of the entertainment makes it impossible for Allene Crater, who in the little bit she does shows herself one of the most refreshing comediennes on the musical stage, to have a really good part. In my rambles through theatre-land I can remember coming across none except Anna Wheaton with her gift of getting a line across the footlights.
It was George Ade who, meeting a friend on the opening night of one of the Ade-Stone-Montgomery pieces and being asked how the show was doing, replied that it was a success, provided Stone’s legs held out. The same comment applies to Jack O’Lantern. If nothing goes wrong with Stone’s legs, it will run forever.
PRODUCED within a few days of Jack O’Lantern, Chu Chin Chow, the stupendous spectacle at the Manhattan Opera House, added another to the slim list of the season’s big successes. Chu Chin Chow is our old friend The Forty Thieves, that stand-by of the London Christmas pantomime managers, treated as a melodrama, which it always was in its original form. Fred Stone, who has done Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Babes in the Wood, was probably saving up The Forty Thieves for treatment later, but Messrs. Elliott, Comstock, and Gest have got ahead of him. Chu Chin Chow relies for success partly on its story, which, handled as a straight, romantic drama of the East, is always interesting—but principally on its gorgeous production, which excels everything in its line up to the moment of going to press.
Lyall Swete, who came over from London to look after the staging, has done a mammoth job. How the piece compares with the London production, which is still running, it is impossible to say. Tyrone Power probably breaks even with Oscar Ashe in the name part: Florence Reed, I am prepared to wager vast sums, is greatly superior to Lily Brayton:—her performance of Zahrat-Al-Kulub, the slave from the Desert, is wonderful: but, on the other hand, Courtice Pounds, the London Ali Baba, must be a million times better than Henry Dixey. A good deal of the singing falls to Ali Baba, and Mr. Dixey has one of those singing-voices which only a mother could love.
One of the best bits in the play is the Bostan of Miss Matty Thomas. And there is a camel, whose name is not on the programme, who made a solid individual hit on the opening night,—especially with me. To come from the Century rehearsals and see someone who was content to walk on and off in dignified silence was a wonderful tonic. The more I have to do with the theatre, the more convinced I become of the superiority of animal actors to the human—or shall we say the semi-human?—variety.
Take the Century show, for instance. With the exception of Elizabeth Brice, Marion Davies, Charles King, Andrew Tombes, and Harry Kelly, the only individual who has not at some period of the proceedings kicked like a steer is Harry Kelly’s dog, Lizzie. She has not a line to speak, and yet—such is her sweet disposition—she has never once threatened to walk out on us. And her salary is only six bones a week.
AN austere friend of mine, who prides himself on being a good citizen, disapproves of “Tiger Rose” (another of the season’s successes, and one of the celebrated Rose sisters, Tiger and Rambler) on the ground that the Arm of the Law is frustrated by a criminal, purely because the criminal happens to be the hero. He is collecting money to put on a crook melodrama which shall end abruptly somewhere in the middle of act two with the hero’s electrocution,—or, rather, of the villain’s electrocution, for the real hero will be the brutal police officer.
It strikes one as an excellent idea. We go to the theatre and applaud till our hands are sore when the crook baffles the policeman: yet, when our spoons are stolen in real life, we turn right around and urge the Force to do its worst. It is a curious thing that the modern drama should be based almost entirely on the theory that a yeggman is a dear, good chap deserving sympathy and encouragement, and that the only possible villain is the policeman.
Tiger Rose is a brisk melodrama, smartened up by every ingenious trick from the Belasco armory, and contains a notable thunder and rain-storm, so realistic that rheumatic spectators have to be helped out at the end of the performance by the gentlemanly ushers, while even the hardiest member of the audience instinctively turns up his coat-collar. Lenore Ulric (who has dropped the “h” from her name and feels much easier now) is admirable as the heroine.
HAVE you ever been distressed and mortified at the unexpected refusal of your dog to accept the proffered morsel? You are enjoying a quiet meal when your dog intimates by every means at his disposal that he wishes to come in on the ground floor. You give him a bit of the delicacy which you are consuming, and he sniffs at it and then turns away with an expression on his face as if you had wounded him in his finest feelings, leaving you annoyed and disappointed. Just so do theatrical managers feel when the fickle public, which has been pawing and whining at them for some particular brand of entertainment, turns away when it is given to them and leaves it untouched. After the success of Polyanna, that syrupy chunk of theatrical nutriment, wouldn’t any manager have been justified in assuming that what the public wanted was sugar in unlimited quantities?
But since Polyanna, theatre-goers have apparently undergone a change of taste; for, when Mother Carey’s Chickens, fully as glutinous in every respect as its illustrious predecessor, came along at the Cort, they just sniffed at it and let it lie. These are the mysteries of the New York theatre, and it is the hopeless task of trying to guess ahead what will or will not hit the mark that makes managers pick at the coverlet and cry if anyone speaks sharply to them.
Next year, probably, the outstanding success of the season will be a piece which spreads sweetness and light thicker than ever before. The only way to make steady money out of the theatre is to get a job as a stage-door man.
AUGUST farce invaded the stage in October, when Here Comes The Bride was produced at the George M. Cohan Theatre. It is a rowdy, jovial piece, with Maud Eburne in one of those parts which she plays better than any other character-woman in existence. It is full of laughs, and seems to have settled down for a long run. Max Marcin is one of the authors,—he who was part-author of Eyes of Youth. I merely mention this in order to have an excuse for pointing out that Eyes of Youth, as I predicted, has built up slowly but surely into a real hit. I am called Archibald the All-Right, for I am infallible. Don’t pay any attention to what the other fellows say. Look at the way they swatted The Riviera Girl. Absurd, what?
HAVING dealt with the successes, let us now cast our eye on the melancholy cortege of the failures. A horrid spectacle. Branded, The Barton Mystery, The Land of the Free, The Claim, and many more,—some dead, some clinging to life by a cut-rate thread. Saturday To Monday has expired. Romance and Arabella looks shaky. Eve’s Daughter is a child that can scarcely be raised, unless Miss Grace George’s prestige is enough to pull it through. Many, many potential Liberty Bonds have vanished as the result of too much optimism on the part of theatrical managers. Many, many a producer will feel the bitter irony of being advised to do his Christmas shopping early.