“People on Sunday”–a film of pre-Nazi Berlin

Have started reading Joseph McBride’s new book, Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge, which naturally led to my watching People on Sunday, a silent film co-directed by Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer (with assists from Curt Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann and Wilder). The easy summary is that it’s mostly about four young people on a sunny day before the Nazis have taken over. It’s worth noting that that the Siodmaks, Ulmer, Wilder and Zinnemann were all Jewish and, having collaborated on this vision of a golden moment in Berlin, were soon to flee to America where they would all find employment (and make a number of classics) in Hollywood.

The heart of the film is a betrayal. A young man meets a young woman on the street and arranges a date with her in a park. She shows up with a blonde friend and he shows up with a friend as well. The young man shifts his attentions to the blonde friend, wanders off with her. Apparently, they have sex in the woods (this is implicit). The young woman suspects something has happened but doesn’t know what to do about it. The four get back to the city. The blonde friend is up for a repeat the following Sunday, but after the young man makes the date, his friend reminds him they have tickets for a soccer match at the same time as the date. Will the young man choose to keep the date or go to the soccer match? The film ends without an answer. But the fact that there is room to speculate says something about the fecklessness of youth, yes?

There is some disagreement about how much Wilder contributed to the script. God knows his later films are filled with betrayals.

Though the bulk of the attention is given to the four, the film also pays a good deal of attention to the activities of others in the park, so the four are seen within the context of the variety of ways Berliners diverted themselves.

I doubt you’re surprised when I say that I couldn’t help wondering about what became of these crowds of frolicking Berliners frolicking during the nightmare of the next 20 years. Who would collaborate with the Nazis, who would be persecuted, who would die in a rotten cause, who would die in a heroic cause, who would survive with honor, who with guilt?

Also, there is a lot of footage of the streets of Berlin, and photos of the town in 1945 attest to the likelihood that few of the blocks seen bustling with shoppers and strollers in the film still stood 15 years later. Watching the film with a knowledge of what was to come lends a poignance to the gaiety onscreen.

According to Wikipedia, the producers of Babylon Berlin ran the film for the company to give them a taste of the demolished world they were going to revive in the series.

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Men in White, Sidney Kingsley, and Ancillary Thoughts

I recently read Sidney Kingsley’s play, Men in White (1933), and last night I watched the 1934 film adaptation directed by Richard Boleslawski. (Interesting that Boleslawski directed the film version of a work that had been directed on Broadway by one of his students, Lee Strasberg.) As was the case with Street Scene, the film is notably shorter than the play on which was based but still is creditable.

What gives Men in White added currency is that one of the female leads dies when an operation can’t rescue her from the consequences of a botched abortion. The word “abortion” isn’t used in the film, of course, but there are enough clues and meaningful looks to know that she got into trouble because she got pregnant. (The play is much more explicit and uses the word.)

Men in White won the Pulitzer Prize and was the offering that finally gave the Group Theater the hit it desperately needed to establish itself. I doubt that it would have much of an impact today because its subject matter–the internal politics of a big city hospital–is now familiar from years of movies and TV shows about doctors. Some of the scenes Kingsley invented for Men in White have been played again and again is these later efforts. (Does the scene in which the idealistic young doctor saves a patient’s life by calling out an older doctor’s error ring a bell?) The suspense-filled sequence of the climactic operation–with hands passing scalpels and machinery going pocketa-pocketa-pocketa–was a novelty when Kingsley thought it up. Now, between E/R and Chicago Med, it’s a trope that invites parody.

But I think it’s worth noting that Kingsley was there first, and not for the first time. Men in White was the result of years of his observing behavior in hospitals. Some years later, he spent more than a year in police stations and came up with Detective Story, which in turn paved the way for Dragnet, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. (He also came up with a play about life in a slum called Dead End, which was made into a dynamite film with Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart.)

Some of Kingsley’s plotting is based on outrageous coincidences. For instance, in Men in White, a young woman is invited to watch her surgeon fiancé operate on the girl who had that abortion because of a one-night stand with, yup, her fiancé. (If I had a nickel for every time that happened …)

But Kingsley had a terrific sense of the ecology of institutions. It turned out that audiences were fascinated by how hospitals worked and Men in White was a hit film. That success led MGM to order a series of movies about an idealistic man of medicine named Dr. Kildare (which in turn was the basis of a hit TV series). Though there are leading characters in Men in White, Dead End and Detective Story, all of these are filled with vivid supporting characters – the doctors who tease each other about being horndogs as one of their patients dies, the street gang of teenagers that prey on the defenseless in the slums (they were called the Dead End Kids and were spun off into their own series of films), and the various thieves and killers cooling their heels as their papers are being processed. All of these people, Kingsley insisted in his work, played their parts in the larger machinery of the systems he examined. (A character identified only as the Shoplifter in Detective Story made such an impression that the actress playing her, Lee Grant, was nominated for an Oscar in the 1951 film version and won the acting prize at Cannes.)

Kingsley was once a brand-name playwright on Broadway. He was held in such high regard by fellow writers that they elected him president of the Dramatists Guild. Today, I’m surprised if any of my playwriting students recognize his name.

He deserves better.

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A Forgotten Play Yields Treasure

One of the pleasures of trawling the depths of the Broadway HD streaming channel is digging up obscurities. Often, they are obscure for good reason. I can’t say that Don Appell’s Lullaby is any great shakes as a piece of dramatic writing. But I can say that it features something rare: a great performance in an underwhelming play.

Lullaby, which had a brief run on Broadway in 1954, is about a truck driver named Johnny who impulsively marries a nightclub cigarette girl called Eadie. He has done so without the knowledge, much less the permission, of his mother (who is billed as “The Mother” in the credits). His mother has plenty of objections, and much of the play is about the warfare for the possession of Johnny’s love and loyalty the two women conduct. (We learn enough about the mother’s backstory to suggest her toughness–her late husband apparently flourished during Prohibition as a bootlegger and she herself can still whip up a mean batch of gin in her bathtub.)

The first chunk of the play, though, takes place before the mother makes her entrance. The setting is a hotel room in Scranton, and the main action (though phrased delicately so as not to offend the morals of the time) is the experienced Eadie’s attempt to lure Johnny (probably a virgin at 38) into bed to get the show on the road. The scene looks impossibly naive and contrived today, but …

I didn’t see the Broadway cast (I was four at the time); the 1960 TV version features Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson as Johnny and Eadie. Wallach is funny and touching, trying to cover his insecurities with bluster and evasions. Anne Jackson is funny and heartbreaking. She glows with sensitivity and understanding (though her patience is not infinite). Her commitment to the character is so intense that I utterly believed that the power of her love held the potential of rescuing Johnny from his immaturity and making a competent adult out of him.

As for the mother … I gather it was quite common for shrinks of the time to blame maladjusted children on hideous, possessive, infantilizing moms. You see versions of her in Bye, Bye Birdie, Marty, The Manchurian Candidate and the famous Nichols and May sketch about the rocket scientist on the phone with his mother. I wonder if this had its roots in the fact that older women in the 1950s, not having access to jobs once child-rearing was done, may have been less willing to relinquish the mothering role than women today. (Of course, today, unlike the 1950s, most women are in the workforce, children or no.) In any case, the mother in this (played by Ruth White) is just short of monstrous in her mendacity and manipulation, suggesting a lack of empathy in the author.

Lullaby is also a bit grating in its condescension to working-class characters. Their grammar is comically lacking and they often stammer wide-eyed, simple-minded platitudes. With Marty and other plays and screenplays, Paddy Chayefsky would do much to invest similar characters with dignity and depth, but Appell was no Chayefsky.

Still, he came up with a character and scenes for Eadie that gave Anne Jackson an opportunity to create a performance that, 61 years later on black-and-white video, took my breath away. This is heroic acting and it’s more than enough reason for me to commend Lullaby to your attention.

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New York Through Kids’ Eyes

One of the benefits of marrying Kristine twelve years ago (July 15 was our anniversary) is that I acquired, with no effort, six grandchildren. Four of them visited us this past week.  Whenever you host visitors, you can’t help but experience your town through their eyes. This visit had the added aspect of urging us out of the isolation that the pandemic imposed on us. Coming up with things for the kids to do meant we had to re-engage the city.

Monday, we went to Operation Escape: End of Days.  We were locked into a room and told that the fate of the earth somehow depended on our solving the puzzles necessary to escape the room. We had one hour. A throbbingly ominous soundtrack began. I joined my mostly younger teammates to do my part. They took off and left me in the dust. I couldn’t figure out one damn thing in the room. They saw patterns and correlations and, with shouts of discovery, went from challenge to challenge with a speed that dazzled. Forty-five minutes later, they placed the last prop in its proper place, completing some kind of magnetic circuit that caused a lock to unlock, and the door sprang open. The attendant told us that 45 minutes was an unusually fast time.  Kristine and I had contributed nothing. But watching four teenagers work enthusiastically towards a common goal made our hearts light.

Tuesday, we went to Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience  located on a pier on the lower east side by the East River. Imagine that Van Gogh’s canvases are eggs. Imagine that someone continuously cracks the eggs to serve them over easy. Imagine that more and more eggs are cracked, so that images from different paintings appear, melt, transform, disappear and are replaced by more images. All this accompanied by passages culled from the popular end of classical music. (Inevitably, one passage sampled was from Mussorgsky/Ravel’s Pictures at an Exhibition.) It didn’t much matter in which of the three rooms one sat, the same images were splashed across all the walls. I don’t know what one gains by blowing them up rather than, say, seeing the program on a nice big monitor, but the time passed pleasantly enough, and my eye was constantly delighted. It couldn’t help but remind me of the episode of Doctor Who in which Van Gogh was whisked via the Tardis to a modern exhibit of his work to enjoy the knowledge that eventually he will be appreciated and celebrated.

Wednesday, we hopped the Staten Island Ferry to a space in the new-to-me Empire Outlet mall by the St. George terminal to see Eyes on New York.  It was a pleasure to be a member of an audience again (though it was a sharp contrast to the last show I saw before the pandemic, Lauren Yee’s harrowing exploration of art and genocide, Cambodian Rock Band). Eyes is presented by the same folks who offered The Ride, a bus ride tricked out with video and soundtrack to accompany a tour of a chunk of Manhattan. Eyes’s most responsive audience I think would also be people visiting the city. (It has little dialogue, so those not fluent in English wouldn’t miss much.) There is a slight premise – an out-of-towner (a clown with a red bow tie carrying a suitcase that won’t stay closed) wants to familiarize himself with the city and meets a few New Yorkers who try to be useful. Is he a tourist or is he here to start a new life? I couldn’t tell. But, aside from references to the subway, Central Park and a bit involving a rat dragging a giant piece of pizza, the show had little to say about New York.

Never mind. The project has pulled together a company with long resumes to sing, dance, contort, and defy gravity. I’m guessing that this project is offering the first chance in a long time for this eclectic group of artists to perform in front of live audiences, and I was delighted to be there to see them return to a public stage. An added pleasure was that the intimacy of the venue gave me a chance to enjoy subtleties of their acts more than I would at a normal circus. I was especially taken by Randy Kato’s mastery of the Cyr Wheel, sometimes bracing himself against the edges of a large hoop with hands and feet as it swooped in circles around the stage (looking like Michaelangelo’s Vitruvian Man, but with clothes on), sometimes dancing in counterpoint to the hoop’s revolutions. A veteran of the Eliot Feld troupe, Kyla Ernst-Alper brought elegance to her aerial routine, and Samantha Greenlund, a veteran of the Moulin Rouge (the Paris club, not the Broadway show), danced with sinuous precision. The grands? They enjoyed it a lot, and then they prowled the outlet mall.

Thursday, we trooped down to SoHo to the Museum of Ice Cream. Silly me, I was expecting to learn something serious about, yes, ice cream. Maybe step into a kitchen where I might be able to put a few different elements together and invent my own new flavor? Instead, it was a tromp up and downstairs to different rooms mostly painted pink, fitted out with different props and backgrounds offering opportunities for people to photograph each other. Every now and then we got a little taste of ice cream. No, I didn’t get the point. Why call something a museum if it isn’t one? I was the grinch in the gang. The kids had fun, snapping photos and goofing around.

And then the kids went back home to Rochester. They seemed to have a good time. I had a good time watching them have a good time.

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From “Crime in the Streets” to “West Side Story”

Watched a clumsy but fascinating film called Crime in the Streets. It started as a 1955 live TV play by Reginald Rose presented by the Elgin Hour, directed by Sidney Lumet. A young John Cassavetes starred as Frankie, a member of a street gang called the Hornets. Robert Preston was featured as an idealistic social worker who tries to reform him. Reginald Rose, the writer, is best known for writing 12 Angry Men for TV and film and helping to create the TV series, The Defenders. Not being able to find a recording of TV version of Crime in the Streets, I can’t comment on his original script, but clearly there was something there that attracted interest in expanding it into a film.  Perhaps the success of Rebel Without a Cause attracted interest in pursuing the trend of pictures about juvenile delinquents.  (Anybody remember Jerry Lewis’s The Delicate Delinquent?)  The connection would be made explicit by casting Sal Mineo, one of the stars of Rebel, as a similarly conflicted young man in Crime.
 
Originally, Lumet was going to make his feature debut with the film version of Crime, but he got sidetracked, and he later had the good fortune to make his feature debut instead with Rose’s 12 Angry Men.  Somehow, Don Siegel became attached as the new director. Siegel at his best (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Line-Up and The Beguiled) was a muscular, straightforward storyteller. But, despite some strong staging and camera work, he couldn’t overcome the preachiness of Rose’s screenplay. Cassevetes played Frankie again. Robert Preston, otherwise occupied when it came time to film was replaced by James Whitmore, who was stuck with the worst of the moralizing.
 
The set design is more interesting than the text. Siegel had one huge set built to convey the world of Frankie — a street, stores, an alley, fire escapes, Frankie’s apartment. (It couldn’t help but remind me of the settings of the film version of Elmer Rice’s Street Scene and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, both of which also dealt with crime in tenements packed with the poor.) With the exception of a few shots at the beginning, the entire film was shot on this set, and we get to know it in detail.
 
The script is awkward, earnest, clunky. What I found most interesting is how scenes from this resembled scenes in West Side Story. There is an extended passage in which the members of the Hornets mock the social workers who want to help them. You expect them to break into “Officer Krupke.”  The actor who on TV played a gang member called Glasses (because, yes, he wore glasses) was David Winters. Soon after, Winters played Baby John in the original stage production of West Side Story, and later played A-Rab in the film. I can’t imagine the resemblance of these scenes escaped him.
 
Also in the cast of both the TV and film versions was Mark Rydell, who later became a director who made some very good films indeed.  And, of course, Cassavetes wrote and directed some of the key American independent films.
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Ride Share

In 1992, a former cab driver named Will Kern drew on his experience to whip up a bracing entertainment called Hellcab. An actor played the driver and an ensemble of six played something in the neighborhood of 30 passengers who occupied the back seat during one shift on Christmas Eve. It didn’t pretend to be a comprehensive portrait of Chicago, but an awful lot of contrasting humanity passed through that vehicle. The scenes ranged from farce to near-tragedy. The constant was the driver, professionally required to be disengaged but with a persistently stirring moral sensibility that drew him to sometimes cross the line. The driver in Hellcab was nameless and we had no sense of his history.

Almost thirty years later, playwright Reginald Edmund offers us Ride Share. There are points of comparison. Like Kern, Edmund draws on personal experience driving Chicagoland (though not in a cab but in his own car as part of the gig economy), and again, we encounter a stream of characters. Except that we encounter the characters as seen from the perspective of the driver. And the driver has a name, Marcus. He also has a history. He was a Black executive and was accustomed to throwing his money around (he spent $85,000 on his wedding). Suddenly and brutally laid off, he finds he has no choice but to begin driving just to bring something in. So his perspective of the passengers is informed not only by his former privilege but his current exile from the world in which he used to flourish. Inevitably, because he is a Black man and many of his fares are white, issues of race arise. If Hellcab’s driver was a lens through which we saw a variety of characters, Ride Share’s focus is on Marcus and on how a sudden shift in status makes him question the assumptions of his life and tempt him to behave in ways that would have previously been unimaginable.

It’s a solo piece performed by Kamal Angelo Bolden in a video production directed by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway. In some respects, it resembles the extraordinary series of solo pieces for the camera Alan Bennett wrote called Talking Heads, pieces in which, although characters confided in us with candor, we in the audience frequently arrived at quite different evaluations of the action than they offered. Many of the characters in Bennett’s collection were aging ladies who mostly were discovered sitting. Marcus is younger and more kinetic. Though he clocks a certain amount of time in the front seat of his car, he also dances and glides and, at one point, leaps onto the roof of his car. Hodge-Dallaway’s camera captures it all, but maintains a sufficient distance that we never give up our own perspective to Marcus. We are sympathetic to his outrage, but we hope that it will not lead him to the self-destruction he flirts with.

During the pandemic, many theaters found ways to employ video technology to keep telling stories. It will be a relief to return to real spaces, of course, but I expect that, having tasted the artistic possibilities of video, we will see a stream of projects from these companies designed to bring theatrically-rooted projects to audiences who would be unlikely to visit them in person. Aside from its own considerable value, Ride Share offers a tantalizing preview of what might come. Back in the 1950s, during what has been termed the Golden Age of TV Drama, the constant stream of original plays from the Philco Playhouse, Playhouse 90 and the like often showcased the first drafts of projects that went on to be developed for stage and/or screen (eg, The Trip to Bountiful, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Days of Wine and Roses, Marty, The Miracle Worker, etc.). I hope that video theater might turn into a similar ground for the development of new works. There is certainly a potential film in Ride Share.

 

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Living Up to the Dream

I’m close to the end of Bauhaus – A New Era, a German TV miniseries that tells a story of Walter Gropius and his relationship with a student, Dörte Helm, against the background of the arts school Gropius founded in Weimar after WWI. It’s currently running on MHZ Choice, a streaming channel that features foreign-language TV. (MHZ is also the home of two great French series, a cop show set in Paris called Spiral and a series about the German occupation of France during WWII called A French Village.)

Gropius started the Bauhaus with a declaration that it would be a school for and a community of artists. He wanted to pioneer new artistic ideas to respond to the twentieth century. He also announced that there would be no discrimination between men and women.

He indeed founded the school and the influence of much of the work that came out of it surrounds most of us who live in cities today, as Tom Wolfe wrote in his controversial indictment of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House.

Part of the point of the series (created and directed by Lars Kraume) is that it was one thing for Gropius to articulate noble ideals and another for him to start his school and another to keep it open in the face of conservative critics who could influence the funding. So, yes, Gropius fell short. But, the Bauhaus movement accomplished much.

Artists have a habit of proclaiming their ideals. They then tend to be worked over when they fall short of their ideals. Lin-Manuel Miranda is being worked over for aspects of In the Heights and Hamilton. This couldn’t help but remind me of J.K. Rowling, who has used much of the fortune she made from her Harry Potter books to subsidize organizations to combat poverty and violence against women and promote literacy. Lately she has been under attack from former friends for opinions she has published regarding gender politics.

This reminds me of Alan Ehrenhalt’s 2001 essay in the NY Times, “Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues.”  He suggests that there are different kinds of hypocrites.  One kind is the person who doesn’t believe what they proclaim and makes statements strictly out of self-interest.  Ehrenhalt cites Senator Joseph McCarthy as a model of this sort of bad hypocrite.  And then there are the people whose actions sometimes belie their ideals.  He cites 19th century British prime minister William E. Gladstone as a good hypocrite.  I won’t explain why because I prefer you to read Ehrenhalt’s article for yourself.

Part of Ehrenhalt’s thesis is that people who fall short and berate themselves for falling short often are the ones most motivated to redouble their efforts and do notable and useful things.  Flail them too severely when they fail and we may discourage their continued efforts, and society will be the poorer.

 

 

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Hemingway

I think the first time I became aware of Ernest Hemingway was in the wake of his death. In 1961, my dad took me by L to the Bryn Mawr, a discount movie theater on Chicago’s north side, to see a reissue of Gone With the Wind. I guess I had just turned eleven. I was already a movie enthusiast, but I remember thinking GTTW tedious. (I haven’t watched it since.) We were on our way to the stairs up to the L to take us home to Evanston when my dad saw a headline on a paper on the newsstand by the doors to the station. I can’t remember the exact words, but the essence was that Hemingway was dead.

My dad was pretty quiet as we climbed the stairs. I may have asked about that, and I think he may have said that Hemingway was a writer who had written a lot of stuff he liked.

Later, I saw some of my father’s early attempts at short stories and the Hemingway influence was palpable. (He chose not to pursue writing fiction. He put all his attention to writing PR for universities and supporting his family. Since I was in that family, I appreciated that.)

My dad would not have been mistaken for striking a Hemingwayesque kind of figure. Thin, balding, kind but not given to expressing his emotions. He had a suspicion of people who strutted and postured (which Hemingway did compulsively). Some of this, I’m guessing, had to do with experiences in the army during WWII where he saw lots of bullies and moral idiots pushing around people who didn’t have the rank to stand up to them. (He did a number of things in the army, including typing transcripts of courts martial, writing for papers distributed to those in the service, a little translating while in France. He saw no combat, but after the war was stationed in a French town and was shocked and scarred by the violence some of the French took on each other to settle wartime scores.)

But I could see a connection between him and the writer he admired. Hemingway may have often been a gasbag in person, especially when he had too much to drink or was hitting on a woman, but the best of his writing reflects the stoicism of a midwest WASP upbringing, and my dad, too, was a stoic midwest WASP. (My mom was a Pittsburgh Jew, and I have always been thankful for the mix of his reticence and her explosiveness – well, thankful for those influences on my work. My mother’s explosiveness in person when I was a kid was sometimes enough to drive me from the house.) Sometimes his stoicism was dangerous. If he didn’t feel well, he wouldn’t complain. A few times, my mother overcame his reluctance and dragged him to a hospital, and the doctors told her she might well have saved his life. (Of course, this is what she told me, but he didn’t contradict her.)

These thoughts come to mind because of (you guessed it) the Burns-Novick PBS documentary, Hemingway. I suppose a lot of people who write for their livings will do as I couldn’t help but do – compare my ideas of what a writer should be and do with what Hemingway was and did. On the one hand, he promoted an image that tipped into the embarrassing. On the other hand, some of those sentences nearly bring me to tears. It’s wrenching to find that someone who could write wisely could also live so foolishly and wastefully.

But his obsession with writing – to him it was life and death – is something I can’t claim I can (or would want) to match. Writing seems often to have been torture to him. For me it is a pleasure and a relief. I love finding stories to tell, I love sharing them with others, I love reading and watching the stories others come up with. Hemingway felt competitive with other writers. I find the company of others who share this enthusiasm brings me great pleasure.

Saturday I finished a two-day intensive of teaching playwriting. My basic lecture on technique. I taught three hours Friday night and about another five on Saturday. Anticipating the class (and guessing how long it would take), I couldn’t help but wince at the work ahead. Once online with the group, though, the time sped by and I was so grateful to have their company. Grateful, too, that the assignments they wrote overnight were so good and gave evidence that the theory I asked them to assimilate was something they not only grasped but ran with.

I don’t imagine I have written anything to compare to Hemingway at his best. (Well, he did try to write a play and it wasn’t any good. Yes, my plays are way better.) But I don’t envy him. His life collapsed into agony and self-destruction. I mostly am enjoying myself. I can’t wait to tell or read the next story.

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Remembering Preston Jones

In the mid-1970s, I was assigned a piece by an in-flight magazine distributed on American Airlines. The story focused on three playwrights who first came to the theater community’s attention in regional theaters. The three playwrights were David Mamet, Marsha Norman and Preston Jones. I interviewed all three by phone.

I was friendly with Mamet from our days working with some of the same people in Chicago, so that was easy. The interview with Norman was the beginning of a relationship, which has continued to the present, as we both serve on the Dramatists Guild Council, and I interviewed her again for my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. My only contact with Preston Jones was the phone call for the article, and he didn’t say very much.

I think he didn’t say very much because I was calling from New York, and not too long before he had made his Broadway debut as a playwright and been shot down by the New York critics. The debut was an unusual one – three plays performed in rep under the title Texas Trilogy. The plays had been enormously successful in Texas and around the country before the New York run. My hunch is that a call from the place that had slammed the door on him was no his idea of pleasure. I don’t have a copy of the article handy, but I remember barely squeezing three or four quotable sentences out of him.

As it happens, Texas Trilogy didn’t last long enough in New York for me to see any of the plays. I gather he wrote a few more plays before he died at age 43 in 1979. I didn’t get to see those either.

I have finally caught up with one of them via a TV production dating from 1980. The Oldest Living Graduate is a portrait of an aging and cranky landowner in a small Texas town in 1962. Colonel Kincaid graduated from a Texas military academy and saw action in WWI, an experience that remains vivid in his memory. (Several of those who were students with him at the academy were killed.) Now, stuck in a wheelchair, he is in a permanent war with the modern world, and he is having a particular struggle with his son, Floyd, who wants to convert a chunk of the family property into luxury lake front homes for rich people. Kincaid is not exactly a lovable character. He is a racist and he is impossible to the people with the unlucky task of looking after him. What keeps us engaged is that occasionally he reveals a gentler, poetic side.

I don’t think it’s a lost masterpiece. It is constructed so programmatically that much of its plot is telegraphed. But the best passages are reminiscent of another Texas dramatist, Horton Foote, in that they provide what feels like an authentic sense of the cadences and perspectives of a small town in that state. It is an affectionate but clear-eyed view of people unashamed of their insularity, and I would guess that one would encounter people similar to these characters on a visit to certain towns in Texas today.

I can particularly recommend the TV production now available through Amazon Prime. Directed by Delbert Mann (one of the legendary figures of the golden age of live television in the Fifties and the Oscar-winning director of the film Marty), the cast is astonishing – Henry Fonda, George Grizzard, Cloris Leachman, Henry Dean Stanton, John Lithgow, Penelope Milford, David Ogden Stiers and a very young Timothy Hutton. Grizzard won a well-earned Emmy for his performance as the colonel’s wheeler-dealer son, but the dazzler for me is Leachman. Those who know Leachman primarily from the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Young Frankenstein may be surprised by how she utterly disappears into the role of the colonel’s beleaguered daughter-in-law. In fact, it took me a minute to realize it was Leachman on the screen. (Another staggering performance from her worth digging up is in a TV movie called The Migrants written by Lanford Wilson. She looks as if she stepped out of a Walker Evans photograph. Film buffs will also remember that she won an Oscar for her searing performance in The Last Picture Show.)

The production was shot live in a Dallas theater in front of an audience, and the actors do well both projecting to the house and maintain sufficient restraint to meet the requirements of television. It’s not a great American play, but it’s a valuable one.

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Encountering Rose Franken

Continuing to wander through obscure corners of American playwriting, I have stumbled across a forgotten phenomenon.  A writer named Rose Franken created a character who appeared first in a series of stories for Redbook, then in a series of eight novels, then as the leading figure in a Broadway play, then as the lead in two movies, then as the title character for a radio series, and then at the center of a short-lived TV series.  Her name was Claudia.  Indeed, one of my students tells me that her mother named her after the character.

I’m not going to make exaggerated claims for this material, but something about the character obviously made a big impression on readers at the time.  Claudia is a sensitive but not well-educated woman who marries a slightly older and more sophisticated architect.  They are happily married, but the combination of her lack of sophistication and her spontaneity leads her into various scrapes.  Though Franken denies much of a tie between the character and herself, reading Franken’s autobiography, When All is Said and Done, I keep finding links between her experiences and her heroine’s; including the fact that both Claudia and husband David and Franken and her second husband retreated from the city to run a farm in Connecticut.

In her memoir, Franken (yes, distantly related to Al) tells story after story on herself in which she blunders impulsively into good fortune, and more than a few in which following hunches paid off.  Perhaps you remember the character of Penny in You Can’t Take It With You started writing because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to her house.  I wonder if Kaufman and Hart took inspiration from the fact that, according to Menken, that is exactly how her writing career started.  She sat down at this felicitous typewriter and began to knock stuff out, mostly for the amusement of her first husband (a doctor).  He thought it was good and he encouraged her to seek a publisher.  She opened the phone book and started sending out her first novel.  It was rejected by everyone until she was reduced to one last choice — Scribner’s.  She marched into their offices and asked to see Charles Scribner and instead was foisted off on some underling who promised to read her stuff.  The underling was the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, and he published her book and stayed a friend for the rest of his life.

Then she thought she’d write a play.  She sat done and wrote for three days, one act per day.  The play was called Another Language and, though she ended up loathing the producer for his underhanded dealings, it was a hit and was sold to the movies.  (The film stars Helen Hayes.)  Along the way, she discovered an amateur actress and insisted she be in the play.  When the film was made, that actress made her screen debut.  Which is how Margaret Hamilton found her way to Hollywood.

Franken decided to try to adapt her Claudia stories to the stage in a play called Claudia.  John Golden offered to produce it.  Gertrude Lawrence wanted to play it, but Franken said no, she wanted an unknown.  Oh yes, though Franken had never actually directed anything, she persuaded Golden to let her make her directing debut.  So Franken held auditions and found an actress whose major credit had been understudying Emily in Our Town.  Golden thought she was nuts but gave way.  Dorothy Maguire opened in Claudia in 1941 at the Booth Theater.  The show was a huge hit (722 performances) and Maguire was a star.  (Franken also discovered Maguire’s standy-by, who then opened the touring cast and had some luck herself — Phyliss Thaxter.)  When the 1943 film was made, Maguire played the part again, and then in again in the sequel, Claudia and David.

Please understand that I’m not claiming that Franken is a lost American master, but I’ve read the scripts of Another Language and Claudia and they hold up better than most of the scripts I’ve read from the time.  And I’ve read some of the Claudia short stories, and it’s easy to see why newlyweds bonded with the character and followed her year after year.  I’m two-thirds of the way through Franken’s autobiography, and, though I occasionally catch her unpersuasively claiming niavete, most of it rings true.  And throughout there are little encounters with the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Howard, etc.

The autobiography was published in 1962 and much of it is about how wonderful her second marriage was.  So it was a surprise to read the obit of her second husband, William Brown Meloney, and discover that they must have divorced shortly after the book came out.  I am a little surprised by how much this disappointed me.

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