The Washington Post
All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919-1959by Ethan Mordden
From the late 1920s to late 1950s, the Broadway theatre was America's cultural epicenter. Television didn't exist and movies were novelties. Entertainment took the form of literature, music, and theatre. During this golden age of Broadway, actors and actresses became legends and starred in now classic plays. Laurence Olivier, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine were… See more details below
From the late 1920s to late 1950s, the Broadway theatre was America's cultural epicenter. Television didn't exist and movies were novelties. Entertainment took the form of literature, music, and theatre. During this golden age of Broadway, actors and actresses became legends and starred in now classic plays. Laurence Olivier, Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontaine were names to remember, etching plays into memory as they brought the words of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill to life. Joseph Cotton romanced Katherine Hepburn in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story while Laurette Taylor became The Glass Menagerie's Amanda Wingfield. Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards Jr. and Bradford Dillman showed us life among the ruins in Long Day's Journey Into Night. In All That Glittered, Ethan Mordden, long one of Broadway's best chroniclers, recreates the fascinating lost world of its golden age.
The Washington Post
Acclaimed for his sprightly histories of the Broadway musical, the author turns to nonmusical theater in this scintillating survey. Mordden considers New York theater the wellspring of mid-century American culture, especially during the 1930s, when the advent of talkies forced a Hollywood desperate for material to ransack Broadway for scripts—and the talent that could bring their dialogue to life. Thus, he contends, "West-Central Manhattan" remade America in its own image—urban, sophisticated and racy, presided over by the wisecracking reporter and "that ubiquitous 1930s character, the Unmarried Sarcastic Woman," and tinged with an ironic gay sensibility. Mordden brings out his themes in an anecdote-strewn tour of significant (and some not so significant) productions, pausing now and again for set-piece drama criticism—comparing O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, for example, with Rachel Crothers's comedy Susan and God—and perpetually tossing off witty asides (the sublimely square actor Ralph Bellamy, he observes, "brings the Clueless Hetero to a completion so absolute that [he] creates something never before thought possible or even necessary: the opposite of Kabuki"). Erudite, but casual and conversational, and full of fresh perceptions, Mordden is a charmingly insightful raconteur who condenses 40 years' worth of opening nights into a single engrossing montage. Photos. (Apr.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Like Mordden's other works on the theater (e.g., One More Kiss: The Broadway Musical in the 1970s), this exploration of the theater-going culture between the late 1920s and the late 1950sâ€”when old Broadway, "new" Broadway, and Hollywood played off each other (no pun intended) and the theater became more urban-centricâ€”exudes intelligence and wit. The author clearly possesses a passion for and an involvement with the theater, and he easily wins over the reader (who may strongly disagree with his views as the book progresses) in the first few pages with his conversational style and sly wisecracks: "The Front Pageis like a Feydeau seconed act that runs three hoursâ€¦ ." In one particularly fascinating chapter, "Woman and Man: Susan and Godand The Iceman Cometh," Mordden examines the plays, their themes, and the cultural context of Rachel Crothers and Eugene O'Neill. Mordden analyzes these two "polar opposite" playwrights: O'Neill, who "wrapped himself in myth and eternal verities," and Crothers, who "invaded faddish situations to analyze the culture of the everyday." This is an enthralling exploration of a legendary and glamorous time in theater history. Recommended for all theater collections. (Photos and index not seen.)
Susan L. Peters
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.25(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
Lightnin' Has Struck!
When Frank Bacon left school at the age of fourteen, his native California counted more jobs to fill than skilled labor qualified to fill them. If not exactly the anarchic frontier of legend, California in the 1880s nevertheless offered opportunity to anyone withas they put it thengumption. Young Bacon tried sheepherding, advertising soliciting, and newspaper editing, and even ran an unsuccessful campaign for the state assembly. Then he fell into acting.
It was easy to do at the time, for people went to theatre then almost as casually as they turn on the television today, and playhouses were literally everywhere. Some were operated by resident repertory troupes, the "stock" companies that sustained public interest with a constantly changing bill. Certain theatres in a given region were linked to form "wheels" of companies not resident but traveling as wholes from one house to another every six weeks or so; unlike the stock companies, who played everything, the wheels played host to certain genres, for instance in thrill melodrama or society comedy.
The expansion of the railroad doomed stock and eventually closed down the wheels, for now the "combination" troupe dominated the national stage: one unit of actors giving a single work and touring with all the necessary sets and costumes. A success in this line meant moving from one theatre to the next (with perhaps a hiatus in summer) for months or even years. Along with bookings in small towns and provincial capitals lay the possibility of an extended run in Chicago or New York.
Bacon ended up in one of the last stock companies, in San Jose, for seventeen years, during which he is alleged to have assumed over six hundred roles. One sort of character in particular seems to have caught his interestthe uneducated rustic, innocent of fancy fashion, who somehow gets the better of popinjays and rogues. It was a national stereotype, just then reaching its apex in the career of the third Joseph Jefferson (acting was a family trade), especially in Rip Van Winkle (1866). During his galley years in San Jose, Bacon envisioned a vehicle for his own version of the trope, a small-time hotelier named Bill Jones and ironically nicknamed "Lightnin'" for his life tempo, as slow as paste and a kind of objective correlative for his low-key yet fierce sense of independence. No one crowds Bill Jones. "Lightnin'" has wife troubles, money troubles, and to every question a set of deadpan retorts that exasperate all those in the vicinity yetBacon hopedamuse the public. "Lightnin'"'s hotel straddles the California-Nevada border, the state line running through the middle of the lobby: so women can shield their reputations by claiming to be on holiday in California while more truly seeking one of those quickie Nevada divorces.
Bacon called his play The Divided House,* and found no takers. Were managersthe contemporary term for "producers"leery of a character that had held the stage for over a century, or did Bacon fail to set him off properly?
By 1912, Bacon had made it to New York, then as now the goal of virtually any working actor; but Bacon's New York was vaudeville or plays of no professional importance. Now forty-eight, he had been acting for twenty-two years and had every reason to assume that he would never be anything more than one of the many who got a modest living out of it but made no mark.
And then Bacon happened to tell the extremely successful playwright Winchell Smith about The Divided House, and how nobody wanted it, and how Bacon had sold it to the movies.
"Buy it back," said Smith. He then rewrote Bacon's script, and with manager John Golden opened it at the Gaiety Theatre (at the southwest corner of Broadway and Forty-sixth Street, now demolished) on August 26, 1918. The renamed Lightnin' was a smash. In fact, Bacon was the star and co-author of the biggest hit that Broadway had had to that time. More important, it was general belief that Frank Bacon was Lightnin'. Critics likened his warmth and "business" to that of Joseph Jeffersonwho also had had to apply to an extremely successful playwright, Dion Boucicault, for assistance before his Rip Van Winkle went over.
Up to Lightnin', the record for a New York run belonged to J. Hartley Manners, whose Peg O' My Heart (1912) held New York for about twenty months. Three other titles (A Trip To Chinatown , Adonis , and The Music Master ) trailed Peg by a month or so. Lightnin' played New York for three years, and, had Bacon got his way, he would have led every single performance. Eventually persuaded to take a vacation, Bacon spent it in the Gaiety Theatre watching his replacement, Milton Nobles, who was getting in shape to head the first national company.
It was as though Bacon feared even momentary separation from the individualizing event of his life. He was a husband and father, yes: who wasn't, in those days? But in Lightnin', Bacon had created something typical yet unique, a play made of hokum that seemed the most honest good time the public ever had. And as Bill Jones, Bacon topped even Joseph Jefferson perhaps, and he could look forward to playing the show he so loved up and down the country for the rest of his working life. Indeed, they had had no little trouble auditioning Bacon's successor; Nobles was something like seventy, coaxed out of retirement to save the day.
We must get the measure of Lightnin' if we are to organize our perspective on how Broadway's Golden Age began: what it invented but also what it eliminated, because Bill Jones was one of the casualties. In a prologue and three acts, the play moves from the hotel to a courtroom and back, and the plot involves the usual bad guys' attempt to execute a swindle, the objective being Jones' hotel. The good guy is the young lawyer (Ralph Morgan, brother of Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz in the 1939 movie) determined to unmask the bad guys; he is also The Boy, and The Girl is the Joneses' foster daughter (Beatrice Nichols). She is loyal to Mrs. Jones (Jessie Pringle), who seeks to divorce Bill, complicating the young romance.
All ends well, though the show gets by on no more plot than that. Lightnin' seeks entertainment entirely in Bill Jones' personality, so it's odd to note that it's one of the shortest lead roles ever. Like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom, Bill makes a great deal out of relatively brief stage timenot in the Big Effect but in the now lost art of underplaying. The aim is to give a detached and casual reading, to take all emotion way down to a point of intimacy between the performer and a public that, denied today's microphoned overstatement, must concentrate.
The object of all this attention is a ne'er-do-well drunk who drives everybody crazy by letting nothing perturb him. He's uncooperative, as here when one of the bad guys, Mr. Thomas, comes in:
thomas: (beckoning Bill to him) Oh, Bill, I want to see you for a minute.
bill: Can't you see me from there?
He's a smart alec:
bill: Came out [to the West] during the gold excitement.
harper: The gold excitement was back in '49.
bill: Well, they was still excited when I got here.
He's not paying attention even when things of value are at stake, as when he takes over questioning the other bad guy, Mr. Hammond, during the trial scene:
bill: Who controls the Golden Gate Land Company?
hammond: (lying) I don't know.
bill: Don't you know it's controlled by you and Mr. Thomas?
thomas: Your Honor, I object!
bill: And that all your stock's in the name of rummies?
the young lawyer: (correcting him in a stage whisper) Dummies! Dummies!
bill: Dummies! Dummies!
Worst of all, you name it and he's done it, which makes all of life's striving a fantasy, a jest. Buffalo Bill? "I learned him all he knew about killing Indians." Detectives? "I used to be a detective." Even bees can be claimed for Bill's curriculum vitae:
bill: I used to be in the bee business. Why, I drove a swarm of bees across the plains in the dead of winter. (Audience titters.) And never lost a bee. (Audience laughs full out. Bacon lets the laughter die to twenty percent while staring at the other player. Then:) Got stung twice. (Audience roars.)
It's like a humorous version of Bacon's own odd-jobbing past.
But isn't that the point? The white-haired Bacon, in his rumpled jacket and tie and battered hat, made no stab at notching Bill up for charm. Bill was what he was, a loser having a good time. So Bacon wasn't Lightnin'. Bacon was a "barely made it" who never stopped struggling to get there. A striver. In an age of matinee idols, professional Brits, Heavy Fathers,* light comics, and Shakespeareans, Frank Bacon was almost not an actor. Not a type: because his type was all but retired by 1900 or so. One can only imagine how proud and relieved Bacon must have been to play his character in his style and make such a hit out of it.
He might easily have failed, with such superannuated material. It's flattering to be compared to one of the great names of the past; is it good for business? Jefferson enjoyed a very long career, but he was born the year that President Andrew Jackson took office. That's an awfully old tradition to be a part of. Then, too, Bacon didn't just look rumpled and battered: he was, having lived at the bottom of a profession made of two distinct social groupsone, big stars; and, two, everyone else. By chance, Bacon's arrival in New York in 1912 coincided with the formation of Actors Equity, a group determined to reform managerial abuses.
These were, frankly, astonishing. In a time when a hit show played most of its run in weekly bookings around the country for one or two years, it was perhaps no more than unhappy that a production might close with the cast stranded many miles from home. It could be called regrettable that managers did not pay actors for the extra performances added on during holidays.* But it is simply unbelievable that rehearsalswhich lasted as long as the manager wanted them towent entirely unpaid. How on earth did the penniless see themselves through a rehearsal period? As it was, Equity sought no more than half salary for rehearsals, along with certain other modest concessions.
The Producing Managers Association had every reason to resist, because the actors were powerless. True, the stars weren'tbut why would stars make common cause with grunts? The two groups dwelled on separate planets. The thespian solidarity that exists among actors today is relatively new, in part based on the development of the integrated acting ensemble, in which leads and support alike see themselves as working within a single entity. Ensemble acting did not exist in 1919: production tilted the room, as Hollywood now phrases it, toward the star. Everybody else was infinitely replaceable.
But something happened in around 1915. For some reasonprobably the lower-middle-class acculturation of cinema and a concomitant falloff in playgoers' ticketbuyingthe road began to close down. True, not till the late 1920s could one say that the road Just Wasn't What It Was; not till the 1950s was it genuinely vanishing; not till the 1960s was it gone but for the odd tour of some recent Broadway hit or a classic wrapped in a star package. Still, by 1915 the average actor's life had changed from difficult to impossible.
And something else happened. While many of the stars believed that theatre was a privileged profession, art rather than commerce, and were thus hostile to joining a labor union, other stars declared themselves absolutely in sympathy with Equity and its agenda. Some of them had come up the hard way, like Frank Bacon, and viewed with compassion those who were still struggling. Some held that theatre was made not by managers but by actors, and saw in that notion a dislocation of the makers' right to profit. And some of them simply knew fair from unfair. The managers were unfair, and I mean to a man.
So the acting profession was divided, and that made the managers feel secure. Unions serve the drudge, the work horse. Actors were dolls, and Equity was nonsense. The very business of American theatre was founded on a lack of equity: on the manager's more or less coddling his stars and exploiting the grunts. At that, few actors belonged to Equity in the first place. What was Equity going to do, strike? Pull out a couple of First Gravediggers? Besides, the tyrant of vaudeville, Edward F. Albee (grandfather of the playwright), faced his own strike in 1916, and not only did he crush the strike: he blacklisted its leaders.
Nevertheless, by the summer of 1919, having continually failed even to get recognition from the Producing Managers Association, Equity was seriously contemplating a strike. The timing could not have been worse, for 1919 was a year of social unrest and extremely unpopular labor actions. Beginning on January 21, a general strike in Seattle, believed to be the result of agitation by the radical Industrial Workers of the World, was defeated only by ferocious resistance from Mayor Ole Hanson, backed by the police and the army. On the other hand, a five-day strike of telephone operators in Boston starting on April 15 that froze communication throughout most of New England found almost all the public in sympathy with the strikers. These women put in long days deftly maneuvering in complex operations for very low pay. Wasn't their situation comparable to that of the actors?
However, the rest of that spring saw not just labor actions but the mailing of bombs disguised as packages from Gimbel's department store and the planting of bombs on the doorsteps of officials' houses. Through blind luck and the vigilance of one postal clerk, the mailings claimed but one casualty, blowing off the hands of Senator Thomas R. Hardwick's black maid; and the second terrorist wave took out only the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's house and the terrorist himself.*
Another problem was that no one, in or out of Equity, knew even vaguely how an actors' strike would fare when something like one-third of the stars were pro-union, one-third anti-union, and one-third waiting to see what happened. If a star went on but the support struck his show, would understudies scab for an opportunity? How would the public react to being shut out of its most basic form of entertainment? Would the managers blacklist ringleaders, in the Albee manner? In fact, the managers thought the actors too uncertain and infantile to do more than talk strike. "I honestly didn't think," said George M. Cohan's producing partner, Sam H. Harris, "the boys would go so far."
Because they did strike. It started on the evening of August 6, in utter confusion. Some actors struck and some didn't. Some managers did send understudies on, but some understudies struck. Some stars prepared to walk, then changed their minds. Some stars refused to walk, learned that the theatre across the street was going dark that night, and promptly led their companies out into the night. Broadway became its own theatre, as crowds watched the doings and passed along the latest reports and rumors. Some twelve shows ended up forking out refunds, including one, a bedroom farce called Nightie Night, that was to have had its premiere that day.
On August 7, star Holbrook Blinn, who had walked out of The Challenge the night before, reopened the piece and resigned from Equity. The wrathful George M., who took the strike as an act of treachery aimed personally at himself, forced The Royal Vagabond onstage with himself and understudies. The crafty Shuberts kept Shubert Gaieties of 1919 running through the expedient of turning it into a variety show of pickup talent. Other stars deserted EquityZelda Sears, Laura Hope Crews, Janet Beecher. Ziegfeld got an injunction to keep the Follies running. The Shuberts got injunctions, too, though they preferred suing individual members of Equity, including those then working in Hollywood and even dead people. The actors put on monstrous all-star benefits at the Lexington Avenue Opera HouseEddie Cantor, Lillian Russell, John Charles Thomas, Eddie Foy and the seven little Foys, Charles Winninger, Ed Wynn (who was blocked by Shubert injunction from appearing onstage and so did his act in the audience, like the cast of The Cradle Will Rock, eighteen years later), Lionel and Ethel Barrymore in a scene from Camille (as we call La Dame aux Caméllias), W. C. Fields as emcee, and Marie Dressler teaching two hundred fifty choristers a dance number in ten minutes, where a manager's idea of a musical's learning curvewithout pay, rememberwas six weeks at the minimum.
George M. tried to crush Equity by making every requested concession . . . to his own creation, the Actors' Fidelity League. Famous managers threatened to retire if Equity prevailed, as the strike spread beyond theatre capitals to Providence, Atlantic City (an important tryout stop), St. Louis, Washington, D. C. In New York, every single theatre eventually went dark except for the Garrick, the Nora Bayes, and the Hippodrome: the first because John Ferguson was produced by the Theatre Guild, run by a kind of socialist committee that was not a P.M.A. member and in any case was happy to recognize Equity, the first management to do so; the second because The Greenwich Village Follies was more roof-garden cabaret than theatre and fell under a distinct labor jurisdiction; and the last because it was technically a vaudeville house. Then, three weeks along, the walkout was swelled by the musicians and stagehandsfour hundred of the latter at the Hippodrome alone.
It now went dark as well. When the Hippodrome's management made a separate peace with Equity, it was obvious to all that the managers had lost. The PMA signed its contract with Equity exactly a month after the strike had begun, at something like 2 a.m. on September 6. George M. sailed to London in a hopeless attempt to transfer his activities to the West End. And the strike was over.
It had been colorful and crazy fun, but it might well have ended in disaster. One act in particular is credited with having got the strike off to a crucial start: Frank Bacon closed Lightnin'.
True, the show had been running for a year by then. But we have seen how much it meant to Bacon; closing his show was like closing himself. Yet the single line "Lightnin' has struck!," passed from Forty-sixth Street up and down the theatre district, seemed to put a kind of patriarchal imprimatur upon the strike while infusing it with energy. It's amazing to think that someone who, two years before, was one of the great unknown had become an archon of his profession, all the more so in that the profession immediately began to discard its Frank Bacons after 1919. It's a historians' favorite year, with the Versailles Peace Conference as its symbol and a shift in power from morning-coat feudalism to middle-class voting blocs as its content. But 1919 is a significant year also in the history of American theatre, which underwent an evolution from its early modern history of Mrs. Fiske and Henry Miller, of Alias Jimmy Valentine and The Bird of Paradise, into the days of Eugene O'Neill and the Group Theatre, of Our Town and You Can't Take It With You.
Why 1919 in particular? There are illustrative resonances, as in the founding of the Theatre Guild, whose output defined a strictly artistic viewpoint within a business regarded as lacking art. Some might prefer 1916, for the founding of Theatre Arts magazine, defining an intellectual viewpoint, with its unadorned yellow masthead cover and articles of academic and technical interest (till it went glossy and popular, in 1948). However, it would seem that, directly after World War I, everyone in the theatre embarked on an overnight revolution.
It was not, of course, an absolute one. Both Mrs. Fiske and Henry Miller were active after 1919. Then, too, Broadway's community of theatregoers seems to have become more united in this era precisely because film and then television kept drawing away the riffraff, "purifying" the atmosphere in which writers addressed a public.
Still, American culture unmistakably lurched from one place to another place. D. W. Griffith must give way to Warner Bros., Richard Barthelmess to James Cagney. In place of Lightnin' Bill Jones, we find the urbanized wise guy and fast talker, real lightningthe Lee Tracy of Broadway and The Front Page, for instance.
Still, for now, Lightnin' was so imposingor, rather, its unexpected success wasthat, on its last night in New York, President Harding's secretary of labor, James J. Davis, took the stage after the middle act to read a letter of congratulation from the Commander in Chief: because Lightnin' had struck. The rest of the intermission was deliberately drawn out to allow players from other shows time to reach the Gaiety Theatre (some still in costume and makeup) and rush the stage in jubilation after the third curtain. Lightnin' went on to a modest success in London, with the well-established Horace Hodges, at the Shaftesbury Theatre, in 1925. Back home, that same year, John Ford directed the first film version, with the unknown Jay Hunt; Will Rogers led the talkie remake, in 1930. That wasn't quite the end, for Fred Stone starred in a Lightnin' tour through the Northeast in 1938.
Nevertheless, America was losing Lightnin', both the kind of entertainment it represented and the audience it played to. Ironically, Frank Bacon carried the seed of that destruction in his blood, for his son Lloyd drifted into movie acting and then directing. It was Lloyd Bacon who directed the first part-talking film that really had impact, Al Jolson's second movie, The Singing Fool (1928). Jolson's first, The Jazz Singer (1927), had played few theatres, for the equipment needed to project these films-with-soundtrack was not readily available. It was The Singing Fool that told Hollywood that Sound Had Arrived, empowering the movies to compete with theatre on theatre's terms while doing things beyond the limited resources of the stage.
Lloyd Bacon also directed Moby Dick (1930), one of talking Hollywood's first successful attempts to challenge the theatre's cultural hegemony by setting the reigning Hamlet into an American literary classic. True, it's an empty paradigm: John Barrymore had filmed the novel but five years earlier as The Sea Beast, and silent and talkie alike stray far from Melville, as Barrymore played a kind of Ishmael-Ahab, with a girl friend. However, we are talking not of authentic artistic value, but of perception, of how Hollywood appeared to most eyes to be able to rival the stage.
And it was Lloyd Bacon again who directed 42nd Street (1933), which revived the moribund movie musical with a tense and grabby naturalism that the stage musical itself could not match. Broadway invented the musical, but here was Hollywoodhere was Frank Bacon's sonreinventing it.
Frank did not live to see it. After closing Lightnin' in New York, he took his company to Chicago to begin what he believed might be an even bigger triumph, for Lightnin' was old-fashioned and Chicago liked its theatre well broken in. But after that lifetime of striving, a heart condition caught up with Bacon early in the run, and he gasped, "I am tired out" as he died in his wife's arms.
Copyright © 2007 by Ethan Mordden. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
ETHAN MORDDEN is the author of dozens of books, both fiction and nonfiction. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and numerous other magazines and journals. He lives in Manhattan.
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