Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing the latest post in a fairly new monthly feature here on this blog — a sort of “potpourri” series for classic Broadway plays, specifically comedies, that I’m studying for (mostly) the first time. For this entry, I selected three post-war rom-coms from the late 1940s/early 1950s… Enjoy!
DREAM GIRL (1945)
Logline: An aspiring writer with a penchant for daydreaming has trouble sorting her love life.
Author: Elmer Rice | Original Broadway Director: Elmer Rice
Original Broadway Cast: Betty Field, Wendell Corey, Kevin O’Shea, Edmon Ryan, Helen Marcy, Sonya Stokowski, Evelyn Varden, Helen Bennett, Philippa Bevans, Keene Crockett, Robert Fletcher, James Gregory, William A. Lee, Stuart Nedd, Gaynelle Nixon, David Pressman, Donald Stevens
Thoughts: Dream Girl is a charmingly written romantic comedy that’s basically about a woman’s unsorted love life, as she pines for the man who shares her values but is beyond her reach, the relatively dull man with whom she’s merely passing the time, and the surprising man who clashes with her because they’re so different — before he sweeps her off her feet when she least expects it. Narratively, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. But it’s told in such an imaginative way, punctuated by long fantasy sequences that both create for the show a sense of fast-paced fun and free-wheeling spontaneity, and also bring to life the leading lady’s personality — as a dreamer whose head is figuratively in the clouds. The daydream device is easy to take for granted today, especially in an age where film and now TV are dominant mediums, and there’s more of this kind of storytelling on a regular basis. But it was much more novel in the 1940s, particularly on the stage — and this helps make the rom-com aspects of the plotting, and even some of the cuteness of the text, feel fresh and alive. It’s also got a real star part in the leading lady, who not only gets to play the specific and well-defined central character (with a lot of snappy dialogue and revealing monologues), but also a variety of unusual roles in the sketch-like daydreams as well — everything from a streetwalker to a Shakespearean. With the right casting, Dream Girl could become a tour de force — just as it was for Lucille Ball, who toured with the show in 1947-1948, giving her a taste of live audiences and allowing her to stretch her muscles as a comic actress (not long before she began her radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband). It’s not hard to picture her in the part and see why she was attracted to it — the range of what she would be able to showcase in this single piece is incredible. And even just reading it, you can tell that it’s a performer’s delight — a vehicle made for stars and made for the stage. Okay, the course of the narrative is probably too clichéd once you know where it’s going, but there’s much joy to be had on the way there. I would love to witness a big-budgeted production.
Jackson’s Rating: 7/10
JOHN LOVES MARY (1947)
Logline: A returning soldier has married his army buddy’s English lover to get her in the country, but this causes problems with his own girlfriend, the daughter of a U.S. senator.
Author: Norman Krasna | Original Broadway Director: Joshua Logan
Original Broadway Cast: William Prince, Nina Foch, Tom Ewell, Loring Smith, Ann Mason, Lyle Bettger, Max Showalter, Pamela Gordon, Harry Bannister, Ralph Chambers
Thoughts: Norman Krasna’s affable rom-com farce about post-war entanglements boasts the expected number of twists. Its story centers on John, a returning soldier and boyfriend of Mary, the daughter of a U.S. senator who expects the two to be wed right away. This poses a problem because John has already married Lili, an English girl who needed legal entrance in the country, all so she can reunite with his best pal Fred — a soldier who saved John’s life during the war. Another problem? The fact that Fred has since married another woman and is about to become a father. Yet another problem? Divorces take six weeks, and when John crafts a scheme to pretend that he must serve two more months on duty in Reno, Mary’s family has the political capital to get him out of it. Eventually, he’s forced to come clean, yielding a happy ending where Lili and John’s marriage is revealed to be invalid, and John is then free to marry the girl he actually loves. As these mounting farces go, this one is solidly amusing, albeit never quite hilarious, largely because, beyond Mary’s senator father, most of the characters are pawns in the plot and don’t really have well-drawn personalities that could enliven the comedy via details and specificity. What’s more, the climax of the final act, with John finally confessing, has no consequences for him and thus ends up being a letdown, begging the question, why didn’t he just tell them sooner? That’s usually a concern that destroys most farces, but the best in this genre provide good explanations. John Loves Mary doesn’t, for we know that Mary and her family understand how John is indebted to Fred for saving his life. All he has to do is explain the truth to them, and it’s square. Or if he’s worried about how her folks would react, all he has to do is tell Mary. His initial attempt to confess is interrupted, but why not try again? We’re never going to doubt that she’d be accepting, and of course, help him out of this jam. The notion that John gives up telling Mary makes no sense and I think leaves the show’s otherwise decent plot with not enough of a solid foundation. And, in general, with not enough logic, not enough character, and not enough of a climax, John Loves Mary is too middling: not bad, but never great.
Jackson’s Rating: 5/10
THE MOON IS BLUE (1951)
Logline: An architect’s seduction of a virgin is complicated by his ex’s lecherous father.
Author: F. Hugh Herbert | Original Broadway Director: Otto Preminger
Original Broadway Cast: Barbara Bel Geddes, Donald Cook, Barry Nelson, Ralph Dunn
Thoughts: This play is best remembered for its controversial 1953 film adaptation, which failed to receive a Production Code seal of approval due to its risqué subject matter, thereby granting the picture an air of naughtiness that probably made it more legendary than it would otherwise be. (There’s a MASH episode about it, for instance.) But I get it — the play was also deliberately provocative when it appeared in 1951, focused entirely on premarital sex and with frank discussions of seduction, the moral obligations of intimacy, and most prominently, its leading lady’s virginity. The story is basically a romantic comedy about a virgin who has a meet-cute with a bachelor architect on the sight deck of the Empire State Building. They go back to his place where she cooks him dinner and he plans to seduce her. Complications come from a visit by his neighbor — an aging lothario who also happens to be the father of his ex-girlfriend, a woman (never seen on stage) who was slighted over the fact that she wanted sex and he declined, not wanting to be obligated to her. As the man and his lecherous neighbor compete for the virgin’s affections after dinner, there’s an innocuous clinch with the old guy that’s misinterpreted, a climax with the girl’s own overprotective dad that suggests the era’s hypocritical attitudes men (and society) hold about sexuality — it’s okay for their lovers, but not their daughters — and a fight over what it means to be a “professional virgin,” with the implication that he doesn’t believe in her chastity. Of course, this all wraps up merrily with a proposal atop the Empire State — he’s morally obligating himself to her and completing the seduction at the same time. Obviously, both the story and the dialogue delight in being straightforward, but nobody actually has any nookie, and while I think the text intends to display the post-war’s confusing views on female sexuality (à la The Voice Of The Turtle), the characters seem less like human beings than vessels to anchor these ideas and/or spout shocking one-liners. The lady is the most interesting character, a curious amalgam of contrasting traits with a nevertheless steadfast perspective, but she also seems more rhetorical than dimensional. And so, while The Moon Is Blue ends up a fascinating topic of discussion, it’s never quite as artful as the best in this subgenre.
Jackson’s Rating: 6.5/10
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!