Wednesday, February 5, 2014

This Day in Theater History (Kelly Dramedy ‘The Show-Off’ Premieres)

February 5, 1924—At the height of a decade when a President of the United States said “the business of America is business,” George Kelly (pictured) satirized the empty clichés behind the monied class—and puffed-up aspirants to it—with The Show-Off, which premiered at Broadway’s Playhouse Theatre on this date. Hailed by critics as perhaps the finest comedy of its age, it was selected by a panel of judges for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But Columbia University, as it would occasionally do over the years, overruled the panel’s recommendation—in this case, awarding the prize to a member of its own faculty—proving once more than in academe, charity begins at home.

Perhaps out of a sense of guilt--in much the same way, in that decade, that the Pulitzer for fiction was awarded to Sinclair Lewis for Arrowsmith, after he had been snubbed on earlier occasions--Kelly did receive the award for his next work, Craig’s Wife. In the 1930s, as one production of his after another flopped on Broadway, he turned briefly to Hollywood. He came back to Broadway in the 1940s, but the glow from two decades before had worn off, and thereafter, if he was known at all, it was as the beloved uncle of Grace Kelly.

There are signs, however, that interest in him might be reviving. Last year, the Mint Theater dusted off one of Kelly’s ‘30s failures, Philip Goes Forth, and proved that contemporary critics underestimated it. (My review is here.) Earlier in the year, Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse mounted an acclaimed production of The Show-Off, awakening a new generation to the fine dialogue and subtle characterization of this long-neglected playwright.

The title character of The Show-Off is Aubrey Piper, who so ardently courts young Amy Fisher that she disregards the scornful warnings of her family that her new beau is just a humble clerk, not the railroad department head he claims to be. As Amy finds out after she marries him, he is really a junior-league Babbitt, a backslapper who turns people off with his spendthrift ways and the sanctimonious nonsense he’s picked up from books. At the same time, he is a lost soul, and, privately, admits it.

A son and brother of Irish-Americans who made it big in Philadelphia, Kelly has often been deemed a snob, even by later critics who otherwise praised his stage craftsmanship. To be sure, he did not trumpet sympathy with the proletariat the way, for instance, that Clifford Odets (whom he despised) did. 

But The Show-Off, despite being a comedy, retains much of its original power because of his harrowing, if unsentimental, treatment of a North Philadelphia rowhouse family on the financial edge. For years, Mr. and Mrs. Fisher, their son Joe and daughter Clara have striven to stay afloat. The entrance into the family of the Micawberish Aubrey is resented so fiercely because his problems threaten to capsize everyone.

The Show-Off enjoyed a very healthy 571-performance original run. The Pulitzer panel recommended it as an “extremely good and original American play.” Yet for some reason, a docent of the administrator of the prize, Columbia University, wrote a letter to the school’s president, Nicholas Murray Butler, protesting against presenting it the prize to Kelly. That individual, though neither a member of the panel of judges nor of the award’s advisory board, had enough sway to tilt the prize in favor of Hell-Bent fer Heaven, by Hatcher Hughes.

Ever hear of that play? That playwright? I haven’t, and I have a sneaking suspicion that you haven’t, either, Faithful Reader. Kelly might be a neglected playwright, but Hughes seems, nearly seven decades after his death, to have utterly fallen off the theater landscape.

I mentioned that The Show-Off had a well-received revival in Connecticut recently. But there’s a good possibility that it has been viewed more widely (albeit in different form) on Turner Classic Movies. Two years after the start of its Broadway run, it was turned into a silent film, with future siren Louise Brooks as one of the Fisher daughters. With the coming of talkies, it was transformed into the 1930 film, Men Are Like That, and, under its original name, with Red Skelton in 1946.

But the most intriguing—and most important—version might have been in 1934, in what might be termed “A Tale of Two Tracys.” MGM had intended to turn Kelly’s play into a vehicle for Lee Tracy, a member of the original cast. But that actor lost his shot at the role—and his job at the studio—because of his misbehavior during location shooting of Viva Villa in Mexico. (At very least, he insulted a Mexican cadet during a Revolutionary Day parade; but the most notorious rumor is that, after one of his legendary drunken binges, he urinated off a hotel balcony.) He was replaced by Spencer Tracy, who, only a few days before, had received a favorable notice for his work in a Hollywood trade publication.

On loan from Twentieth-Century Fox to make the film, Spencer Tracy made the most of what turned out, in effect, to be an audition for MGM, the studio that liked to brag that it had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” The film succeeded with critics and, even more important, audiences. The actor was promptly signed by MGM, where he ended up making the lion’s share of the nine movies that won him Oscar nominations, including the two for which he won Best Actor (Captains Courageous and Boys Town).

A final note on the play. As I have read it, I couldn’t help but agree with the assessment of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who called it “a comic masterpiece, an airtight manipulation of domestic values and the outside world’s economic success. And just like any comic masterpiece there is something hauntingly sad about it.”

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