Monthly Archives: November 2014

Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award). Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the naïve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool


Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question


Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson


Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.

Happy Birthday, Claude Rains!

Claude Rains as Alexander Hollenius in 'Deception,' with friend.

Claude Rains as Alexander Hollenius in ‘Deception,’ with friend.

Today, November 10, 2014, is the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the birth of Claude Rains. To mark the occasion, I’ve pulled together some clips from three of his lesser known performances that I particularly admire. Since Bette Davis was his favorite co-star, I begin with her. This is from her November 17, 1971 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.

The full interview is available on YouTube. It is well worth seeing. She and Cavett get along beautifully; they establish a convivial rapport almost at once. Bette Davis treats him with exemplary politeness. She listens carefully, responds generously, praises readily and gives every appearance of enjoying his company. They’re both skittish personalities, and it is delightful to see them relax as the interview progresses. Both of them are funny and extremely smart. They take turns charming one another and catching the other off-guard. They do it repeatedly. And since they both adore Claude Rains and speak about him so intelligently, they score a lot of points with me.

The Unsuspected

Original poster.

Original poster.

“The Unsuspected” (Warner Bros., 1947) is a mystery/thriller that starts out silly and eventually becomes preposterous. If you’re willing to make allowances and give your credulity a stretch, it is also very entertaining. As is usually the case, Rains is better than the picture is, and the role is unworthy of his talents. Yet he plays this sort of velvety rubbish better than anyone, and it’s a big, juicy part. One can’t help wishing he had better material to work with; there is nevertheless the unique pleasure of seeing a great actor whip up a feast from table scraps. Rains plays a radio celebrity with a weekly broadcast on which he tells lurid stories of murder and mayhem. (“I give you . . . ‘The Tragedy of the Missing Head.’ “) At the beginning of each broadcast, his announcer (Art Gilmore — one of the busiest voice-over artists in the forties and fifties: he’s also heard on the radio in the first scene of “Rear Window“) introduces him as “Your genial host: the renowned writer, art collector and teller of strange tales, Victor Grandison.” Franz Waxman’s score is hilarious.

Rains handles this sort of melodramatic nonsense so elegantly and makes the balderdash sound so eloquent, it’s easy to forget that the material is not merely second rate, but very hard to put across at all. He makes it seem effortless. Try speaking some of this stuff yourself, and you’ll see what he was up against.

An hour into the picture, Victor Grandison has already murdered three people that we know about. Presumably, there are others. Currently, he’s working on two more. There’s his ward, Matilda, a multi-millionairess debutante orphaned in childhood. She dotes on dear old Grandy. If she predeceases him, her fortune is his. She was lost at sea (plane crash); that was months ago; everyone’s forgotten her. And now she washes up. Alive. Touch of amnesia, though. Enter Mr Steven Howard (Michael North); says he’s her husband. She can’t remember him, but she’s falling under his spell. Handsome devil; mysterious — dangerous, perhaps. He’s in for a nasty bump on the head. Matilda, the dear child — a shame, really, most unfortunate. Oh, why did the wretched girl go and lose her heart to Mr Howard? Why does he keep poking about in other people’s affairs? Who is he, what’s he after? Well, no matter: at this moment, Mr Steven Howard is locked inside a trunk, unconscious, and about to be dumped into a landfill. And now, dear old Grandy must stage Matilda’s suicide — and quickly, too — finish the business before tonight’s broadcast. Watching Claude Rains cajole Joan Caulfield into drinking the fatal Champagne always makes me think of the old Flanders and Swann song, “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear.”

As you must expect in a Production Code picture, things go terribly wrong for our criminal. And it all leads to this thrilling conclusion.

The Passionate Friends

Poster from French release

Poster from French release.

Rains gave one of his finest performances in David Lean’s “The Passionate Friends,” but the picture has never found a wide audience. Perhaps the plot’s structure was too complicated for audiences in 1949. Perhaps it still is. After a brief opening narration, there’s an extended flashback sequence in which a second flashback sequence, also of considerable length, is nested. This creates, in the first twenty minutes or so, a chronological ambiguity that is more than a little disorienting. The mild confusion it creates is appropriate to the story, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it put many people off. And the leading lady, Ann Todd, is a semi-forbidding presence — frosty as Garbo but without the mystique.

Rains plays Howard Justin, a wealthy, powerful man; Ann Todd (Mrs David Lean at the time) plays his wife, Mary. Theirs is a reasonably stable, loveless marriage of convenience that has lasted more than ten years. Early in their marriage, Mary drifted into an affair with her old flame, Steven Stratton (Trevor Howard). Misery all round. Mary ended it quickly. She hasn’t seen or heard from him since. The infidelity episode is told in a flashback. Now the story moves to the present: it is nine years after the crisis. No further indiscretions have disturbed their chilly domestic calm. Mary is in Switzerland on holiday. Howard, detained by pressing business, will join her in a few days. Her first morning at the hotel, Mary is at breakfast when Stratton enters the café. They’ve had no contact for nine years and now Fate (or a missed flight connection) has thrown them together. His suite is next door to hers: he’s flying home that evening. He is mellower, easier; he’s happily married, a proud father. The sexual tension between them has disappeared, friendly goodwill and mutual interests remain. They decide to spend the day together. In the afternoon, while they’re picnicking across the lake, Howard arrives at the hotel — a day early. Mme Justin is out; she will return presently: very well, he’ll have lunch in the café, he and Miss Layton (Betty Ann Davies) will work until his wife shows up.

To a large extent, Claude Rains’ reputation is based on the range and complexity of emotions he is able to express with his extraordinary voice. One doesn’t think of him without thinking of The Voice. But this next clip demonstrates that he is also devastatingly effective when speaking not a word. David Lean’s direction of this sequence is wonderfully imaginative and cinematic.

Extraordinary how eloquently Lean’s staging of the episode conveys, wordlessly, the tidal wave of jealousy that crashes over Howard Justin when he sees his wife with his former rival. Nine years earlier, when Mary cuckolded him, he could readily forgive her and rise above his humiliation. But now, when she has not cuckolded him, when he only imagines she has, he finds the humiliation intolerable, unforgivable. What has happened to make it different this time? The sight of Stratton’s luggage outside the room next to Mary’s gives him a jolt, but a minute later, when he sees Mary come into the room, race out to the balcony and wave at the departing speedboat, the sight shatters him. When she turns her back on the lake, and comes back into the room — clever David Lean, to have those curtains hide her face! (“Beauty’s veil doth cover every blot”) — the tears in her eyes drive him into a frenzy. The first time I saw “The Passionate Friends,” I took these few extraordinary minutes as a particularly well-acted episode of a husband who, after being confronted with several pieces of damning evidence, arrives at the perfectly reasonable, yet totally wrong conclusion that his wife has betrayed him. That is, unquestionably, what happens in the scene, but the betrayal that drives him wild is not the most obvious one; it’s crueler and more subtle. But I was not fully aware of it until I saw their next scene together.

It is a month or so later, they’re back in London, living separately. Mary comes to his house one night. The divorce is still in the works. Howard has sworn to ruin Stratton: he’s prepared to be liberal with her, but her seducer must be punished. This scene contains what I consider to be some of the greatest acting Claude Rains ever did.

Mary begs Howard to believe that she and Stratton have done nothing wrong, and we know she’s telling the truth. But Howard doesn’t accuse her of adultery. It isn’t her sexual infidelity that he finds too hard to bear, it is his realization that she has starved him emotionally; until he saw her race out to that balcony, he had never seen her so unguarded, so lively, so passionate. And then those tears . . . affection, tenderness, love. And none of them for him. It is not only her body she has given to another man, but her whole self. And what has she given him? He says she has given him “the love you’d give a dog, the kindness you’d give a beggar, and the loyalty of a bad servant” — an accusation that cannot be gainsaid. (The excellent screenplay is by Eric Ambler.) Rains very rarely played anything of such naked emotional intensity. “The Invisible Man” is one of the only other pictures in which Rains cuts loose with such unhinged, volcanic fury. But the Invisible Man is already an emotional wreck when first we meet him: the wonder of that performance is Rains’ ability to sustain and increase the intensity over the course of the entire picture. “The Passionate Friends” presents a different challenge: an unflappable, highly polished man of the world who is pushed to the brink of madness by jealousy — and because the actor is Claude Rains, we see the precise moment that the madness strikes him. I cannot help thinking that Rains’ personal animosity toward Ann Todd is partly responsible for the stunning emotional violence he brings into this scene. He was enormously fond of David Lean, admired and respected him, but also really loved him. Ann Todd’s unprofessional conduct on the set drove Rains to distraction, but worse, he found her brutal treatment of Lean unconscionable. According to Rains, when she divorced Lean, she took every penny he had. Rains never forgave her.


Enoch Arden

If I had to choose, I’d say that Rains’ performance in “Deception” is my favorite of his movie roles. But I believe there’s one performance I love even more than his Alexander Hollenius: it’s his recitation of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” with piano accompaniment written by Richard Strauss, which Rains recorded in 1962 with Glenn Gould. As Rains proved in his movie debut as the Invisible Man, he was capable of giving an unforgettable performance without being seen; he proves it again with his stunning performance of “Enoch Arden.” 1962 was the same year he gave a fine performance as Mr Dryden, a minor role in “Lawrence of Arabia.” He lived for another five years, but apart from a few television appearances, a cameo as King Herod in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and one excruciating courtroom drama, “Twilight of Honor,” “Enoch Arden” is really his swan song. And what an unforgettable performance to go out on!

Rains in 'Lawrence of Arabia,' filmed the same year he recorded 'Enoch Arden.

Rains in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ filmed the same year he recorded ‘Enoch Arden.’

“Enoch Arden” is the story of a sailor, lost at sea and given up for dead by those he left behind: his wife, Annie, a young daughter, a younger son and a newborn baby boy. Within a year of Enoch’s departure, the baby dies and his family begins to drift into poverty. Ten years pass — “And no word from Enoch came.” Enoch and Annie’s childhood friend, Philip Ray — a prosperous miller — eventually persuades Annie (whom he has always loved from afar) to marry him “[a]nd lift the household out of poverty.” A year later, Annie gives birth to Philip’s son. And now, after more than a dozen years have passed, Enoch returns. He’s a broken man, unrecognizable. Finding his old house abandoned, he goes to a local tavern, where he collapses. While Enoch is recuperating, the “good and garrulous” landlady, Miriam Lane, tells him

. . . with other annals of the port,
Not knowing — Enoch was so brown, so bow’d,
So broken — all the story of his house.
His baby’s death, her growing poverty,
How Philip put her little ones to school,
And kept them in it, his long wooing her,
Her slow consent, and marriage, and the birth
Of Philip’s child.

Enoch does not reveal his identity, but becomes obsessed with the thought of seeing Annie one more time. “If I might look on her sweet face again/And know that she is happy.” So he goes over to Philip’s house one November night and peers through the window. Here is Tennyson’s description of what Enoch sees:

And on the right hand of the hearth he saw
Philip, the slighted suitor of old times,
Stout, rosy, with his babe across his knees;
And o’er her second father stoopt a girl,
A later but a loftier Annie Lee,
Fair-hair’d and tall, and from her lifted hand
Dangled a length of ribbon and a ring
To tempt the babe, who rear’d his creasy arms,
Caught at and ever miss’d it, and they laugh’d:
And on the left hand of the hearth he saw
The mother glancing often toward her babe,
But turning now and then to speak with him,
Her son, who stood beside her tall and strong,
And saying that which pleased him, for he smiled.

Claude Rains takes it from here. “Enoch Arden” is another rare example of Rains’ unleashing a torrent of emotion, astonishing both for its energy and complexity. It’s no trick for an actor to shed tears on cue, nor to express rage at the top of his lungs. To do both together, while making sure that every word is clearly enunciated, each individual thought is specific and distinct (as opposed to producing a generalized wash of unhappiness), and to produce a believable result (i.e., the underlying technique must be invisible), but one that is better than merely believable — this is extremely difficult to do. It requires what the great Shakespearean director, John Barton, refers to as “Passion and Coolness.” Most actors will settle for one or the other. Actors like Claude Rains do both at the same time and, being the magicians they are, they don’t let you see how they do it.

Here is the finale.