Richard Bennett and Pauline Lord in They Knew What They Wanted

By Samuel L. Leiter

Burns Mantle, editor of The Best Plays of the Year series, took great pride in the fact, for the first time in the series’ six-year history, all ten of his selections for 1924-1925 were American plays, without a single outstanding new foreign drama to rival them. (Some might wonder why, while noting its high entertainment value, he bypassed Ferenc Molnar’s hit play, The Guardsman, the first of many to co-star husband and wife team Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.) 

While noting his respect for his own “puritanical ancestry,” Mantle nonetheless encouraged the new wave of grittily honest playwriting, while hoping this newfound “freedom of expression” would nonetheless find a way to remain “discreetly and intelligently restrained.” He makes this point because he has to confess that four of the ten plays excerpted in his book were involved in the year’s various censorship disputes. 

Those provocative plays were Eugene O’Neill’s Desire under the Elms, Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson’s What Price Glory, Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted, and Edwin Mayer’s The Firebrand. Such company deserves to be recognized by considering them for today’s column. The year’s less controversial choices were Dan Totheroh’s Wild Birds, Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding’s Dancing Mothers, Mary Kennedy and Ruth Hawthorne’s Mrs. Partridge Presents, James Gleason and George Abbott’s The Fall Guy, Philip Barry’s The Youngest, and Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s Minick. Readers will note, by the way, the relative abundance of collaborative efforts.

Mildred McLeod in Wild Birds

Space being at a premium, what follows describes only four plays instead of the usual five included in this series. Three (The Firebrand, What Price Glory?, and They Knew What They Wanted) are from the quartet whose wrists were slapped for naughtiness (apologies to Desire under the Elms); the fourth is the less well-known Wild Birds

The latter was considered by Mantle himself a bit controversial because, unlike its moneymaking fellows, it was a box office failure. Mantle attributed this to its being “stark tragedy,” as well as “obscurely produced.”  He saw Wild Birds as a forerunner of a new generation of playwrights, offering this prophetic observation from the year 1925: “In another ten or fifteen years, when you and I are content to stay at home and take our entertainment from the phonofilm, the more forward young folks will be discussing with bated breath and amazing words the latest soul analyses of the theatre.”  

When Mantle noted the obscurity of its production, he was referring to Wild Birds having been shown Off Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where it opened on April 9, 1925, and ran for 44 performances. It had come to New York from California, where it won a playwriting contest at the University of California. One of the judges, critic George Jean Nathan, wrote in his review of the New York staging, “The author is not without a measure of imagination, but that imagination calls for a very great deal of careful fencing in if it is to produce anything like sound drama.” Nathan admitted to voting for the play only because the competition was so feeble, which might be called the definition of a backhanded compliment.

Joseph Schildkraut in The Firebrand

Wild Birds, set on a Midwestern prairie farm, is a tragedy of young love, written with somber overtones of Ibsen and O’Neill. In it a lonely farm girl, Corie Slag (Mildred Whitney), has an affair with a reform school fugitive, Adam Larson (Donald Duff), whom her father, John (Dodson L. Mitchell), hides from the authorities. They elope while everyone is attending to a conflagration in a neighbor’s barn, but when they are caught and Corie’s pregnancy is revealed, the father kills the boy and the girl drowns herself.

Stark Young discerned moments of power and imagination, and a strong sense of suspense. He had to admit, though, that “The play . . . is one of those instances in art where much is projected but less is achieved. Motives and situations are proposed rather than created. . . . It is in the writing itself, in the speeches, that the play shows most of its shortcomings.”

Of the three other plays described here, Edwin Justus Mayer’s The Firebrand (Morosco Theatre, October 14, 1924, 287) had the shortest post-production life. The Firebrand is a costume-drama spoof on the romantic milieu of Florence in the age of the Medicis, based more on inspiration than documentation. It purports to be an account of several adventures involving the temperamental, dashing romantic sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini (Joseph Schildkraut). The play pays little heed to the accuracy of its historical characters’ behavior or language. It is a bedroom farce in which the people “concerned refused to be frightened by their historical significance. They talk like human beings—if often like the human beings that [farce writer] Avery Hopwood knows,” declared Stephen Vincent Benet.

Eden Gray and Joseph Schildkraut in The Firebrand

The complex plot pictures the fiery Cellini after his having slain an enemy. He is sought for hanging by the slow-witted, henpecked Duke (Frank Morgan). The latter is soon diverted by his passion for the beauteous model Angela (Eden Gray), with whom Cellini is in love. Various complications arise, including the Duke’s connivance to bed Angela, and the Duchess’s (Nana Bryant) maneuvers likewise with the artist. More murders, bedroom mix-ups, and counterplots ensue. At the end, the Duke gets his heart’s desire, and Cellini is once more ensconced in the ducal favor.

The Firebrand (adapted into an unsuccessful musical, The Firebrand of Florence, in 1945), as noted, contained some questionable material, leading to it being investigated by the city’s “play jury.” Backed by the power of the District Attorney, the jurors requested certain changes in the script and action. The producers, not wishing to see their show padlocked, acceded and The Firebrand continued to burn.

With What Price Glory? (Plymouth Theatre, 9/5/24, 435), we put away the side dishes and get to the main course of works that bec ame staples of the modern drama. Directed by Arthur Hopkins, Stallings and Anderson’s potent comedy-drama of American doughboys fighting World War I in France benefited from Stallings’s having served as a Marine, losing a leg in battle. His insight into the hell of war combined with Anderson’s dramaturgic skills created was universally recognized as the finest, most honest war play yet produced in English. It lost out in the Pulitzer Prize competition to The Knew What They Wanted (see below) because some objected to its macho profanity (once notorious, now tepid). Its plot was notably thin, but the world it evoked was seen as the most realistic, bitter, and truthful ever attempted on the modern stage, stripped of conventional nods to patriotism and sentimentality.

Brian Donlevy, George Tobias, Louis Wolheim, and Leyla George in What Price Glory?

Because it was so true to the deeds and words of men at war, it ran into opposition. Hopkins sought to forestall objections to such expletives as “bastard,” “son-of-a-bitch,” “Jesus Christ,” and “Goddamn” by printing an apology in the program, but was pressured to make modifications. “Bastards,” referring to men in uniform, was temporarily replaced by “baboons.” There were also attempts, by high-ranking Navy and Marine officers, to censor the play because they thought it cast an unpleasant light on the armed forces.

Most of the critics adored it. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote that it “has that stunning double fidelity to life and to art that is its greatness.” The authors had told their tale not through unrelieved grimness but via the filter of Rabelasian humor. Joseph Wood Krutch wrote that “they have imbued it with so robust a spirit that we are treated to the strange spectacle of a tragedy which is played to the accompaniment of a continual ripple of laughter without once ceasing to be powerful and moving.” Arthur Hornblow, however, argued that it “was not a faithful picture of war” because only the sordid and not the spiritual and heroic side had been depicted.

The plot pits two veteran Marines, Sgt. Flagg (Louis Wolheim) and Sgt. Quirt (William Boyd), against each other over their attraction toward the Alsatian barmaid Charmaine de la Cognac (Leyla Georgie), the play’s only female. These swearing, hard-drinking, pugnacious rivals leave her for the front, where they are seen as brave, yet human, soldiers facing injury and death with boldness and compassion. They return to Charmaine and argue some more until surprised by an order sending them back to the front. They leave, reluctantly, but with the promise their friendly hatred will go with them. Quirt’s curtain line, “Hey, Flagg, wait for baby,” became a classic.

Louis Wolheim and William Boyd in What Price Glory?

The excellent production was bolstered by Wolheim and Boyd’s impressive acting. Making his debut was future movie star Brian Donlevy as Cpl. Gowdy. What Price Glory? was made into two films, a silent one in 1926 and a talkie in 1952, starring James Cagney, Dan Daily, and Corinne Calvet. There were also three sequels to the 1926 version, in 1929 (a musical), 1931, and 1933.

Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted (Garrick Theatre, 11/24/24, 192) did not run as long as What Price Glory? but it won the Pulitzer Prize and, in 1956, was made into a popular, still revived musical, The Most Happy Fella. One of the greatest Theatre Guild hits, it was coupled with one of the period’s most luminous performances in Pauline Lord’s portrayal of the San Francisco waitress, Amy, who becomes a mail-order bride.

Its action occurs on the Napa Valley, California, grape-growing farm of aging Italian immigrant Tony (Richard Bennett). Amy arrives thinking her soon-to-be spouse is the handsome young fellow in the photo Tony sent her. Actually, it is of his foreman, Joe (Glenn Anders). Although disappointed to learn the truth, Amy proceeds with the wedding, but succumbs to Joe’s charms and sleeps with him, but only once. Three months later, pregnant, she confesses the truth to Tony, but he overcomes his revulsion to forgive her. Joe, meanwhile, departs for places unknown. Each character has gotten what they wanted.

Pauline Lord, Richard Bennett, and Glenn Anders in They KnewWhat They Wanted

A heartwarming response greeted the play and production. A few critics noted resemblances to the story of Paolo and Francesca, while others said the play shared certain things with Desire under the Elms. Howard himself announced that the source of the story was the tale of Tristram and Yseult (Tristan and Isolde). Stark Young wrote, “The bare telling cannot convey the kindly, glowing atmosphere and the sense of the children of songs and the vine that Mr. Howard achieves in the characters.” Joseph Wood Krutch remarked that this “extraordinarily interesting” work was a beautiful expression of the idea that “the art of life is . . . the art of compromise,” a thesis not easy to dramatize but treated in a “thoroughly satisfactory” manner through the depiction of the various roles. Arthur Hornblow sanctioned the play’s construction, dialogue, and acting, but disapproved of its “repellent situations,” and Time was turned off by “the most consistently severe profanity of any play within memory.” 

The acting of Anders and Bennett merited great respect, but Lord was idolized. Young declared, “Pauline Lord gave one of those instances of her work at its best that glorifies and makes pitiful the whole art of acting. . . . [S]he never missed a shading or a point; she had always a wonderful, frail power . . . , and throughout . . . a kind of beautiful, poignant accuracy.” 

“Leiter Looks Back” will be back with a sampling of the best musicals of 1924-1925, a season that included 16 book musicals, albeit only a tiny number of them truly memorable. We’ll certainly look back at The Chocolate Dandies, Rose-Marie, Lady, Be Good!, The Student Prince. What a fifth choice might be, if space allows, awaits to be discovered.