Cole Porter and other animals

400-x-600-Website-imageMalcolm and family celebrate the New Year (actually, a day or two after, to allow sobering up to have been achieved) with Trevor Nunn’s production of  Kiss Me, Kate at the Old Vic. Now, in passing, is that the first occasion for a long while when the grammatical comma has been correctly present in the title?

That alone should have triggered a response in Macolm’s conscience during the cooking of that previous item. Particularly so when the phrase ‘professional co-respondent’ was invoked.

Back in 1932 Cole Porter added songs to an unproduced play script by John Hartley Manners. Since Malcolm affects an Irish connection, let him give Manners a run around.

J. Hartley Manners

Manners was born in 1870, a child of an Irish couple, then arrived in London. We might speculate about his political leanings (they become significant some way down this post *) when we realise those parents were Catholics, and his mother wished him to enter the priesthood. Instead he went into the Civil Service, which in turn took him to Australia, where by 1898 he found himself on the stage in Melbourne. A year later, and back in London, he was working with Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s and George Alexander’s companies, notably as Laertes in a production of Hamlet — no small achievement for a neophyte.

220px-Manners_5537491874_7a3acdc651_oHis apprentice one-act effort, The Queen’s Messenger, later earned a place in media history:

In September 1928, W2XB (owned by General Electric’s WGY) in Schenectady, NY televised the  first dramatic program in the United States, The Queen’s Messenger, by J. Harley Manners, a blood and thunder play with guns, daggers, and poison. There were more technicians required for special effects than there were actors. In fact, technical limitations were so great and viewing screens so small, that only the actor’s individual hands or faces could be seen at one time. Three cameras were used, two for the characters and a third for obtaining images of gestures and appropriate stage props. Two assistant actors displayed their hands before this third camera whenever the occasion demanded. 

That was, in fact, the world’s first televised drama, beating the BBC’s adaptation of Pirandello’s L’Uomo dal Fiore in Bocca [“The Man with a Flower in his Mouth“] by some eighteen months.

The Queen’s Messenger, back at the turn of the century, had earned Manners a commission to write a star-vehicle, The Crossways, for (and, allegedly, with) Lily Langtree:

Mrs. Langtry opened last night in “The Crossways.” a new play which she has written in conjunction with her leading man. Mr. J. Hartley Manners. A large and hopeful audience greeted her pleasantly; but if it is a case of crossing the heart and hoping to die, it must be deposed that the occasion was not as a whole enlivening…

Their play is a geometric problem, the elements of which are the traditional triangle of husband, wife and lover, with certain projections in the shape of a runaway couple, a stolen necklace of pearls, a race at Acot, and such like. These materials are thrown together so as to make plenty of stage incidents and stage situations, and they lead in the end to the happiest Q.E.D.

j-hartley-mannersSo Manners is in New York, where other success persuaded him to concentrate on the writing rather than the acting.

In 1912 he hit the jack-pot with Peg o’ My Heart, the first part subtitled (and this is the element hinted at above *) —

The Romance of an Irish Agitator and an English Lady of Quality

This propelled Manners and the female lead, Laurette Taylor (whom he promptly married), into celebrity status; and the revenue continued with a musical adaptation (songs by Alfred Bryan and  Fred Fis[c]her), a novelisation and a silent movie.

The Manners legacy — and enter Cole Porter

In 1928, stomach cancer and an operation that went wrong finished Manners, but he left an unproduced script, The Adorable Adventure. This fell into the hands of Dwight Taylor (Manner’s step-son by Laurette’s first marriage) who polished it into the book for a musical, Gay Divorce, songs by Cole Porter.

the-gay-divorcee-movie-poster-1934-1020143387Gay Divorce played on Broadway (248 performances), transferred to London (a run of 180 performances at the Palace Theatre), with Fred Astaire and Claire Luce as leads. It was, therefore, Astaire’s last Broadway musical, and the only one he didn’t have sister Adele as his partner (she had offed and married Lord Charles Cavendish).

When RKO filmed The Gay Divorcee more than grammatical changes were involved. Astaire wanted Luce as his partner. She, however, had suffered a fall in the London run, and that effectively ended her dancing days — though she persisted in dramatic roles into the 1950s. RKO insisted their contract player, Ginger Rogers, be cast as Astaire’s opposite. Most of Porter’s songs went the same way, retaining only Night and Day and adding The Continental.

Cultural significances?

All of that is interesting, to an extent, in itself.

What is probably of more substance is the material of the play and the plot.

First of all, the original story-line seems somewhat advanced for its day. In the wikipedia summary (which is as abbreviated as any):

Guy Holden, an American writer traveling in England, falls madly in love with a woman named Mimi, who disappears after their first encounter. To take his mind off his lost love, his friend Teddy Egbert, a British attorney, takes him to Brighton Beach, where Egbert has arranged for a “paid co-respondent” to assist his client in obtaining a divorce from her boring, aging, geologist husband Robert. What Holden does not know is that the client is none other than Mimi, who in turn mistakes him — because he is too ashamed of his occupation to say what it is, namely pseudonymously writing cheap “bodice ripper” romance novels — for the paid co-respondent.

At the end, when her husband appears, he is unconvinced by the faked adultery—but is then unwittingly revealed, by the waiter at the resort, to have been genuinely adulterous himself.

While elements of that go back to the flighty-but-gritty fin de siècle stuff (try Oscar Wilde and early Shaw, for examples), any grit is about to be subverted into froth by the strengthened Hayes Office code. Even the change of title suggests the new morality imposed by Joseph Breen:

The moralizing Hayes Office said a divorce couldn’t ever be a happy event, but conceded that a divorcee could be in a good mood.

We therefore have a sub-text to the movie: creative artists pushing the Hayes Code as far as possible. And that, folks, is a matter of social history that still persists, even after the Code went into abeyance, and across all arts.


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Filed under Australia, Britain, Cole Porter, culture, films, George Bernard Shaw, History, Music, Oscar Wilde, Theatre

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