Marc Connelly’s early plays were highly successful largely because they adequately fulfilled audience expectations. He chose his collaborators well, as he did the books and plays that he adapted. Although not a man of surpassing originality, he nevertheless brought a distinctive tone of gentility and sweet romanticism to his humor, tempering the brusque manner of Kaufman or the cynicism of Paul Apel. Throughout his work runs an implicit faith in people’s ability to act for the good of themselves and of humankind. For Connelly, humor brings forth all the elements of an earthly paradise: happiness, laughter, freedom from care, and harmony with others.
After a brief friendship, Connelly and Kaufman began their collaboration with Dulcy. A popular character in Franklin P. Adams’s New York World column “The Conning Tower,” Dulcinea was a chic suburban wife given to wearing fashionable clothes and uttering fashionable platitudes. A kind of satiric weather vane of the rising New York social set, she was ripe for appropriation for the stage, and she was taken by Connelly and Kaufman with Adams’s full support. Characteristically, they did not make her an object of satiric attack; rather, they made her language and that of her friends a vehicle for laughter. The play centers on Dulcy Smith, who in her Westchester home hosts a weekend party for her husband Gordon’s new business partner, C. Roger Forbes. Forbes wants to acquire Gordon’s jewelry business for only a fraction of its real value. Dulcy sets out to get more money from Forbes, a fairer price, and the action of the play turns on her efforts.
The other houseguests provide the heroine with a sufficient variety of difficulties to resolve before the final curtain. Dulcy’s brother, William Parker, falls in love with Forbes’s daughter Angela, who is already loved by another guest, screenwriter Vincent Leach. Schuyler Van Dyck is an otherwise attractive man who continually talks about the fortune he does not have, while Henry is a reformed forger whom Dulcy has converted into a butler.
Leach is supposed to encourage Mrs. Forbes’s desire to write for the movies, but Forbes is antagonized by Dulcy’s ploy, for he does not want his wife to become involved in the movie business. Dulcy further angers Forbes by helping his daughter Angela, who plans to elope with Leach. Indeed, Forbes becomes so angry that he threatens to leave at once, canceling his offer to buy Gordon’s business.
Dulcy is “a clever woman,” however, and in the third act, all the complications are resolved. Forbes agrees to pay 25 percent for Gordon’s business, rather than the 16 2/3 percent initially offered. Instead of eloping with Leach, Angela is married off to Dulcy’s stockbroker brother, William, pleasing her father no end. Schuyler Van Dyck is taken by Forbes for what he pretends to be, and Henry is exonerated of the charge of having stolen a pearl necklace.
If the action is uninspired, the au courant dialogue charmed contemporary audiences. Dulcy’s trite expressions are played off against those of the clever characters, the most clever of whom is her brother, who is rewarded with the girl of his dreams. The jargon of various professions is exquisitely mocked: Leach speaks the language of Hollywood (particularly in his account of his movie Sin, the play’s finest satiric set piece); Forbes speaks the language of Wall Street; and an incidental character, Tom Sterrett, an “advertising engineer,” speaks the lingo of Madison Avenue. Broadway found itself laughing at this congenial burlesque of jargon, for the authors never make their satire sting but rather invite one to pardon these amiably foolish types.
Merton of the Movies
Franklin Adams provided the impetus for another Connelly-Kaufman collaboration when he recommended in his column of February 3, 1922, Merton of the Movies, a novel by Harry Leon Wilson. The producer George C. Tyler then suggested it to the team, and the play opened November 13, 1922. Wilson’s novel is a biting attack on the hypocrisy and meretriciousness of Hollywood and its reflection of the pervasive lack of culture in the United States; Connelly and Kaufman viewed Hollywood with an air of such superior amusement that they could not feel themselves threatened enough to knot the lash of their satire any more than they had with Dulcy. Instead, they made the play a story of one man realizing his dream to be a Hollywood star, ultimately becoming as vapid and cynical as those he had so long worshiped on the screen. The play was a critical and popular success, running for 398 performances.
Merton Gill is a clerk in a general store in Simsbury, Illinois, who gains stardom in Hollywood. His knowledge and interest in the “art” of the movies is limited to the fan magazines and public relations interviews he devours, and so at the beginning of the play he is as easy a butt for jokes as is the movie industry itself. The summation of all his dreams is Beulah Baxter, the lead in the popular Hazards of Hortense serials to which Merton became addicted back in Simsbury. When he finally meets her, he finds not the sweet and simple ingenue she portrays but an oft-married, selfish starlet whose concerns about her art are as limited as her vocabulary. Tricked into appearing in a parody of his cinematic idol, Harold Parmalee, Merton becomes an overnight star. His gimmick is playing amusing roles seriously, which leads everyone (including the audience) to imagine that poor Merton is being used. In his final speech, however, which endeared him (and the play) to the Broadway audiences, Morton claims that he was not unwittingly used but that he had known what he was doing all along: He was creating satire so clever that most of his fans did not understand it.
Merton of the Movies was not the first parody of Hollywood, but it was one of the first stage productions to attempt the rapid scene shifts common to the medium it was satirizing. There are four acts and six scenes in this play, where Dulcy had three acts and one set only. Moreover, the action of the play unfolds before the audience as if they were watching a film in the process of being shot.
This play also presents the typical Connelly-Kaufman character: the innocent but honest man whose dreams are often compromised or negated by his own unwillingness or...
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