The Great Clowns of Broadway by Stanley Green, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y. 320 pp, $19.95 cloth.
American humor is a barometer of American values, and the clowns who get the biggest laughs are those who capture the public pulse in the cadences of their comic delivery. In September 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, one of Broadway’s most successful comedians appeared in a sketch that echoes the rhythms of a ticker-tape machine. Every line of the dialogue was punctuated by a stock market price quote. The scene ended with two detectives apprehending a criminal:
First Detective: When people in the United States Steel 202 and ⅜, we always get ’em!
Second Detective: Come! This means 20 years for you in American Can 164 and ⅞!
This timely, satiric comment on the nation’s obsession with Wall Street is quoted in Stanley Green’s new book, The Great Clowns of Broadway. It appears in a chapter on Willie Howard, a popular comedian who played the detective in George White’s Scandals, a rival of the Ziegfeld Follies. Green does not mention that the sketch premiered five weeks before the stock market crashed. He presents the material with the same factual nonchalance that accompanies the preceding paragraph’s description of Howard’s role as a philandering husband “glancing at his sweetie with a twinkle and a leer.”
In fact, Green never makes distinctions between the trivial and the topical routines of his subjects. For the reader interested in more than a superficial analysis of Broadway comedy, this author’s approach can be frustratingly inadequate, but it is no more arbitrary than the material he is writing about. Howard’s Stock Market Sketch appeared in the same revue with the skit about the lecherous husband. Pointless and pointed comedy co-existed regularly in the popular theatre of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. In 1939 Howard portrayed a French poodle on its knees in front of a Nazi dachshund, but he was just as comfortable getting laughs as a slapstick barber stuffing a lathered brush down a customer’s throat.
The other clowns in Green’s book are equally eclectic in their choice of material. Bobby Clark, who began his career as a circus clown, won over audiences with an impersonation of an Indian squaw whose papoose wore glasses and smoked a cigar, but he was equally successful garnering laughs in revivals of Sheridan and Molière. Fanny Brice’s caricatures ranged from Ellis Island immigrants to striptease fan dancers. W.C. Fields parodied Teddy Roosevelt and juggled cigar boxes. Ed Wynn appeared in a 1937 anti-war musical called Hooray for What!, but his character spent his time trying to get cows to sleep on their backs so the cream would come out on top in the morning.
The dreamy innocence of these clowns mirrored the political naiveté of their audiences, and their scrambled priorities provided a zany reflection of the patchwork values of their public. In 1936 Beatrice Lillie lampooned the bewildering responses of theatregoers by portraying a talkative member of the audience watching Gielgud’s Hamlet, which also played in New York that year. She began by calling the uppity usher a Communist, and complained that everyone in Hamlet talks “like all those dreadful New Dealers.” Hamlet’s black clothes reminded her of the black suit she bought at Bergdorf Goodman’s. The confusion of culture, politics, manners and fashion that surfaces in Lillie’s sketch is representative of the madcap pluralism that dominated the Broadway landscape between the two World Wars.
Green’s book overflows with fascinating details about the performances of Broadway’s star clowns, but sometimes the content is overwhelmed by an encyclopedic cascade of famous names and meaningless quotations. One has to wade through a lot of inane descriptions of the various artists as “unflaggingly funny” or “the funniest man in the history of mankind” before getting to the truly insightful commentary Green has collected, like Alexander Woolcott’s remark that W.C. Fields’ “shameless old mountebank has the flavor of someone astray from one of Mark Twain’s riverboats.”
The link between the American literary tradition and Broadway comedy is only one of the tantalizing ideas suggested by a perusal of Green’s book. The parallels between Bert Lahr’s vaudevillian patter and the dialogue in Waiting for Godot make it easy to understand why Lahr fell so naturally into his interpretation of the comic hopelessness in Beckett’s play. Connections like these are implicit in the material covered by the book, but Green himself offers little analysis of the historical or theatrical context in which his Broadway clowns flourished. His book is a valuable compendium of relatively inaccessible information about popular American theatre, but it neglects to explain why the facts it recounts should be of interest to anyone other than theatre history buffs and Broadway fans. Green has scratched the surface of a rich topic whose significance deserves deeper exploration.
Ron Jenkins, a former circus clown, teaches at Emerson College and recently received a Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard University to study European traditions of comedy.
AMERICAN THEATRE/JANUARY 1985
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