Sunday, July 13, 2008

IN OLD VIENNA, OR PICKLES

JEANIE was such a dismal experience to write about, I felt I had to make amends. So to balance things a bit this weekend... IN OLD VIENNA (1925).

Just as inane as everything else presented thus far, IN OLD VIENNA (subtitled PICKLES), by Gordon Wilson, Donn Crane, and Allan Benedict, is much like ROSE OF THE DANUBE because it carries its lightweight and absurd story with some pretty smart and stylish charm. There are several parallel plotlines, some of which (surprisingly enough) arent all that predictable. In order of presentation:

-- a businessman from the US, accompanied by his daughter, has come to Vienna to take a holiday,

-- his "advertising expert" has also come along and makes it his mission to convert the entire city to "pickle mania",

-- an English widow has come to Vienna to search for her long-lost daughter,

-- a corrupt Viennese policeman tried to engineer a "fake daughter" in the form of his own fiancee, thus assuring that, if his plan succeeds, he gets to cash in as well on the widow's fortune,

-- a gypsy girl revolts from the domineering control of her father,

-- and an impoverished American artist, ten years too early for the mania of going to Paris to be an impoverished artist, seeks recognition (not to mention monetary supprt) for his talent.

Wilson and Crane move through these various plotlines with speed and efficiency and leave plenty of room for Benedict to give the singers some rather memorable numbers. When I first read it, I had no idea of its age and thought that it, like JEANIE, was the result of a cultural craze -- in this case, the Hope/Crosby/Lamour "Road" movies. But this precedes them by a good fifteen years, even though it has the same light touch and self-effacing feel. The characters are drawn two-dimensionally, of course, but written with a self-reflective sense of humour that says, "Hey, we're just here to have a few laughs", without being too inane in the process. One cannot read the lines given, for example, Jennison Jones, the ad man, without immediately thinking of Danny Kaye or Donald O"Connor, especially during the song "Pickles":

JONES. I remember as a child, all innocent and sweet --

CHORUS. Do you mean it?

JONES. I surely do.
I was very very fond of anything to eat

CHORUS. Were you really?

JONES. Wait til I'm through.
But of all the dainties that were a pleasure to devour

Pickles were my favourite, for Id eat them by the hour.
Some were sweet and some were dill and some were sour

CHORUS. That's so funny!

JONES. Funny to you!
Pickles! Pickles!
Fifty nine varieties of pickles!
They were green as they could be,
But they filled my heart with glee
And filled my belt with a-gon-nee!

... and so on. It's all very silly and yet very much a blast.

For her part, Ilona, the gypsy girl, has Dorothy Lamour written all over her: sultry, scheming, yet clearly the love interest for our Mr. Jones from the moment they first meet. She gets a showstopping dance entrance and then gets to vacillate between playing cute for Jones and playing caged tigress to her father Jigo. For the time, it's quite the stretch.

But even the second-tier characters are wonderfully drawn: Louisa, Kinski's long-suffering fiancee, is written in a hysterical mock-Germanic accent, such that you cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who loves too knowingly and not so well. Despite their names, Bumski and Rumski, Kinski's faithful assistants, are given remarkable comic turns for their brief moments onstage. And the choral ensemble, rather than providing atmosphere, gets its share of sardonic fun as well, as seen by the opening number sung by a group of American tourists:

We have traveled all around
But till now we've never found
Any town that was so thoroughly delightful.
We will settle here awhile
For we rather like the style
And compared to this the other burgs are frightful.

This is probably a work that came into high schools as a result of a run in New York, although there's nothing at IBDB.com to support that. Still, it's a very polished piece, so I suspect it was first presented by a professional company before dropping into the catalogue of HT Fitzsimmons' "operettas for schools and community theatres". As is the case with most authors and composers of these works, there's scant information about Wilson, Crane, or Benedict, and that's a pity, because if IN OLD VIENNA is any indication, this was a team that knew how to put on a show. About the only thing I have found is that Donn Crane was also an accomplished artist and provided several cover illustrations for these little musicals. If anyone knows anything more about them or their work, let me know.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Donn P. Crane was a Chicago-based artist who made a living primarily illustrating children's books -- My Bookhouse, Journeys Through Bookland, Booktrails, etc. He was an accomplished etcher as well. My grandfather in fact.

Wish my dad was still alive because he had the details about the musical involvement. Thanks for writing about these!

Nancy said...

I'm a family history/genealogy blogger who recently found a 1936 high school photo of my aunt and the rest of the cast of "In Old Vienna." I was searching online for more information about the operetta and found your blog post. Thank you for all the information you provide. I especially like that you posted the image of the cover.

I will be posting the cast photo on an upcoming Saturday and linking it to a meme called Sepia Saturday (sepiasaturday.blogspot.com). I will include a link to your post about the operetta as well as your post discussing the difficulty of not having "original" productions on which to base future interpretations. (Excellent post, by the way, and something I hadn't thought about!)

I would like to ask your permission to quote the plotlines you listed - giving you credit, of course.

I will come back to read comments with the hope that you'll respond. Or, you can go to my blog and use the contact button on the lower left of the screen to send a response.

Thank you so much for your blog.

Nancy from My Ancestors and Me
at http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com

Sean Martin said...

Nancy, I'd be delighted! Please feel free to use whatever materials you may need.

And note that I discovered a revised version of PICKLES: there's a post for it closer to the end of the blog. Checking the tags for this one should take you there.

Nancy said...

Thanks so much, Sean. I'll come back and let you know when the post goes up. Thanks for mentioning two posts. I realized that I copied links to two different posts, one last night, one today, and thought they were the same. Looking at them again, I notice that the covers are different. Fun!

Nancy said...

Sean, I just wanted to let you know I published the post with the photo of the cast and orchestra of "In Old Vienna." You can see it here if you're interested: http://nancysfamilyhistoryblog.blogspot.com/2011/07/operetta-in-old-vienna-at-mineral-ridge.html

Thanks so much for giving permission to use your words. Thinking about it now, I could have included a photo of the cover.... I hope people will click through to your blog and read your posts.

Thanks again. Nancy.

Anonymous said...

Sara says--This play was performed in Chicago (at Deborah Boy's Club) in around 1961. My friend Pam played Ilona. I still remember the word to 'Pickles', 'Jimmy', 'The Duty of a Cop' (sung by Bumski and Rumski). I loved this show then and still do.