Friday, November 14, 2008


CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE (1926), by Estelle Merrymon Clark and Palmer John Clark, answers the ever-daunting question: can a simple foster child, an old-fashioned girl taken under the wing of a wise old owner of a boarding house, ever gain the love of the ne'er-do-well whose father has arranged surreptitiously to pay off his son's debts to men of questionable morality by using one of his school chums whom everyone thinks is the governor's son and attending school incognito?

I stay awake at night pondering such questions, I assure you. Thank goodness the Clarks were here to answer it. I just wish they could have done so in a slightly less complicated way. This one has more subplots and counterplots and Lord only knows what all else to fill a dozen operettas, but the Clarks have managed - somehow - to fit them all into one almost-tidy little script.

So... to graze through the story -- Spenser Goodnow, student and only son of the industrialist Hiram Goodnow, has fallen into evil ways. How evil, you wonder? Drugs, perhaps? (It is, after all, the 1920s, so we're not too far from "Reefer Madness".) Alcohol? Gun running? Nope, not at all, dear reader. He owes money... and apparently not much, except that, again, this is the world of the High School Operetta, where everything is very, very good or very, very bad. His owing money, even if just a little, is very, very bad. Poor boy. So he plans on throwing one last blowout for his friends and then disappearing someplace until the heat is off...

... and then he meets Carrie. Sweet, old-fashioned Carrie, who's madly in love with Spenser but doesnt dare tell him because after all he's rich and she's poor and it would never work out. Still, the girl's smitten. So's he, but see, that's the thing: he cant tell her; she cant tell him.

Ah well, no one ever said operetta leads were especially bright.

Okay, so Dad finds out that Spenser owes a little coin. Once he calms down, he arranges, through Madam Lousie the Beauty Doctor (dont ask, I have no idea), who apparently works for Hiram as a snitch on Spenser, to pay off the creditors by giving it to one of Spenser's schoolmates, Porky, who's rumoured to be the son of the governor because he always has a lot of free cash on him. One of Spenser's other schoolmates, Tommy, an inordinately serious student who avoids even looking at girls if it's going to interrupt his studies, tells Spense that Porky is taking care of everything, and Spenser is happy that someone else is there to clean up his mess... until Porky blabs everything and Spenser now thinks everyone is out to get him and it's all just terrible. Now he wont accept the loan -- which has put Carrie in an awkward position, because she's told Spenser's creditors that he's acknowledging his debts and paying them. Her solution? She'll pay the bill, even though it takes every penny she has. She then turns around and tells Spenser to be a man for once in his life and get a job so he can pay her back.

Miraculously, Spenser picks up the gauntlet and redeems himself... entirely... within three lines of dialogue and an intermission. No more easy times for this boy, nossir: he's opening an auto repair shop, which is, of course, such a huge hit that he's able to repay Carrie and keep his grades up so he can attend commencement. But he hasnt been exactly kind about it because he thinks she was part of the plot (even though she wasnt), and the poor girl becomes so distraught that she decides to leave town, maybe find some other boy that needs a girl to pay off his ill-gotten debts. But Madam Louise (remember her?) stops her at the train station and confesses that she is Spenser's mother (Bet you never saw that one coming!) as well as Carrie's aunt (via a step-sister, so there's none of that icky incest problem). Governor Thomson shows up and reveals that Tommy is his son and that his boy has earned the ten grand promised him if he kept his grades up. Spenser gets Carrie. Tommy gets the "spitfire" Bobby (Yes, of course Bobby is a girl -- it's 1925, remember?). Porky gets... well, nothing, I guess. A warm, friendly hug from the Governor -- uh-oh....

And the curtain lurches to the floor.

I'll give you a few moments to catch your breath.

Okay, the songs in this epic. Spenser certainly shows his colours with his opening number:

Dainty little girls,
Like a string of pearls,
Scintillating gay and sweet,
Naughty imps I see,
Tantalizing me,
In your merry dancing feet.

Mothers, keep your daughters far away from this boy. Fathers, keep your sons away from Porky:

China is the place I'm going
Where they wear their garments flowing
Eat chop suey, rice, and bouillon,
Drink tea they call the Oolong
But to me food shouldnt matter
Gee, it only makes me fatter
Now I'm just a perfect measure
For a China girl to treasure

Chinky, chinky China girl
Pompadou without a curl
Rosebud lips, dont we look sweet
Pretty little dancing feet
Sip our tea or flirt or fan
Smiling at you 'Melican man
We dont dance in twists or whirls
We are only China girls.

Dont you wish, Porky honey. But you can understand his need for such a fantasy world when you see what he has to deal with in real life. See, poor Porky is pretty much the school's escape hatch: always there to lend the money when they need it, but do they respond with thanks? Nope. As Spenser sings:

When I go walking down the street
With Porky as my ally
The people will declare
"There goes the millionaire"
They'll say my style is hard to beat
And though Porky's clothes are rather neat
They'll say he is my valet
They'll say he is my valet
And Porky'll take me for a spin
In a car not made of bumps and tin
Oh, I'm not telling what I'll do
When Porky pays my IOU

Is there something about that song that seems a little... disconcerting? Even more so when it's followed by a four-part hymn to money and how it can buy you all the right friends? This play, like BETTY LOU, really makes you wonder what the authors were thinking when they put it together, because everyone's almost obsessed with making a quick buck when they're not ripping off a friend. Tommy seems the noblest of our cast of academics-in-training, but even then you have to wonder where his father came up with ten grand as a graduation present, like perhaps he was raiding the public coffers a bit? In CARRIE COMES TO COLLEGE THE SEQUEL, do we find out that the Governor has been put in jail for theft? Does Porky exact a cruel revenge for all the abuse he suffered from his classmates? Does Bobby ever reveal that she is actually a he? Does Spenser's auto body shop steal from its customers as efficiently and thoroughly as Spenser ripped off his friends?? Does Carrie ever wear a dress that isnt gingham?

Maybe the Clarks didnt answer the questions at all. I'm gonna be awake for hours.

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