Monday, March 16, 2009

THE CRIMSON EYEBROWS

THE CRIMSON EYEBROWS (1922), by May Hewes Dodge and John Wilson Dodge, is arguably the "Springtime for Hitler" for the juvenile operetta set.

Yes, that sounds pretty extreme. Let me explain.

The Crimson Eyebrows refers to a historical event in China, back around the beginning of the Christian Era. A usurper by the name of Wang Mang, who'd been a powerful official during the reign of Emperor Gaiti, ascended the throne at the death of Gaiti and proclaimed himself emperor. A conspiracy was formed to overthrow him, but he crushed their efforts until a rebel chief named Fanchong gathered a huge army and opposed Wang Mang. Fanchong had his followers paint their eyebrows red to show they would be faithful until the very last drop of their blood -- hence, the Crimson Eyebrows.

Now, this is fairly heavy duty stuff -- but what does it become under the hands of the Dodges? Well, to quote them: " our only object has been to amuse". And indeed they do — by throwing out everything but the names and only the slightest amount of motivation for these two men. In the Dodges' version, Wang Mang is Emperor, and he's afraid he'll lose the throne to Ting Ling, one of Gaiti's daughters. So he plots to have her married off to one of his fellow conspirators by telling her that Star Eye, the court astrologer, has read in the stars that she is a reincarnation of Venus, beloved by Neptune, whose reincarnated self is on the way to marry her.

Unfortunately for Wang, Ting Ling meets Fanchong and, believing him to be Neptune, falls in love with him. Accordingly, when Wang presents his accomplice as "Neptune", Ting Ling promptly refuses to marry him. Needless to say, Wang doesnt take well to this news. And it gets even worse for him when Hing Lee, a spy of Fanchong's, learns of the conspiracy. He warns Fanchong who in turn warns Ting Ling, and they decide to elope.

Well, of course they're discovered, and Fanchong's sent to prison. Wang tries to hasten his planned marriage and is about to order Fanchong's execution, when Hing Lee opens the palace gates to the Crimson Eyebrows. Fanchong is saved. Ting Ling gets her throne. She's proclaimed Empress. Fanchong gets to be Emperor. Wang, inexplicably, is punished by marrying "Buddha", Gaiti's widow. And the curtain falls.

Okay, let's back up a bit. Venus? Neptune? In China? Ooo-kay. But that's not what makes this work so mind-spinning. No, you have to look at the characterization given to Wang Mang, who's been transformed from a vicious, bloodthirsty emperor wanna-be to a Borscht Belt comedian.

WANG (to the girls' chorus, which is prostate before him) Get up, anteaters. Your position gives me a backache, and I'm all out of Omega oil.

His subsequent scene with the amazingly scatter-brained Ting Ling:

WANG. One day, during your annual frolic on the beach with the mermaids, none other than Neptune met and fell in love with you.

TING. How sweet.

WANG. Neptune wished to give up his command of the navy and join the air force.

TING. Think of it. I, a star!

WANG. Yes, indeed, you were a pretty picture.

TING. Then I was a picture star?

WANG. Yes, appearing exclusively in terrestial dramas under the solar system.

... and so on and so on, with one relentlessly bad joke after another, culminating with:

TING. My ancestors will rejoice with me, wont they, good kind Wangy?

WANG. Before I get through with you, I promise you'll be able to talk it over with them personally.

Or, from Fanchong's first meeting Ting Ling:

FANCHONG. May I venture in then?

TING. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

FANCHONG. Thanks. I'll just drop in on you.

TING. Not on me, please. You'd make too much an impression for your first call.

CRIMSON EYEBROWS mixes a few shreds of history with a whole lot of slapstick, and the result is... well, fun, but in that strange, perverse "Producers" kind of way. It's almost like the Dodges set out to write this vaudeville (which is pretty much what it is) as a sort of Hellzapoppin' mosh of... well, everything in general and nothing in particular. 1920s movies, international politics, even the nascent Red Threat were fodder for a seemingly endless string of groaners, as though the Dodges meant this as a star turn for the Marx Brothers -- athough 1922 seems a little early for that: perhaps the inspiration was some other comedy team since so much of the humour comes from Wang and Star Eye's scenes. Still, it doesnt take much to see Groucho playing Wang with Chico as the astrologer and Margaret Dumont as Buddha.

Lyrically, it's just as much a mix:

Ting Ling marries with Neptune
We'll have a jubilee
The stars will flirt with the mermaids
There'll be scandal in the sea
The mermaids will fall for the octopus
For he has arms galore
He can make love to lots of them
With plenty of room for more

... and when the imposter Neptune arrives:

I am Neptune from the ocean
There's no seaweed in my queue
I've a scale tho in my octave
That I'll demonstrate for you
See my retinue of lobsters
And at home I've mermaids cute
All dressed up so nice and nifty
In their one-piece bathing suit

There's an especially head-wrenching quintet, "When December marries with May", and a hysterically awful trio for the "Three Gay Conspirators":

Three gay conspirators are we
Deal death in cups of tea
Fill food with ground up glass
Inspection it would pass
Trap doors right in the floor
Thru them you'll rise no more
Cut throats of every band
Wait for our command

... at which point the chorus just... stops. There's no real resolution to the song, which is a pity because in more accomplished hands it could have gone on to a wonderfully black conclusion. But that seems the case more often than not with the songs in CRIMSON EYEBROWS. Few of them are really developed but merely page and a half themes with lyrics attached. The quintet and Neptune's entrance music certainly pound it all home, but anything in the way of a solo or even a duet just rambles until it gets tired, then it stops and takes a little nap while the play soldiers on.

Nevertheless, bottom line time. Is it fun? Yes, in a spectacularly terrible way. It's a comedy skit that runs the jokes way too long but makes up for it with relentlessness: "You think that joke's bad? Just wait! We got a million of 'em!" There's no doubt it was inspired by vaudeville comedians of the time and, with a little cleanup to remove the more dated and somewhat obscure references, would still amuse audiences in a baggy-pants, seltzer-water way.

Yes, it's troubling that the Dodges took a dark moment of China's history and made it a grab-bag of bad one-liners and near absurdist puns. Wang Mang was a pretty terrible guy who wouldnt think twice about murdering his own mother if it got him the throne -- and yet, in the Dodges' careful hands, he's a laugh machine with a Snidely Whiplash moustache. Fanchong is reduced from a real hero to an Errol Flynn parody, with a sparkling smile and a ready kiss as he leaps over the garden wall.

And what makes it all the more disturbing is that the damn thing still reads and would no doubt play onstage very, very well.

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