Friday, March 27, 2009

THE PALACE OF CARELESSNESS

From Ivine, Laurene, and Hattiebell Shields comes THE PALACE OF CARELESSNESS (1928), which isnt so much an operetta in two acts as it is two one-act operettas joined at the hip.

Act One is a room in the Lost and Found Building in London, home to discarded and lost items such as umbrellas, watches, dolls, even pieces of candy that sit waiting for their owners to come and reclaim them. Every night at midnight, the objects come to life for one hour, and our first act is essentially a revue of singing and dancing Then, precisely at one AM, everything is returned to its place on the various shelves, and it's quiet once more.

Act Two shifts things to a courtroom, where the judge and jury convene to pass sentence on those who come in search of his lost belongings. An organ grinder comes looking for his lost monkey. A sad clown is in search of laugh. A Boy Scout does his good deed by helping an old man into the chambers to find his umbrella. A little girl and her nurse arrive in search of a doll she left on the streetcar. The sight of all these people reunited with their lost things returns the clown's laugh. With a solemn promise to NEVER BE CARELESS AGAIN, court is adjourned.

Aimed more at grade school performers than high school, PALACE is a morality play on the importance of keeping track of one's possessions, but, in the beginning at least, it's not like it hits you over the head with it. Rather, the first act is more a party atmosphere, with the toy solders marching about and a teddy bear dancing for peanuts. The dolly is a bit too self-important for her own good, but she too soon enters into the spirit of things — after all, she too has been left behind.

But it's Act Two where the lesson is whacked over your head like a cudgel. The judge makes it plain from his entrance that he will brook no nonsense:

In this court strange matters are decided
To this judge strange doings are confided
Oft by me the foolish are derided
For stories told a trifle one-sided

I am the Judge, the Judge am I
My station in life is very high
Yet I must listen to tear and sigh
Of careless people, oh my

... and the careless begin to arrive, each with his or her own story of how something was lost. As you might expect, it's quite never the owner's fault. The monkey was there, now it's gone! I know I had the umbrella in my hand just a moment ago! and so on and so on. The jury's inclined to be lenient, but the judge seems to lose more and more patience. At the end of the day, he commands all of them to swear:

I promise that careful as careful I'll be
This day and henceforth evermore I do swear
To keep my belongings I'll take the greatest care

— as the found objects jubilate:

Of course we were quite panic stricken
On finding we were lost
With a terrible queer sick feeling here
And our minds were torn and toss't.

But here in the Palace we made good friends
Now we all agree
Wherever you are in this great wide world
Some friendly souls you'll see

Friends, indeed. The Shields were careful themselves to make their animated objects endearing to the extreme, from the portly alarm clock to the haughty doll to even the old umbrella lady.

I'm old and I'm rusty
My poor ribs all crack
Whenever I'm opened
By Jill or by Jack
I'm always passed 'round
From this hand to that
And when the rain's over
I'm left on the mat

There's even a sack of vegetables:

What jolly vegetables are we
We make you well and strong
We're popped into a cooker pot
And cooked the whole day long
The funniest thing about us
We're always in a stew
You'd think we'd never laugh or sing
But that's just what we do

When the kettle is hot
We sing and we shout
To the whistle of old man Steam
We skip and we prance
To a gay bubble dance
We all make such a jolly good team

Much like THIRTY MINUTES WITH THE MIKADO, the choreography is all explicitly spelled out in text to the measure numbers of the songs. None of it is especially difficult — this is for junior grades, after all — but it's still fascinating to see the movements the authors had in mind for their songs and how much conveys the character, whether candy stick or ravenous bear.

As usual, there's not much to be found about the Shields. A net search didnt unearth anything, which isnt so surprising. Reading the script, I suspect they were British: everything feels authentically English — except for the Boy Scout, whom I suspect was inserted by the American publisher. I wonder if this was initially a European script (like WILD ROSE) that was resold to the larger American market and given only a bare gloss of a translation to make it attractive to schools over here.

The gorgeous cover is uncredited, but the initials CMC are in the top centre vignette, indicating it's the work of Corina Melder-Collier, who, like Donn Crane, was an artist frequently employed by these companies for either cover art or interior illustration (I suspect, but cannot verify, that she did the cover for CROCODILE ISLAND as well: it looks to be the same style). Most of her work consisted of interior drawings for books of songs or games for children, but she made the occasional foray into operettas as well. As with so many others in this collection, the typography is all hand drawn.

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