Sunday, August 16, 2009


Every show, in its way, is a Cinderella story: the heroine (usually) gets her handsome prince after some trial or other, and everyone lives happily ever after. But few embrace the fairy tale as wholeheartedly as THE SUNBONNET GIRL (1929) by the otherwise dependable team of Geoffrey Morgan and Frederick Johnson (with cover artwork by Doris Holt Hauman).

I say "otherwise dependable" because SUNBONNET GIRL is a bit of a mystery. Other Morgan/Johnson shows discussed here, such as CROCODILE ISLAND, display the labours of a team that took a bit of a sideways look at the operetta genre. But SUNBONNET GIRL is either a straight-forward traditional entry into the canon... or a highly subtle parody of one.

We're in the backyard of the Meadows household, where we find all of the local boys and girls gathered for the arrival of Mrs. Coleman, the president of the State Federation of Music Clubs. She's conducting a talent contest for a music scholarship. She's brought with her her son Bob, her daughter Barbara, and Bob's friend Jerry. And it seems everyone in the township will be entering, even the Meadows' daughter Miranda, who's courted by the simple-minded yet devastatingly handsome Reuben (Think Julie Brown's Superman-with-a-lobotomy).

In the midst of the excitement, a shy and poorly dressed girl named Sue timidly approaches and asks if she can participate. Mrs. Coleman is more than happy to add another contestant to the list, but Mrs. Scroggs, Sue's foster mother, adamantly refuses: the girl has plenty to do at home without getting her head all filled with fantasies about getting an education. Sue is of course devastated by this and tells Bob that she knows the Scroggs are holding out on her, that her parents left her a deed to some property, but they wont tell her what it is. Bob decides to enlist the services of the local constable, Ezra McSpavin, to find out the truth of the matter.

The second act is that night, with the contest being staged in the Meadows' yard. There's a couple of singers and a dancing team, and Mrs. Meadows declares the contest complete -- until Mrs. Coleman consults her list and says, No, we have one more, Susan Clifton. No one's really sure who this Susan Clifton is until Sue appears, gorgeously dressed (courtesy her fairy godmother Barbara), sings her solo, and is immediately awarded the prize.

The handsome prince Bob, carried away by the moment, immediately proposes, but Sue refuses, convinced that he's doing this out of pity. The only way she'd seriously entertain marriage, she says, is if she were his equal in wealth and independence. No sooner has she said this than Constanble McSpavin appears, telling her that amoung her affects hidden away by the Scroggs is a deed to a piece of property in Los Angeles (at the corner of Western and Wilshire), which is of course of immense value. This removes any barrier to the match, and the curtain falls on the prospect of a triple wedding.

Now, taken for what it is, this appears to be yeoman's work. The genre is filled with plays such as this, complete with the deus ex machina ending that ever so conveniently wraps up any and all straggling plot threads. But remember: this is Morgan and Johnson we're talking about, guys whose approach was anything but straight-forward. In work either written as a team or with others, they provided some twist that throws the proverbial monkey-wrench into the proceedings. CROCODILE ISLAND and TULIP TIME both have a whacked-out sensibility that made them casually hysterical. ROSE OF THE DANUBE (written with Arthur Penn, who was no comic slouch himself) takes devastatingly accurate pot shots at the film musicals of the day; UP IN THE AIR (with music by Don Wilson) gives us a leading man who was anything but.

So what is it, then, that we should find in SUNBONNET SUE? There are a couple of moments of dead-pan hilarity during the contest sequence, especially Evalina Scrogg's "art song", "Spring is on the Way", sung to an overblown harp accompaniment and a vocal tessitura that rivals that of CANDIDE's "Glitter and Be Gay".

The gentle spring is on the wing
It flies along like anything
The gentle spring is on the wing
The gentle spring is on the wing
So let us sing about the spring

Merrily the birdies sing
Tra la la la la la la
Merrily the notes they fling
Tra la la la la la la
Listen to the birds and bees
Warbling among the trees
Let us sing the livelong day
Spring is on the way

Okay, that's pretty bald. So's "It Aint My Fault", sung by Reuben, the constable's too-hot-for-his-own-good son.

I'm awfuly tired of getting blamed for everything I do
When lots of times it aint my fault as I can prove to you
I never do run after girls as you can plainly see
But then of course the trouble is they all run after me

It aint my fault Im handsome
It aint my fault I'm bold
When I go walking down the street
The girls all say "Aww, aint he sweet"
My fatal gift of beauty
Will haunt me night and day
But it aint my fault I'm handsome
I was born that way

Now, sure, a couple of comic numbers are to be expected, even in the most highly postured operetta. But once you get past the obvious ones like these two, the waters get a little murky. "I'm the Constable" continues the easy laughter, a character study of a self-important "minister of the law", but Mrs. Coleman's "Garden of Old Fashioned Flowers" starts to blur the line a bit between character song and the parody of a character song. It's like listening to something straight out of Hokinson cartoon.

Give me an old fashioned garden
All full of old fashioned flowers

Daisies are dotted all over the lawn
Violets bloom in the hush of the dawn
Roses are shedding their fragrance
Bright with the sun and the showers

There is a balm
In the beauty and calm
Of a garden of old fashioned flowers

Sue's entrance number, "Washing Dishes", outlines her frustration at the apparently endless stream of dirty plates the Scroggs leave in their path, but it's pushed just a bit over the edge, leaving the listener with the image of a kitchen that's filled to bursting as poor Cinderella is denied her night at the ball.

Washing dishes washing dishes
That is all I do it seems
Making wishes making wishes
While my head is full of dreams
Light the fire and scrub the floors
Carry ashes out of doors
And after all my other chores
Then I go back to washing dishes

And that's the thing: everything appears to be mocking the standard traditions of the operetta, but it's an appearance that could be misleading inasmuch as Morgan and Johnson arent so much sending up the conceits of the various song formulas as quite possibly the entire genre itself. Still, I have little doubt these two jokesters submitted this manuscript to Willis with tongue firmly planted in cheek, giggling like schoolgirls at what they got away with. Given their history, it's almost impossible to believe otherwise.

A brief note about Doris Hauman, who provided the cover art: she and her husband George (who illustrated the cover of SAILOR MAIDS) were apparently Willis regulars. It's difficult to know exactly which ones they did, since so many of these covers are left unsigned, but this is the third of hers (the others are HULDA OF HOLLAND and THE BAND WAGON, which she created with George) I've found with a name. I suspect she created the one for SOUTH IN SONORA as well, but it's not signed, so I cant say for sure. This charming cover for FAIRYLAND MUSIC is a truer example of her style: a very open layout, with a nice use of balance and colour. The typography is hand drawn, but it looks like the efforts of a different artist.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this blog. My grandfather (aged 95) died last night, and Reuben's ditty from "The Sunbonnet Girl" was sort of his personal joke anthem. Finding the lyrics and the source for the song really helped me to affirm a happy family memory.

Theresa said...

This was awesome, thank you. My father (age 93.5 passed away on Sept. 27th, 2009) in his home. I sang this to him the night before he passed as he had the role of Reuben in his highschool play and always said that was his mantra, since he was extremely handsome! Do you know anywhere where I could hear it in recorded form? I have only ever heard my dad sing it to me...?

Sean Martin said...

I wish there was, Theresa, but I dont think *any* of these little works has ever been recorded. They pretty much passed out of fashion before they got the chance.

Thank you both for sharing your memories of your fathers and their association with this work. :-)

Anonymous said...

I did this musical in 8th grade in 1965 or so. Bob Coleman. What an experience.. a 13-year-old playing the romantic lead. My voice changed in the middle of rehearsals and we had to "adjust" the melody line an octave lower in some parts, and change the harmony in duets to accommodation my faltering soprano/tenor/becoming a baritone voice.
Lark Pendleton played Sue.

Sunbonnet Sue, how I love you. Deep in your eyes there's a heaven of blue.
Somehow it seems, love's magic beams led me to find you sweet *octave lower---girl of my dreams.
Figure and face, beauty and grace. All of them center in you...
I'm ever thine if you'll *octave lower--- only be mine, * back up--- my beautiful Sunbonnet Sue.

Anonymous said...

I played Bob Coleman as a freshman in high school opposite the sunbonnet girl who in my case was a senior. I still remember all of the words to the sunbonnet girl as well as that of "We'll Build a Cottage in Loveland". Great memories! GVD