Sunday, May 23, 2010

PUDDIN'HEAD THE FIRST

An odd little piece that seems meant for the lower grades while designed for the sensibilities of the upper ones, PUDDIN'HEAD THE FIRST (1936), by Edward Bradley and Geoffrey O'Hara (with unattributed cover art), reads like a Danny Kaye sketch. The story is a simple and reliable one: ineffectual rulers whose kingdom is actually run by scheming couriers, and it's up to their son the Prince to set things aright.

Problem is, the Prince has been thrown in jail because he let the army stand out in the rain, thereby rusting their armour and making them unable to fight. But he's escaped.

His father, the titular King Puddin'head the First, wants to be seen as the wisest monarch in all the world, but instead he's dull-witted and easily swayed by his royal council — General Quakinboots, Count Pennypincher, and Doctor Pillstuffer (respectively, the army commander, the royal treasurer, and the royal physician). The play opens on the Annual Judgment Day, the one time in the year when the citizens of Lampoonia can ask for wrongs to be re-addressed. The King and Queen are asleep on the throne during the ceremony, so the court jester takes it on himself to awaken them. Because they're heavy sleepers, he has to be more than a little forceful about it, a gesture that sees him ordered to leave the country for presumption. But before he does, he stops to help Marianne, a peasant girl who has come to plead the case for Prince Roland.

Act Two takes us to the actual judging, and we see what an inept ruler Puddin'head is.

KING. Speak, Dame Woodenshoes. Has someone wronged you?

WOODENSHOES. Please, your Majesty, a big black crow ate all my corn.


K. That's easily fixed! We'll trap the crow, suff him, and let you take him to market to sell.


W. But a sneaking dog ate the crow.


K. Oh! Then the dog that ate the crow must guard your sheep.


W. But a ravenous wolf are the dog.


K. Then we'll skin the wolf that ate the dog that ate the crow that ate your corn, and make a nice warm rug.


W. But a wily huntsman killed the wolf.


K. Then we'll skin the huntsman... I mean, we'll let the huntsman who skinned the crow who ate the wolf... well, anyway, let him pay for your corn.


W. But the huntsman is in the dungeon for hunting the royal deer.


K. Hunting my deer?


W. Yes, your Majesty.


K. Well, it looks like I'm stuck again. I'll have to pay for your corn.


It seems everyone in the kingdom gets justice except him; all he gets (as he reminds us mournfully) is bran muffins.

And he really hates bran muffins because that's all he ever gets to eat.

He's about to shut things down when Marianne approaches the throne and asks for forgiveness for Prince Roland. The king refuses, saying that Roland was a traitor... and not only is he a traitor, he's escaped the dungeon, which makes him worse than a traitor. The jester steps forward and says he knows where to find the prince: all they have to do is consult the Magic Ruby, a gemstone so amazing that only the wise and good can see it.

Naturally, the king decides he can and rhapsodizes on its colour and sheen. The Queen decides she must have it made into a brooch. The royal council... well, the royal council is panic-stricken, especially when one soldier, who has also come seeking justice for his rusty appearance (from being left out in the rain, you know), reveals that it's not Roland who gave the order. Instead:

QUAKINBOOTS. Your Majesty, I did leave the Tin Soldier out in the rain, and I did blame Prince Roland. But it wasnt my fault entirely - Count Pennypincher —

PENNYPINCHER. Your Majesty, if I did... er... mislay the funs for the army's umbrellas, it was only because of the bad example set by Doctor Pillstuffer, who —


PILLSTUFFER. Your Majesty, even I have been a little bit careless with the appropriation for the royal groceries, I left enough money for bran muffins. And bran muffins make you wise!


Well, that last seals it, of course. And they have no choice but to confess:

Q. I've always been a model military man
Till guilty of the little carelessness.


PENNY. To guard the royal treasury was my one and only plan

Although I've taken samples I confess


PILL. And most peculiar notions

On pills and sour potions

Have dulled my sense of honour just a trifle

ALL THREE. But we swear by all the salt in the seven oceans

Temptation to betray you... much... we stifle.


His mission accomplished, the jester reveals himself to be Prince Roland, who's happily reunited with his parents. He asks that they make Marianne a princess so he can marry her, and all ends (well, for most anyway) happily ever after.

PUDDIN'HEAD is a giddy little show, no doubt about it, but one that's almost unapologetic in its insistence that power, no matter its original intent, corrupts. It's interesting that this was written during the early years of the Depression, when Roosevelt was coming down from the high of being swept into office, and cracks in the veneer of his administration — especially as regarding the implementation of the New Deal — were starting to show. The Supreme Court was overturning many of his initiatives, particularly the National Recovery Act, and he was finding defiance within his own party as he sought to expand the powers of the Executive Branch. I dont think it takes much to see PUDDIN'HEAD as a satire of the first years of the Roosevelt administration, given Bradley's and O'Hara's own very liberal leanings.

But the show, as earlier noted, plays like a 30s comedy sketch. Had it been written in a later time. Danny Kaye would have been all over it, but it's easy to see character actors like Guy Kibbee and Margaret Dumont as the King and Queen, with Alan Hale, Sig Ruman, and Adolfe Monjou as the council. With a bit more expansion, this would have made a perfect Vitaphone picture, and it makes one wonder how many of the writers of these little pieces had aspirations in that direction.

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