Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Every now and then a work will that come along that completely defines the generation and culture from when it came... and THE BEAUTY CONTEST (1936), with libretto by Theodosia Paynter and music by G.A. Grant-Schaeffer (cover artist unknown), does that so resoundingly that one reads this script in... well, awe that is part sadness and part stupefaction. We've seen plenty of opportunities to date of how authors of these little works portrayed racial minorities and other countries' cultures, coupled with a patriotic fervor that sometimes verged on the jingoistic and isolationist. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST, arriving with the usual high school operetta innocence, defines relations between the sexes with a trowel-load of solid concrete.

This was another one of those "should I pick it up or not?" moments, as the cover describes the work as "an operetta in two acts for girls". I have a few of these — Wild Rose, The Rivals — and they're usually pretty awful. But THE BEAUTY CONTEST probably wasnt originally meant to be unisex in its production: fully half the cast is men. I'm sure that it was felt that, in performance, these characters would be performed by girls, but there's really nothing mandating that, as the vocal lines for the boys are written more for tenors than sopranos.

All right, let's get to it. We're on the lawn of a summer resort hotel, the type once popular in Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The hostess, Jonquil Jones, and her maid-of-all-work, Milly, have done everything they can to keep folks happy during their stay, but a group of girls (daughters of the guests? students off on spring break? we're never told) are preparing to leave because the place is so boringly dull. Jones herself confesses to finding the atmosphere tedious and, to correct this, plans to run for mayor of the town, opposite the very popular standing mayor Mr. Green, just to, in her words, "mess things up a bit". The girls find this insanely thrilling and agree to stay and campaign for her.

Meanwhile, Jim Dandy, a local country boy, drops by to see Milly. It's obvious he's totally infatuated with her, while she's clueless about it all, seeing her promotion from farm drudge to hotel maid drudge as "improving" herself.

Mayor Green and some of the other local men appear. Green has heard about Jones' plan to run for mayor and is concerned: after all, she's wildly popular. To counter this, he decides that the hotel should have a beauty contest, to "take the women's minds off this campaign". He suggests the rest of the men help; if they do, as reward he'll give each the girl of his choice for a "grand dance aboard my yacht".

Milly returns and finds an announcement for the contest. While she mopes that she's not pretty enough to enter, a local beauty expert, Sylvia Spankum, rides in on her bicycle and shares some of her secrets as a way of getting Milly to enter. The rest of the girls return, and Sylvia cons each of them into entering as well, then takes advantage of the moment by giving them a collective makeover — at a price, of course.

Act Two is the pageant itself. The men have come as hooded Gallants (whatever those might be, although I suspect it was just a device to cut on costuming needs), to somehow ensure the judging panel's anonymity. Each girl is given an opportunity to show her stuff, with Milly performing last — and looking, naturally, shockingly gorgeous enough to win. Jonquil takes second place, and the Mayor "bashfully" asks if she would accept being the Mayor's Lady instead of the Lady Mayor. Despite the fact that she's gotten the support of just about every organization in town (which would mean an easy win), she inexplicably (or maybe not so) takes him up on his offer. Jim also claims his prize, as do the rest of the men, and the evening ends with almost everyone neatly coupled off, dancing a fox trot.

Okay, let's think about this for a moment, shall we?

The woman who has no real self-worth suddenly finds buckets of it by dressing up as a bride and winning a beauty pageant. Another allows her career aspirations to be dashed by a politically calculated proposal of marriage. Frankly, the only woman who seems to be making it in this world is Ms. Spankum, who's described as "anything but beautiful" and yet clearly a successful businesswoman (and, given the way the script handles her, most likely a lesbian). Mayor Green is "forty years of age, or elder: a stout, mature, large and commanding figure", so of course sweet, young Jonquil is just gonna rush into his arms. As for the rest of the cast, the authors take pains to make sure the pairings are simple and direct: here's the self-indulgent couple, here's the intellectual couple, here's the Japanese couple, while over here are the two pair of comic-relief twins (whose comic-relief status is defined solely by their physical appearance).

Ms. Spankum, I hasten to add, foxtrots with no one in the finale.

The lyrics... well, let's take a few examples. Here's the number where Jonquil confesses to the girls that she wants to run for office and their subsequent reaction:

Her case has grown most awfully dire
She's now in politics and cant retire
So give a little maiden's prayer
That she will win as Lady Mayor

On the other hand it's quite screamingly funny
The she can give the Mayor a run for his money
The election will be decided on whether
The womenfolk all stand together.

... which, of course, they dont. The minute they hear of the contest, the campaign is the last thing on their minds, and Sylvia, entrepreneur that she is, works it.

When you get those want-to-be-beautiful blues
From the top of your hat to the soles of your shoes
You've got to be willing to diet and kick
If you want your figure to be slim and slick
Your getup will be both stylish and chic
So that you may fascinate quick

And if it's suggested that you're full of vanity
You want your man to lose his sanity
Oh then you'll shine o'er all humanity
Because you've got those Got-to-be-Beautiful Blues!

But it's not all utterly dreadful (although I do like the rhyme of vanity/sanity/humanity); Rickie, a terminally cute French girl, has a flashy little number called "Allezoop! Boop-de-boop!" which cant be anything but an homage of sorts to a certain cartoon character. A girl fascinated by bugs sings of her adoration of things small and six-legged. But these are unfortunately blips; the remainder of this work seems pointedly oriented to making sure the womenfolk are kept in their places: to bear the children, to adore the husband, to accept a hard-scrabble life on the farm.

THE BEAUTY CONTEST, for all its innocence, is a frightening little portrayal of how men and women expected each other to interact, both personally and socially. As I note, it's a product of its time, when roles were stringently proscribed — in fact, I found it interesting that the men of this show are just as restrained as the women, just not as blatantly — and outcomes, even by high school operetta standards, were eminently predictable.