The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart, by John Morogiello, at the Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington

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Elizabeth Aspenlieder and David Joseph in The Consul, The Tramp, and America's Sweetheart at the Oldcastle Theatre Company.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder and David Joseph in The Consul, The Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart at the Oldcastle Theatre Company.

The Oldcastle Theatre Company is one of the most appealing in the Berkshires, which, culturally, extends from northwestern Connecticut to Dorset and Weston, Vermont. Downtown Bennington has a unique feeling to it—small-town in the best sense—and is home to a respectable array of bars and restaurants for audiences to enjoy anticipation or a cool-down before or after the show. Keith Kibler has been chronicling and enjoying—very much—Oldcastle’s productions for some years on our site, and I was happy finally to catch a show myself.

The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart, by Baltimore playwright John Morogiello, presented as a world premiere by the Oldcastle, is as likely to be as entertaining a place to start for you as it was for me. Most of the performances were excellent; the direction was lively and pointed; the play, I thought, needs a lot of further work, but it provided an absorbing, amusing, and sometimes challenging visit to the world of Hollywood, which fascinates us all, in the year of Gone with the Wind. It was not only the year of that seemingly ineradicable Civil War epic, it was the year Hitler declared that a war in Europe would lead to the eradication of the Jewish people, the Nazi-Soviet Non-aggression Pact, and the invasion of the Sudetenland, then of Poland, beginning on the very day of the play’s action. It was also the year when Charile Chaplin’s three years of planning to make a film satirizing Adolf Hitler, begun shortly after Modern Times, was to come to fruition.

The golden age of Hollywood coincided with the golden age of propaganda, and this was of the highest importance to the totalitarian governments that rose to power in the wake of World War I in Italy, Germany, and Russia. And let’s not forget the late-comer, Spain, as well as France, Great Britain, and the United States, where Fascism enjoyed wide support. The Nazis understood the power of cinema as propaganda and produced the two most powerful and artistically respectable examples ever in Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will and Olympia. Chaplin saw a screening of The Triumph of the Will at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and this is said to have inspired Chaplin’s satire, The Great Dictator. He viewed it many times as he was preparing his film, modelling Adenoid Hynkel’s speechifying on Reifenstahl’s clips of Hitler’s addresses.

Hollywood remained the world capital of the film industry, and the Germans of the Third Reich were as dependent on American imports as the British or any other foreign people. Quite a bit of attention has recently been devoted to the way in which the Nazi government influenced—one could even say controlled—the Hollywood studios’ productions through Georg Gyssling, their consul in Los Angeles, from 1931 until 1941, when American neutrality ended.1 Charlie Chaplin came within Gyssling’s reach with The Great Dictator at United Artists, of which he was one of five shareholders. His film would simply have been canceled, as shooting was about to begin.

John Morogiello tells this story with four characters and one triple set: Mary Pickford’s office and its anteroom, occupied by her new secretary, Miss Hollombe, and, off the the right side, a director’s chair with Miss Hollombe’s name on it.

The play begins with a reasonably conventional scene in which the German consul, George Gyssling, arrives and begins badgering the secretary alternately to see Mary Pickford and for a date. The spunky Miss Hollombe keeps him at bay until he forces his way into Pickford’s office, where he broaches his demands. He has learned that Charlie Chaplin’s new film in development will contain elements unacceptable to the Nazi regime from Hedda Hopper’s gossip column, and he wants the production stopped. Pickford and her secretary agree in their distaste for Herr Gyssling, and she resists him, not knowing whether his concern is justified in any way or not, since Chaplin has kept the content of the film to himself. Gyssling’s trump cards are the loss of access to the German market, and his influence at the Hays Office. Pickford phones him to come over, and he promptly complies, but not before Gyssling is sent away temporarily. Pickford begins to focus on the preservation of United Artists and of her own job, and this remains her main tack throughout the play. Chaplin arrives and engages in some awkward half-hearted flirting with Miss Hollombe. With a change of lighting, Chaplin freezes, and the secretary addresses the audience, with the version of those few moments she tells her friends. In her fantasy version her attractions exercise considerably more power over Chaplin and his flirting becomes more passionate and determined, but still resisted by the ambitious secretary, who wishes to remain faithful to her fiancé and avoid the damage to her reputation that a fling with Chaplin would entail. This was not the first monologue from Miss Hollombe, but the first really extensive one, and these become more frequent as the play progresses. Chaplin finally encounters his old friend Pickford, and she attempts to worm the truth out of him about his picture. He remains evasive, but when pressured, he plays out scenes from the film without explaining them: with Hollombe he plays out the shaving scene from the film. Later he plays with a huge inflated globe, spinning it on his finger. He delivers the famous speech Chaplin placed at the end of The Great Dictator. After Gyssling’s return, they fight with enormous boxing gloves. It finally becomes clear that the Führer will be ridiculed, though under another name, and the hero will be a humble Jewish barber. There is much discussion of Jewish issues, during which it emerges that Miss Hollombe is a secularlized Jewess, and that Chaplin is on the Nazi’s list of known Jews, although he insists that he is not Jewish. Pickford is neither charmed nor excited by Chaplin’s project (It has emerged that she is an alcoholic.), and her concerns remain with the preservation of the company. The other shareholders are called, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Joe Schenck, and all agree that Chaplin’s film should be cancelled. Pickford agrees to let Chaplin buy out his share of United Artists for nothing, so that he can produce the film himself, and Chaplin dictates a highly unconventional contract. Gyssling is triumphant and exits to pass on the good news to the consulate. Then phone rings, and no one other than the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, is on the line. He has learned of Chaplin’s film from his secretary, who read Hedda Hopper’s column. He called to encourage the company to produce and distribute the film, because of its potential boost to the morale of the country’s friends in England as elsewhere. The news of the invasion of Poland makes the case even clearer. The show must go on. In conclusion Miss Hollombe walks over to a director’s chair far off to the right she has occupied before and ties up the story, even to the point of the remainder of everyone’s lives, including her own.

The best quality of the play is that it offers some effective routines for the perky, ambitious secretary and for Chaplin himself. Gyssling is basically an off-the-rack civilian movie Nazi, although he still has some amusing moments. Mary Pickford is less fortunate. Burdened by business concerns and dulled by alcohol, she gets few opportunities to escape her situation and simply to entertain us as “America’s sweetheart,” or the former “America’s sweetheart.” Morogiello didn’t put much warmth or creative enthusiasm in her part, and he makes her repeat herself too much. Elizabeth Aspenlieder of Shakespeare and Company, however, rose to the challenge and held our interest in a character who seemed real, alive, and vulnerable. Her job wasn’t easy, but she acquitted herself bravely. By contrast, Miss Hollombe was given too many opportunities to charm and too much scope—certainly too much presence for her importance in the story. The playwright seemed torn between using the character as a structural device and narrator and as an engaged character in the action. Lori Vega executed her bright, entertaining lines and the fairly routine situations she was subjected to—unwanted advances, thirst for gossip, eagerness to learn from an exalted female mentor and get ahead—with style and charm.

The role of Charlie Chaplin could have been written expressly for David Joseph, with his polished English accent, most recently honed at Shakespeare and Company, his amazing dexterity, which gave him total command of Chaplin’s slapstick style, and his extroverted charm. He even resembles Chaplin somewhat, enough to make a career as a Chaplin impersonator. In any case, his brilliant performances of the famous scenes from The Great Dictator will have to suffice for now, and the audience loved them.

Georg Gyssling with Leni Riefenstahl.
Georg Gyssling with Leni Riefenstahl.

This leaves Paul Romero, who contributed least to the success of the evening, mainly because he was miscast. The Consul could have been much more amusing, if he were played more convincingly and with finer detail—not that the playwright provided him with everything he needed. Romero’s German accent was unconvincing. His unmade-bed manner of wearing an ill-fitting suit seemed out of character for a German diplomat. (From photographs it looks as if the historical Gyssling was rather a natty dresser, fond of hanging around celebrities.) His portrayal was too broadly comical to make his threatening moments convincing. Yet Mr. Romero succeeded in entertaining us pretty consistently

One cannot sufficiently praise Eric Peterson’s, snappy, but flowing direction and his attention to detail. Richard Howe’s set design and Cory Wheat’s lighting were also handsome, detailed, and dramatically effective.

Still, someone could have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce Zusammenarbeit.

At the very least the play was never boring, and the outstanding performances made it much more than that. One shouldn’t hesitate to buy tickets and to spend an evening at the Oldcastle.

That said, I should point out that The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart as been developed at various regional theaters and has won two awards, first place at the Dayton Playhouse Futurefest and the Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild, both in 2015. It still seemed a work in progress to me, in addition to the unevenness in the development of the characters and the unreseolved function of the secretary, there were far too many footnotes incorporated into the dialogue, as if Mr. Morogiello believed that his audiences needed to have virtually all the historical and biographical details explained on stage. There is far more information in this play than the audience needs, and it seems undigested, as if copied straight out of a source book. This gave the script a certain pedantic heaviness. There was also a vein of preachiness about women’s issues and others which weighed the play down even further. It would have been much better to cut most of this out, along with Miss Hollombe’s unnecessary narration and to use the time gained to give Charlie one last brilliant routine to wind the audience down and to give poor Mary Pickford a chance to shine. This would point the way to a truly effective ending. Nonetheless the basic concept is stageworthy, and there is much that is good in the play. A few days in the dramaturgical barber’s chair, with the great Charlie in attendance, and the play could come out sparkling.

  1. Audiences at Dave Kehr’s splendid series of restored and rediscovered films from Universal Pictures at MoMa and in Bologna had a chance to experience Herr Gyssling’s handiwork at first hand.

    Universal, founded by Carl Laemmle, a German Jewish émigré, made more of an effort than most studios to show contemporary German life in their films. The founder’s son, Carl Jr., prefaced Frank Borzage’s Little Man, What Now? (1934), an adaptation of Hans von Fallada’s 1932 international bestseller, with an earnest preface which affirmed that the Universal made the film as a public service. In this film there is one character who continually goes out to unspecified political meetings and often comes home with a black eye or a broken arm. In the original novel, Fallada made it clear that he was a member of the SA. The novel itself continued to be popular in Germany through the Third Reich, but in an edition in which the author changed this character into a football lout. This is the sort of censorship Nazi Germany exercised in Hollywood. It seems a bit radical, since even on home soil and after the institution of the Production Code, movies were locally censored.

    The most disastrous of these interventions by the German government was that of the film adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front, The Road Back. Like its predecessor it treated war and its effects on society in a critical light. Conceived on a grand scale, it was a labor of love for the Laemmles and James Whale, the director. While the film was still in production, Universal, severly impaired by the cost overruns of Showboat (also directed by Whale), fell prey to a hostile takeover. Carl Jr. might well have at least made an effort to stand up to the Germans, but the new owners were concerned about saving a company that had been losing money for some time and was now barely solvent. With the film already finished, Whale was replaced as director. Scenes were reshot and and severe cuts were made. The version that was finally released was a shambles, much to Whale’s disgust, both at the cowardice of the studio and at the quality of his film, which he had intended to be his masterpiece. His career dribbled to an end with mostly B-movies.

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