George Kelly: Quintessential Vaudeville Playwright

George Kelly (1887-1974)was born on January 16. The younger brother of famous vaudevillian Walter C. Kelly, “The Virginia Judge” (both men were uncles of Grace Kelly), he followed Walter onstage as an actor and vaudeville sketch writer.

Eventually he began to expand his writings to full length and he became one of the most successful playwrights of the 1920s.  His three best known plays are The Torch Bearers (1922, his breakthrough); The Show Off (1924); and Craig’s Wife (1925). Some thoughts from my notebooks:

The Torch Bearers

A rather annoying romp, more fitting for the one act it began as than a full length play. It resembles Sheridan’s The Rehearsal. The bulk of the play depicts a housewife and her local friends rehearsing and then performing an amateur theatrical (a parody of bad plays, called The Torch Bearers). At the end, the husband—rather brutally—tells her how awful an actress she and everyone else in the show is. It was later turned into the movie  Doubting Thomas with Will Rogers and Billie Burke (1935).  

The Show Off

A huge hit in its day, it was revived countless times and made into films in 1926, 1930, 1934, and 1946 (all but the 1930 version was called The Show Off; the 1930 one is called Men Are Like That.) The play is significantly subtitled “a transcript of life in three acts”.  The characters that make the thing move are Aubrey Piper, a good for nothing son-in-law fond of bullshitting to an absurd degree, a loser in every conceivable way, but one who magnifies his own importance. Everybody hates him but are entertained by him. His young wife –a simple thing –is blind with love for him. The other big character is the girl’s mother Mrs. Fisher, a straight talking, brusque NO bullshit type. Between his preposterous gab and her constant deflating witticisms the play moves along briskly even though it is sort of formless and repetitive. It seems mildly funny to me—not uproarious, but you can see how in the hands of just the right actors it WOULD be uproarious. In the end, after the son-in-law has caused a great deal of trouble for the family, the son (an inventor) makes a fortune on a new invention. It seems, but is by no means clear, that the Show Off has helped him make even more money on the deal as his agent, thus redeeming him. My take on the 1926 silent movie is here; and the 1946 Red Skelton version is in this post. 

Craig’s Wife

Also made into eponymous films of 1928 and 1936 as well as Harriet Craig (1950). This play won the Pulitzer Prize that year and it seems deserving—provided nothing better was written that year! The play strikes me as near-great. Very much in the Ibsen/Strindberg mold, with one of the most original characters I’ve come across in American drama. It’s sort of surprising that the play has gone out of circulation. The central premise is a fatally controlling wife…the metaphor for how she treats everyone (and this is the most original element) is the way she keeps the house…or rather forces everyone around her to keep it. She has completely driven her husband’s friends away and is bit by bit killing him metaphysically. Because what is existence but will? What keeps the play from being truly great is that it is a little too broad, a little too crudely drawn. Mrs. Craig is not human enough. Some attempt is made. There’s some backstory about the sufferings of her mother (which she vows not to repeat in her own life) and a dying sister whose sick bed she left so she could come back and keep tabs on her husband. But with a little more humanity this character could truly be tragic.

Kelly continued to have plays on Broadway for the next two decades (his last was The Fatal Weakness in 1947). At the kind invitation of The Mint Theatre I spoke about George Kelly in 2013 following their production of Philip Goes Forth (1931). 

Here is a cool 1929 sketch of him by Ben Solowey:

Courtesy the Studio of Ben Solowey
Courtesy the Studio of Ben Solowey

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