A play in an airplane, and an airplane in a play: Dancing Partner, 1930

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Roxana Hartley and Mr. Jolie / Lord Robert Brummel, the main protagonists of the 1930 American play Dancing Partner, Belasco Theatre, New York City, New York. Anon., “The Stage Goes ‘Air-minded’.” Scientific American, November 1930, 355.

Greetings and salutations, my sophisticated reading friend. Please take a few seconds to ponder the implications of what is shown in the photograph above, and the one below.

Theatre technicians working their magic as the actors who played Roxana Hartley and Mr. Jolie / Lord Robert Brummel spoke their lines, Belasco Theatre, New York City, New York. Anon., “The Stage Goes ‘Air-minded’.” Scientific American, November 1930, 355.

Theatre technicians working their magic as the actors who played Roxana Hartley and Mr. Jolie / Lord Robert Brummel spoke their lines, Belasco Theatre, New York City, New York. Anon., “The Stage Goes ‘Air-minded’.” Scientific American, November 1930, 355.

To paraphrase the brilliant if short-tempered Brain as he spoke to the un-brilliant Pinky before setting out, yet again, to take over the world, which was quite a challenge for a pair of lab mice, and you have seen a few episodes of the delightful American animated television Pinky and the Brain, haven’t you, are you pondering what yours truly is pondering?

Sorry. I could not resist. I really like Pinky and the Brain.

What we have here, my very confused reading friend, was / is a scene from a theatre play, as seen by the audience and as experienced by the crew of said theatre. Oddly enough, both photographs were found in Scientific American, a monthly publication few people consult(ed) when looking for information on New York City, New York, plays.

Said play, by the way, was premiered in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in July 1930. The New York premiere took place in August. Written by an Austrian (and German?) duo whose text was seemingly translated in English, Dancing Partner was produced by David Belasco, a well-known New York City director / impresario / playwright / producer, at the Belasco Theatre. It proved successful enough to catch the attention of one of the major film studios on planet Earth, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Incorporated. The resulting movie premiered in June 1931. Its title was Just a Gigolo – and no, it did not star David Lee Roth.

And no a again, Belasco was not the inspiration for Emeric Belasco, the evil presence in a 1971 American horror novel, Hell House, which spawned the 1973 American horror motion picture The Legend of Hell House. Come on, be serious, my reading friend.

Still, one has to state that, according to local lore, the ghost of Belasco, who died in May 1931, aged 77, was / is said to haunt the Belasco Theatre. This spectral presence may, however, have stopped around 1971-72. Belasco was seemingly shocked out of our plane of existence by the cast of Oh! Calcutta! which spent a great deal of its time on stage completely… naked.

Incidentally, the title of this theatrical review bore no relationship to the Indian city of Calcutta. It was in fact derived from the title of a 1946 painting by French anticlerical and antimilitarist artist Camille Clovis Trouille, Oh! Calcutta! Calcutta! That title was a pun based on a French expression, “Oh, quel c*l t’as!” – meaning, and I do apologise to every spam filter on planet Earth, “Oh, what an a**e you have!” Sorry, sorry! There is nothing to see here. Nothing to see.

And now for something completely different.

Please have another look at the photographs. The theatre technicians can be seen working their magic as the actors spoke their lines. The illusion of flight was created by an operator who physically moved the set representing the cabin of the aircraft. There were also projectors and loudspeakers. The former, hidden from the audience by the aircraft’s wing, projected images of clouds, terra firma and starry skies directly on the backdrop. The latter, presumably connected to record players of some sort, or some noisy props operated by the theatre staff, duplicated the sound of the aircraft’s engine.

The scene captured in the photographs took place aboard an aircraft en route to Donostia, a Basque coastal resort town, all right, all right, en route to San Sebastián, a Spanish coastal resort town near the French border, on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, 125 or so kilometres (more than 75 miles) west of Pau, France. Eta bizi euskal herria!

Would you believe that linguists have been and still are unable to link the Basque language to any other language on planet Earth? To quote S’chn T’gai Spock, fascinating…

Remember Pau? No, not Po. We’re talking seashells and sea shore, not panda and kungfu. Pau as in Wilbur Wright in February 1909 Pau, when Alfonso XIII, in other words Alfonso Léon Fernando María Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Austria-Lorena, parked his royal rear end beside him, as the famous American aviation pioneer showed him the controls of a Wright Flyer. The 22 year old Spanish king was sorely tempted to go up with this aviator.

Wright, as you undoubtedly know, was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since December 2017. Alfonso XIII, on the other hand, was mentioned in 2 issues of that sublime publication, in December 2017 and June 2020, but I digress.

The main characters of Dancing Partner and Just a Gigolo were Miss Roxana Hartley, a virtuous young woman, and Mr. Jolie, a professional dancing partner / gigolo totally un-related to Angelina Jolie Voight. The aforementioned gigolo was, of course, Lord Robert Brummel, a young, handsome, dissolute and irresponsible British philanderer (Is there any other kind?) based in Paris, France.

It so happened that, sometime before, Brummel’s wealthy uncle, Lord George Hampton, had turned off the tap as a result of well publicised affairs which involved his nephew and a number of married women. Said uncle went so far as to insist that Brummel marry the daughter of a wealthy friend as a condition to the reopening of the money flow. Said young woman was, you guessed it, the aforementioned Hartley.

Commenting that women, especially married ones, could not be trusted, Brummel made a bet with Hampton. In less than 30 days, said the cad, he would prove that Hartley was susceptible to the temptation of having an affair while engaged to him. If Brummel won, he would get his money back (No pun intended.) and go back to philandering. If the young woman proved virtuous, he would marry her and become a dutiful husband. Now, if you think this pretty revolting idea had / has dramatic / comedic potential, you are in pretty good company. I seem to recall that William Shakespeare’s 1611-ish play Cymbeline included a somewhat similar plotline.

Anyway, by the time the aforementioned scene aboard the aircraft began, Hartley was aware of Brummel’s double identity. She accepted his invitation to fly to San Sebastián to teach him a lesson. In turn, Hartley’s decision to fly with him took Brummel by surprise. This, after all, was the 30th and last day of the bet and he was getting nowhere with this surprisingly virtuous and rather intriguing young woman. If truth be told, Brummel was a tad upset by her change of mind. Once in San Sebastián, though, moolah being moolah, Brummel began to flirt with Hartley. She slapped him, revealing she knew his true identity. She despised him. He begged for forgiveness. They kissed. The end.

Somehow, I have a feeling that the wily uncle kept his nephew and his bride to be awash in moolah for the rest of their lives.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Incorporated, a trade association sometimes / often known as the Hays Office, after its president, William Harrison Hays, Senior, whose main function was clean up the scandal-ridden image of the movie industry, recommended that a number of changes be made to Just a Gigolo. Dixit the cinematic censor, its light treatment of immoral subjects was simply not acceptable. Even after said changes were made, though, the censorship boards of Nova Scotia and British Columbia rejected Just a Gigolo just the same.

Hays, by the way, had been hired in 1922. This killjoy certainly had the credentials. A Presbyterian elder with an impeccable reputation, Hays had run the presidential campaign of Warren Gamaliel Harding, in 1920. So grateful was the victorious candidate to the presidency that he had made Hays Postmaster General. One might argue that Hays’ timing in leaving the Harding ship was truly impeccable. I would never dare to suggest that it was suspicious, but here lies a tale, a tragic tale actually. (Screams echo through the ether! No! Please no, not a tale!)

Pop Quiz. True or false, Harding was the second sitting American president to visit Canada. The answer is... False. He became the first to do so when he stopped in Vancouver, British Columbia, in July 1923, on his way back from Alaska. Harding sounded, looked and acted presidential, as always, during this fairly brief stopover. The truth was that he was in terrible shape, both physically and emotionally. A poor judge of character, Harding had attracted many so-called friends who were little more than influence peddlers / conmen. There was corruption aplenty in and around Washington, District of Columbia. Oilmen might have been in the thick of it. Although not directly involved, Harding had some idea of what was going on. He also knew the mess could not remain hidden forever, and back to our story we go.

Harding fell ill in Vancouver and his party quickly left for home. Within a week or so of leaving Canada, Harding was dead. Rumours of foul play surfaced. It was even suggested that Harding’s wife / widow, Florence Mabel Kling Harding, who knew a lot about his infidelities, had finally blown a gasket and poisoned him. A most unlikely story. The poisoning that is, not the infidelities, sadly enough. On the other hand, one might argue that the treatments administered by Harding’s physician, a homeopath who was not a certified physician, may well have contributed to his death. Truth is we will probably never know for sure. Which goes to say that conspiracy theories have been with us for a long time.

Take care of yourself, my reading friend. Coniuratis non carborundum!

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Rénald Fortier