Thursday, March 16, 2017

My Wild Irish Rose - 1947

My Wild Irish Rose (1947) is an example of post-World War II Hollywood nostalgia for simpler times, a rambling, ambitious entry in what I always felt should be its own separate genre—the musical about music composers.  It is artificial in the sense that it is cardboard cutout simplistic, yet beloved for its artifice, and is an unrelenting cutesy salute to the Irish. 

It is, in true Hollywood fashion, nothing more than a caricature of Irish Americans (Irish from Ireland, in some respects, have always felt that the Irish Americans were an odd caricature anyway), but that is just what Irish Americans are comfortable with, and so they seem happy enough with the garish cartoon.  Because this is a movie I recall from many a St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, it carries, if not authenticity, then at least familiarity. I believe familiarity was all that the studios were aiming for when they made such movies, as homey as a hand-stitched sampler.

This is our first entry into a brief exploration over the next few weeks of that “genre”:  the musical about composers. 

Oddly enough, though My Wild Irish Rose purports to be a biography of composer and lyricist Chauncey Olcott, there is no recognition of his participation in the creation of many American pop songs of musical theatre in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and depicts him only as a singer/actor.  His partnership with composers Ernest Ball and George Graff are left out of the film.  Though star Dennis Morgan sings snippets of many songs associated with Olcott: “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Mother Machree,” “TooRa Loo Ra Loo Ral,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” the movie does not inform us that Chauncey  Olcott had a hand in creating and publishing these songs.  Olcott has been elected into the American Composers Hall of Fame, but you’d never know it from this movie.  Upon his death, one of his pallbearers was the great man of Broadway himself, and in many respects his “American” counterpart, George M. Cohan.

Just what the movie does accomplish is a little hard to say, except for an historically accurate representation of the 19th century minstrel show (scenes which may cause acute disgust and embarrassment today, though I feel any such scene is valuable if historically accurate), and for showcasing Dennis Morgan’s lovely tenor singing voice.

But not everybody was charmed, even in 1947.  What we may have forgiven over the years, what the critics of the day were less likely to overlook. This is from The New York Times of December 25, 1947:

“To say that My Wild Irish Rose tells a story is a gross overstatement, and, even in this season of extraordinary benevolence, one cannot truthfully say that there is a recommendable spirit to the interminable song, dance and specialty interludes that fill out this picture.  As an Irish tenor, Mr. Morgan's singing will hold best with the tone-deaf, and that brogue he affects, and let's not overlook Alan Hale either in this regard, is—just call it murderous.  Indeed, the whole atmosphere of the film is so patronizing and professionally Irish in sentiment that it is downright embarrassing.”

Did the reviewer not find the minstrel affectations embarrassing?  Hmm.

I give the movie full marks if only for casting William Frawley as William J. Scanlan, the grand old man of nineteenth century Irish-themed operettas whom Chauncey Olcott was fated to replace.

And for giving our old friend Grady Sutton a brief role (we discussed Grady in this previous post).  And for casting dear Sara Allgood as Chauncey’s mother.  Trivia buffs may also note that Ruby Dandridge, the mother of Dorothy Dandridge, plays the maid of famed musical theatre star Lillian Russell; and little Kristen Morgan, Dennis Morgan’s real-life daughter, makes a brief appearance as a little girl to whom he sings on stage. 

We won’t discover too much about Chauncey Olcott’s life from this movie, but that should cease to be a surprise about any Hollywood biography.  What we have is John Chancellor Olcott of Buffalo, New York, who runs away from home and a job on a tug boat to make his fortune on the stage; gets involved with a traveling minstrel show; meets Andrea King, who plays Lillian Russell; falls in love with Arlene Dahl, whose da, Alan Hale, thinks he’s not good enough for his little girl.  George Tobias plays a Greek businessman who trails Dennis Morgan throughout the movie with malapropos babble.  George O’Brien is his body builder pal who beats up people who are mean to Dennis, and Ben Blue is his bumbling misfit pal.

Chauncey gets to New York, charms the Tenderloin, replaces the sickly William Frawley with an Irish accent even phonier than Frawley’s (which the movie notes with wry humor and is therefore the most honest thing about the tale).

We may smile over a scene set at Delmonico’s, and at Ruby Dandridge’s wondering how flowers can be “wired” to arrive at a dressing room “how  do they send flowers over telegraph wires?” and Lillian Russell doesn’t know, either.  I love all scenes set in theaters, the plush atmosphere, the palace-like settings, the communal nature from the box to the balcony.

Olcott’s great influence on American pop music before World War I would have made a better movie, and though the story is supposedly based on a book his widow wrote of his life, the thin romance spread across too many years and miles with Arlene Dahl (in her first featured movie role) is a weak story thread; he always seems to spend more time with George O’Brien and Ben Blue.  Dennis Morgan plays a man driven to sing, yet we rarely hear him finish a song in the endless array of montages.

It’s a Technicolor movie, but the predominant shade is green.  Irish-American green, as cartoonish as a box of Lucky Charms.  But that’s all it’s supposed to be.  That is what Americans have created of St. Patrick’s Day.

What should also be noted is the camaraderie, the blending of ethnic groups, the mutual kidding, even the foolish minstrelsy, displays a younger
America more comfortable with itself, more frankly acknowledging of its melting pot.  To be American was to be hyphenated because all save the descendants of native tribes were products of immigrant families.   It was okay to be an immigrant; it was worn like a badge of honor.  The point was they chose to be Americans, and in doing so, honoring we who were born here.

Chauncey Olcott and friend

You can have a listen to this rare audio of the real Chauncey here on YouTube.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all who celebrate it.
My scheduled talk at the Agawam Historical Association on Wednesday was changed to tonight at 7 p.m., due to the blizzard.

- I'll be speaking about my book on the Ames Manufacturing Company of Chicopee, Mass. and its importance during the Civil War for the Agawam Historical Association, at the Captain Leonard House, 663 Main Street, Agawam, Mass.  Free and open to the public, the time is 7 p.m.

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - I'll be speaking about Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain at Blue Umbrella Books, 2 Main Street, Westfield, Mass., free and open to the public, 3 p.m.

The time:  1895 to 1965

Setting:  A wooden, barn-like summer playhouse…in an amusement park…on the top of a mountain…in a New England factory town

It was as unlikely a place as you will find for stage plays, but as much a part of the community as the stores and businesses and the red brick maze of factories and canals down below the mountain in the so-called “Flats” by the Connecticut River.  The place was Holyoke, Massachusetts.  For some seventy years live theatre created magic on the mountain above the city.

Though a small theater may seem like a world unto itself, it is not; not entirely.  It reflects its era and its location, that larger world outside its wooden walls; therefore this story is as much about Holyoke, the tri-city area of Holyoke-Chicopee-Springfield, and the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, because this was the audience for the little playhouse on Mt. Tom.  If you are familiar with these towns, then you will find much in this book to jog your memories, for this is your story.

Comedy and Tragedy on the Mountain covers seventy years of live theatre on Mt. Tom, from vaudeville, operetta, WPA-sponsored shows in the Great Depression, and its heyday from 1941 to 1962 with a resident repertory company called The Valley Players.  In the early 1960s, two new incarnations: The Casino-in-the-Park, and finally, the Mt. Tom Playhouse with touring packaged shows featuring well-known stars from television and movies.  Many stars of stage and screen, and many newcomers who would one day become stars, performed over several decades on Mt. Tom.  Through interviews, newspaper reviews, and many photographs, you will relive their performances, and go backstage for personal experiences that were both comic and tragic, and enjoy again the excitement of opening night.


Speaking of opening nights, I'd like to extend best wishes to the two theatre companies that will be performing my play Sketching the Soul this month.  The first is the Hummingbird Theatre Company of Rochester, New York.  They open tonight, Thursday the 16th:

Hummingbird Theatre Company (formerly BART Productions) presents: Sketching the Soul

by Jacqueline Lynch 
Directed by Donald B. Bartalo

Thur. March 16th - 7:30pm
Fri. March 17th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 18th - 7:30pm
Sun. March 19th - 2:00pm
Thur. March 23rd - 7:30pm
Fri. March 24th - 7:30pm
Sat. March 25th - 7:30pm

Chelsea Logan is an artist struggling with the conflict between her growing celebrity and her Amish upbringing, which she left behind to pursue her ambition, and which she neglected to mention to Mike (her boyfriend), new friends and colleagues.

The past and present, celebrity and spiritually come to a head one frenetic weekend when her younger sister Sarah arrives unexpectedly. Chelsea must explain her sister, and the lifestyle she kept a secret, to Mike, an attorney struggling with his own ethical priorities, and to Maureen Nash an aggressive journalist who arrives with a photographer for an interview (during which Chelsea, with a rather un-Amish-like attitude, pummels the photographer into surrendering the film he has shot of Sarah!) Sarah and Mike together help Chelsea to accept and acknowledge the power of her Amish heritage and to move toward a future she had not expected.


CHELSEA LOGAN…………….……………Sara Bickweat Penner

MIKE GRIMALDI…………………………..Brian Tan

SARAH RICHTER………………………….Laura Thompson Pratt

NANCY………………………………………….Stephanie Sheak

MAUREEN NASH…………………………..Denise Bartalo

ARTHUR COAKLEY……………………….Joseph Barcia

Tickets are $12 in advance and $15.00 at the door. 

The second group to perform this same play will be the Belhaven University Theatre Department in Jackson, Mississippi.  They run March 30th to April 1st, directed by Dr. Elissa Sartwell.

JAMES KENYON as Mike Grimaldi
LECI GRAY as Chelsea Logan
RILEY PLEASANTS as Sarah Richter
RACHEL BROOME as Maureen Nash
MAC MITCHELL as Arthur Coakley

Production Staff & Crew
Director: Dr. Elissa Sartwell
Stage Manager: Frannie Maas
Scenic Design: Hannah Kenyon
Technical Director/Lighting Design: Michael Tobin
Costume & Hair/Makeup Design: Alice Bryant
Sound Design: Brittany Lyday
Props Master: Laina Faul
Dresser/Run Crew: Grace Reeves

Admission $10; Seniors/Students $5; Complimentary admission for Belhaven students, faculty, staff and their immediate families. Doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. We hope that you will join us at the theatre! To reserve tickets for any Belhaven Theatre production, please call 601-965-7026 or email your request to Tickets may be purchased with cash or check.

My thanks and very best wishes to both companies.  Break a leg!


Caftan Woman said...

Dennis Morgan singing in Technicolor makes this a comfortable old fave. I heartily resent the use of "interminable musical sequences" in the contemporary criticism. May I say as an aside that it felt good to be outraged by something other than the U.S.'s current political atmosphere.

Break a leg to the Hummingbird folks tonight!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. Recalling movies like this and the good fellowship they try to inspire helps get me through the current atmosphere in this country.

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