Old Wine, New Bottling
A review of A Kiss for Cinderella, by Sir James Barrie at The Music Box, New York. March 10, 1942
The following review, by eminent theatre critic Stark Young, first appeared in The New Republic in 1942. It was reprinted in full in Young’s book Immortal Shadows: A Book of Dramatic Criticism(Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948)
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On Christmas Day, Maude Adams first did A Kiss for Cinderella, a trifle more than a quarter of a century ago. It does not seem that long, for the kind of thing Miss Adams presented in the theatre and in such a piece had that kind of freshness that dies but slowly, slowly in people’s minds; and those who felt the spell of its enchantment never quite lose, whatever the passing years may be, the memory of such an adored and elusive pleasure and personality.
It must be said, nevertheless, that Miss Adams was of all stage ladies most tricky and projective. She was, to use, as it were, a debased coinage of words, forever on the job. A performance of hers was both a careful science and a complete enchantment. In my entire experience of stage observation, I cannot remember to have seen so expert a test and formulation of the audience’s reactions. It was all meant to be the Naiad’s sure-fire and box-office, clever and detailed, not released too recklessly, not too non-popular, a quality of a nation’s sweetheart enchantingly created with good taste, and sold. And at that it should be recorded that the modern theatre has had very little ever which was so unforgettable, evanescent, and which partly unconsciously, partly shrewdly, was so shy, so glittering with woodland shadows in paths that never will grow – to use Tibullus’ word – trite with human feet. it was a most commendable method that Miss Adams had, and one that never failed its devoted audience, whose very sweetheart she became.
It follows, therefore, that Miss Louise Rainer’s [sic] kiss for Cinderella has no little to go up against, traditionally, technically and the devil knows what. I must confess that her performance in this Barrie play is a good deal better than I expected from having seen such of her film performances as that of the late Anna Held in the Great Ziegfeld film. It was a performance that was jerky and banal, over-nerved and much too obvious in its climactic slush. It was exactly what, in sum, the Hollywood Colony would vote to be the outstanding performance of the year.
Miss Rainer, in fact, has won two such Academy Awards for her motion picture performances. As to that one can easily observe the same
rot going on this year when the Colony out there decides that Miss Mary Astor’s has been the best supporting performance of the year, though what she was supporting was another matter 1. If they really observed the performance that Mr. Sydney Greenstreet gave in The Maltese Falcon, or what he did with the poorly written script of General Winfield Scott in the story of dying with boots on, they should hang their heads in shame for not having given him several or all of the awards. To use one of the finest actors of the modern theater in such a way as he has been used when he might do some of the great rôles better than anyone else is typical Hollywood density. There is no reason, of course, why all this should be doused on the head of poor Miss Rainer; but the point is that many of her defects are either the choice or the fruits, as the case may be, of Hollywood.
A simple way to out the case, no doubt,would be to say that much of the essential trouble with this present production of A Kiss for Cinderella may very likely be with the directing – though again, if you know the theatre, you may hazard a guess as to how much this may be quite true. Mr. Lee Strasberg directed it; and the whole course of the production’s movement and meaning lacks any great joy or whimsy, which are Barrie’s way of covering up and exploiting both the sentiment and the pathos – especially the sentiment, which sometimes, I am afraid, is almost arrant. It might seem to Mr. Strasberg that there is something intellectual in thus muffing the moon and happy sugar in Barrie’s writing. We have had plenty of these examples of intellectualism, where the director of producer or both knew only too well the follies of his author and how to set all that straight. Intellectual thought it assumes to be, this attitude is about on a par with the commercial geniuses reducing pork to chicken liver, or changing the flavor of something long eaten with pleasure into what is now to be enjoyed with approval. But there is nothing intrinsically intellectual about all that; it is really a subtle form of the obtuse. Nothing is less functional – to use the high-brow cliché – than the right brain in the wrong skull.
There are times when we are well sick of these people in the offing who know better what the author meant than the author himself knew. The sum of all which is to say that it is hard for second-rate people to let anything alone, and equally hard for first-rate people to listen to their inferiors’ proposals toward greater perfection. These profound emendations of shiftings of accent may seem to be profound movements. But such is not the case: to obscure the essential nature of a thing in art is a stupid resolution, false and flat, and so it is. We must make
up our minds, crystallize our decisions. There is nothing very distinguished in these improving confusions and these misleading aspirations – they are mostly the results of greedy encroachments. Barrie nowadays, and perhaps from the start of his theatre career, can seem at times a bit too thick to take, what with his stage tricks, his whimsy, sly jokes and shameless coquetry carried off so sweetly and brazenly as to put you out
of all countenance; you are really afraid to look your neighbor in the eye. The truth is that playing Barrie has become a very hard problem, as shaky almost as the right handling of Congreve himself, though the comparison of the two is plainly odious.
The right kind of directing for Barrie is to try for some, as it were, innocent stream of playing, in which stream the coy details, the jests, antitheses and dear obvious oddities can take their place easily and in spirit more or less natural to the whole. Once you have established a current and plane for such writing, everything might bob in and out as it should.
Miss Louise Rainer’s playing in A Kiss for Cinderella had the same limitations as her playing on the screen, perhaps worse. And Barrie’s temptation in the more arch directions only shows Miss Rainer in a sillier light. Mr. Ralph Forbes, as the policeman mentor and lover, gave a fair performance as coquettish, perhaps, as Barrie, but not as shrewd.
1 Mary Astor won the Academy Award in 1942 for her performance in The Great Lie, a drama directed by Edmund Goulding. Hers was the film’s sole nomination.