By MICHAEL F. BLAKE, Special to The Times, May 28, 1999
His films are considered cinematic masterpieces; as a director he won six Oscars. Yet overlooked among John Ford's accomplishments is that he produced a stage play with a cast of top-name Hollywood performers--among them, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Maureen O'Hara.
The play was Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings' "What Price Glory?" and the production took place 50 years ago at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, among other locations around the state.
And like most everything Ford did, it was wildly popular.
"The audience would just applaud when Ward [Bond] and [Pat] O'Brien came on stage," recalled cast member Harry Carey Jr. "When [John] Wayne made an entrance, they'd just gasp. . . . With Greg Peck, it was like Frank Sinatra. He was such a heartthrob, the girls would just start squealing when he came on stage."
The staged "What Price Glory?" generated some controversy--and even a theft before it was done.
Ford came up with the idea of reviving the play (originally staged in 1924 on Broadway) in 1948 when he was producing some variety shows for returning World War II veterans. When it hit the boards in 1949 as a fund-raiser for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Ford's version of "What Price Glory?" featured one of the first true all-star casts to grace the stage, from top box office stars to well-known character actors. (Ford later directed a film version of the play in 1952 starring James Cagney and Dan Dailey.)
Given his stature in Hollywood, Ford had no trouble in obtaining famous-name stars for this production, as Carey, a member of the director's stock company, recalled, "Ford said to me one day, 'Don't you know Greg Peck?' I said, 'Yeah, he lives just up the street from me.' The Old Man [Ford] said, 'Could you have him call me? I'd like to talk to him.' I went to Peck's house and said, 'Jack Ford wants you to call him.' He got like a little kid. He thought Ford wanted him for a picture!"
"What Price Glory?" is set during World War I and is about two American Marine officers battling over a girl while fighting the Germans. To play the quarreling Marines, Capt. Flagg and Sgt. Quirt, Ford chose Bond and O'Brien; O'Hara was Charmaine, the French girl over whom the two officers fight. The rest of the cast included Wayne (making his theatrical debut playing the small part of Lt. Cunningham), Forrest Tucker, Ed Begley, Wallace Ford, Robert Armstrong, Carey, Larry Blake, Charles Kemper, Jimmy Lydon, Jim Davis, Luis Alberni and, in a rare solo performance without his comedy partner, Oliver Hardy.
Because of Ford's clout, studios in Hollywood cooperated with the stage production by adjusting the work schedules of their stars so that they could attend the nightly rehearsals held at the Masquers Club in Hollywood. (The Masquers Club, another bastion of Hollywood history, was a popular club with actors until it closed in 1985.)
Although he supervised the production, Ford did not direct the play. That task fell to Ralph Murphy, an experienced stage director who had moved on to films in the early 1930s.
"Ford never once interfered with Murphy," recalled Carey. Ford sat "out in the audience and never said a word, but he was at every rehearsal. He loved the stage, [he was] fascinated with it."
However, when Murphy was absent one night, Ford stepped in. During that rehearsal, he unmercifully picked on every aspect of Bond's performance, a common occurrence during their long relationship that delighted Ford no end.
Actors, Crew Donated Their Services for Ford
Mounting such a production was nothing short of a logistical nightmare, yet everything ran smoothly. O'Brien claimed that only Ford could have gotten the project off the ground, getting all the parties to donate their time and effort. None of the actors took a salary, the sets were designed and built for free, and the costumes were donated by the giant costume house Western Costume.
"Everyone wanted to please Ford," Blake recalled.
The final dress rehearsal was held Feb. 21, 1949, at the Masquers Club, before an audience of 450 invited guests, including veterans and Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan. Before the performance, James Stewart--a decorated veteran himself--explained how the play's proceeds would be used to help veterans. The following night, "What Price Glory?" opened in Long Beach, beginning a six-city tour of one-night stands in California.
Audiences were enthralled by seeing so many stars on one stage at one time. Cagney biographer John McCabe recalled Cagney's memory of Hardy's performance. "It was the funniest thing I think I have ever seen. Roland Winters [a character actor] and I had to hang onto each other, we were laughing so much," the actor said.
"The audience went wild when the whole cast came down in one line to take a bow," recalled Blake.
After playing in San Francisco, the company headed south to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium then to an unannounced theater in Los Angeles. That theater was to have been the Philharmonic Auditorium in downtown--since torn down--but there was a major problem. It was the same one that faced the producers of the original stage version, which had shocked many theatergoers in 1924--the profanity used by the characters.
The governing board of the Philharmonic Auditorium insisted that all shows must conform with its religious standards and suggested that Ford stick to the cleaned-up 1927 film script, but he refused. (Interestingly, the 1927 silent film version gave audiences a field day attempting to read the actors' lips!)
L.A. Gossip Columnist Attacks Script's Profanity
But the controversy did not end there. Jimmy Fidler, a well-known gossip columnist at the time, had a popular radio show in Los Angeles. He attacked the charity presentation, the Masquers Club and Ford for the play's use of profanity and urged listeners to boycott the production. This brought a stinging reply from actor Alberto Morin, himself a distinguished war veteran and cast member of the production, who chided Fidler's remarks as "fatuous, smug and hypocritical."
As the company prepared for the March 1 Pasadena date, they were still without a Los Angeles theater. Finally, an agreement was made that the final performance would be at the famous Grauman's Chinese on March 2.
There had been discussions about taking the play to New York or Washington, D.C., for a week, but nothing came of it. One reason for the play's disbandment was due to the conflicting schedules of the lead actors. Another reason might have been related to Ford himself; the play was a huge success and earned more than $82,000, but all of the money disappeared shortly after the final performance at the Chinese.
"The guy who handled all the money for the production ran off with all the receipts," Carey said. "People asked Jack if they should go after the fella and Jack said, 'No, he'll be looking over his shoulder the rest of his life.' " (Ford dug into his own pocket to make up for the stolen receipts.)
Between the problems with the Philharmonic Auditorium and the loss of the receipts, Ford appeared to lose interest. "By the time we hit the Chinese Theater," Blake recalled, "Ford's enthusiasm had waned. Everyone else really wanted to continue, but he wasn't as keen as he was originally."
Still Ford did what no other film director could have: produced a successful play with an all-star cast that worked for free and helped America's real heroes: the returning war veterans.
Michael F. Blake is an Emmy Award-winning makeup artist and author of a trilogy on Lon Chaney. His father, Larry Blake, was one of the cast members of Ford's staged play.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Buy books on John Ford:
Carey Jr., Harry
Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company
Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford
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