Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #22: Barmy in Wonderland

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My home town: let me tell you about it. Syracuse, New York. Is that a surprise to you, dear readers? Add it to your extensive knowledge of "Bully: Who He is and Where he Came From": yours little stuffed truly was raised in the Salt City in Central New York—to be precise, Mama Bull's farm up at Clay, New York, a small hamlet to the north of Syracuse, but for all intents 'n' purposes I'm a Syracuse-bull bred and born. And hey, while Syracuse isn't the social center of the world, there are plenty of cool things there. We invented the coney (a yummy crispy white hot dog) and the famed and scrumptious salt potato, both part of this delicious and nutritious breakfast. Speakin' o' food, check out Syracuse's world-famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Good luck finding the website on Google 'coz of the weird spelling, however. (Seriously, Dinosaur...buy the domain names dinosaurbbq.com and dinosaurbarbecue.com and have them redirect to your site!). If you do make your way to the Dinosaur in downtown Syracuse, check out the weathered barn wood used as paneling: that wood is from my family's old farm barn. Cool, huh?

If you're looking for literature or pop culture about Syracuse, though...uh, well, that's tougher to find than the Dinosaur's URL. Mmm, let's see...part of Slap Shot was filmed here...the film Snow Day was set (but not filmed) here...well, there's not that many others. Oh wait...there's always this:

Nick Fury panel
Full-page panel from Strange Tales #161 (October 1967), written and drawn by Jim Steranko

Whoa mama! That's a whole lotta action goin' on for quiet li'l Central New York. Why, that almost puts the Fat Hog competition at the New York State Fair to shame! Well, I tell a lie and cheat a wee bit, 'coz that scene featuring Captain America and Nick Fury kicking all sorts of henchman ass does not take place in the Salt City. What's it got to do with Syracuse, then? Why, click on this link to blow up the caption at the bottom of the page, and you'll see it's the only place in the story that mentions the background events of The Thing and Mister Fantastic shutting down the East Coast's power at the Clay Substation, a mere stone's throw down Route 31 from my old Central New York home, thwarting Hydra's the Yellow Claw's plan (Thank you to courageous commenter El Maxo for his ultra-polite email pointing out that Cap 'n' Nick are slammin' not Hydra's agents but rather the minions of the Yellow Claw! Gracias, El M.!), but inadvertently plunging the Northeast into darkness in the Great Blackout of November 1965. Gosh! If I'da known my two fave members of the FF were a mere Schwinn ride away, I woulda pedaled my little stuffed legs off to go shake hooves with Mister Grimm and Doc Richards instead of huddling in my tree fort with my flashlight reading monster comics. Anyway, that's what caused the big blackout. And now you know...as Paul Harvey says...the rest of the story.

Wait, what the Sam Scratch has this got to do with P. G. Wodehouse?

I'm glad you asked that question.

This week I'm reading Barmy in Wonderland (1952, published in the US as Angel Cake for reasons of which I haven't the slightest). It's one of Wodehouse's non-series light romances—although it stars Cyrill "Barmy" Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced "Fungay-Fipps"), another member of Bertie Wooster's Drones Club. Barmy's mentioned in passing in other Wodehouse novels as well as being featured in a handful of short stories, but Wonderland is his spotlight, his chance to shine.

Let's look at the plot, shall we? There's a wonderful circular coincidence to the plot and characters that will hurt your brain if you try to think about it too long (I know it did mine, and while I am Very Small, I have an Exceedingly Sharp Brain for being stuffed with beans and fluff). Handsome, suave, smooth and hard-partying Hollywood leading man Mervyn Potter (sort of a Wodehouse version of George Clooney, but no relation to this guy) befriends Barmy, who's just come into a cool twenty thousand dollar inheritance, not enough to buy a hotel from lodging magnate J. G. Anderson, so J. G. fires him. While for you and me the next plot point would be a trip to the unemployment office followed by a long involved lawsuit over wrongful termination, Barmy instead accompanies Mervyn to Manhattan, where Mervyn is starring in Sacrifice, an upcoming Broadway play. While on the streets of Manhattan, Barmy inadvertently meets Eileen "Dinty" Moore (talk about delightful heroine names!), in one of the most wonderful introductory love scenes in Wodehouseania (and one that certainly wouldn't work as well on screen as it does on the page). Barmy speaks:
'I say, you aren't shirty because I spoke to you?'

'A little displeased.'

'Oh, my aunt. I'm frightfully sorry. I wouldn't have done it, but a rather serious situation has arisen and I thought I ought to clarify it.'

'Start clarifying.'

Barmy marshaled his thoughts, as well as his emotion would let him.

'Well, it's this way—I'm staying at a hotel round the corner—'

'Nice place?'

'Oh, rather.'

'Comfortable there?'

'Oh, rather.'

'Good. It makes me very happy to know that. Yes? You were saying?'

'Well, I was coming out for a stroll, and I bought a cigar at the hotel counter—'

'Good cigar?'

'Oh, very.'

'Fine. Proceed. When do we get the big situation?'

'I'm just coming to it. You see, I was smoking this cigar, and I chucked it away with a careless gesture—'

'Like the fellow who shot the arrow into the air. Did you ever meet him? It feel to earth, he knew not where.'

'It did, eh? Yes, one can see how that might be so. But between that arrow and my cigar there is a substantial difference, because my cigar didn't fall to earth, not by a jugful. It fell on your hat.'

He had arrested her attention. His story had gripped her.

'My hat!'

'That's right. And I have a growing suspicion that it's on fire.'

'You mean that at any moment I may be going up in flames?'

'I wouldn't be surprised.'

'Why couldn't you have told me that at once?'

'I was sort of leading up to it.'

'You needn't have tried to break it gently. Girls like to know these things. Have a look,' said Dinty, bending down.

Barmy removed the cigar, flung it aside, hit a passing pedestrian, said 'Oh, sorry' and issued his bulletin.

'Well, you seem to have stopped smouldering—'
It's love at first sight for Barmy. (Takes a few more glances later on from Dinty for her to feel the same twinge of Cupid's burning panatella). As often happens in these cases, the two part without exchanging license information, so Barmy hasn't a clue where to find the girl of his dreams again or even what her name is. Dinty heads off to her job as secretary for blustering Broadway producer Joe Lehman, who cries for Dinty when she returns:
'Hey, you!'

'Yes, Admiral?"

'Where you been?'

'Lunch, Admiral.'

'You've taken your time about it. And don't call me Admiral. Think I pay you to sit and stuff all day?'

'You don't pay me at all. You owe me two weeks' salary. And listen,' said Dinty, feeling that this sort of thing must be checked at the outset. 'The contract calls for an hour for the midday repast, and an hour's what I've had, no more, no less. So lay off, Simon Legree, and drop that cowhide whip. Don't you know that Lincoln has freed us slaves? Don't you ever read the papers?'
Wow. How could you not fall in love with a sassy girl like that?

Anderson's tearing out his hair over the rehearsals of Sacrifice. The last straw? One of the investors of the play has pulled out and taken his cool twenty thousand dollars with him after Mervyn Potter gave him a fiery matchstick hotfoot as a practical joke (gee, he is like George Clooney!). No worries, yawns Mervyn. I know just the chap to invest twenty thousand dollars. And enter Barmy into the office where Dinty works, reunited again. Happy ending!

Except that's not the ending. That only takes us up to page 68. Your reaction on reading so far thus might be the same as Barmy's when Anderson retells a truncated plot summary of Sacrifice:
Barmy blinked. The story, as outlined, seemed to him to lack dramatic complications. A bit on the short side, too. Raise the curtain at eight-forty, Eastern Standard time, and it would fall, he estimated, at about eight-fifty-three.

'Is that the end of the play?' he asked.

'End of the play? Wait!' said Mr Lehman. 'You ain't heard nothin' yet.'
Neither have we, because as you might have all been expecting, the scene of Barmy in Wonderland soon changes from bustling Manhattan to opening road show preview night in...can you guess? Syracuse, New York. Now, I'm too young a little bull to remember the great days of Syracuse's importance on the Broadway theatrical trial circuit, but Wodehouse certainly knew it or at least of it: he'd been on the road with companies performing his own plays in preview in upstate New York. We do know Wodehouse was in Schenectady, at least, for the road previews of Oh, Boy!, which also played Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo in the great Golden Age of stage shows along the former Erie Canal. Most of what could be called "Act II" of Barmy takes place in his room (#726) at the (fictional) Syracuse hotel the Mayflower following opening preview night, which has been a disaster all around after Mervyn Potter refused to appear owing to a broken heart at a failed love affair. Now, Wodehouse doesn't tell us what the name of the Syracuse theater Sacrifice played at, and I'm sure there were many of them, but for no particular reason at all I like to imagine it ran at what was then the Loew's State on South Salina Street, built in 1928 (barely a year before the stock market crash) and, in words from the history of the Loew's State on the official website:
Audiences were ushered into Lamb's exotic world through the main lobby, which boasted a chandelier designed by Louis Tiffany for Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansion, and the grandest of the theatre's several huge murals. The Musician's Gallery, located over the front doors, featured quartet serenades as intermission entertainment during the '30s. Patrons who ascended the grand staircase reached the promenade lobby, where they delighted in finding a fishpond with a Japanese pagoda fountain. The main auditorium, which houses 1,832 of the theatre's 3,300 seats, was decorated in rich reds and golds and accented with wall ornaments throughout. The 1,400-pipe Wurlitzer organ offered its own exotic flavor, treating patrons to such sounds as a glockenspiel, marimba, bird whistles, hoof beats and surf sounds.
Now, if that don't sound like a place that Wodehouse woulda liked, I don't know what is.

The Loew's State is the sole remaining grand stage theater/movie house from that era in Syracuse, and in the late 1970s it was extensively renovated and renamed The Landmark Theatre. I'm exceptionally fond of the Landmark, which is why I picture it as the setting of Sacrifice, even though we never see the play performed. Yours truly saw (ahem) Chuck Mangione there, and that William Shatner stage show in which they were supposed to show "The Cage" but couldn't get the rights so Shatner acted out parts of Cyrano de Bergerac, and my Uncle Fred took me to Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes revivals there, and Mama Bull took me to see a famous older movie being re-run on the big screen. I looked up at her as the lights came up and the curtains rolled back, following Maria leaving the Captain and the von Trapps at what surely looked like the end of The Sound of Music, and I tearfully declared "But that's a terrible ending!" Mama Bull assured me that was not the end of the movie, and that there was a good Nazi-kickassing coming up in the second half, and I sniffled and munched on the popcorn she bought me while she explained for the first time what an "intermission" was.

A personal aside to Miss Mary Delay: if you're Googling your own name and ever come across this, my pal John wants to apologize for being such a rotten and awkward first date at that concert at the Landmark in 1979. He's gotten much better at it, he says, and he owes you one. Tori Amos is playing at the Landmark on October 13 and he'd love to take you if you're not married. This time he actually will hold your hand and phone you back later.

Anyway, Wodehouse! The play's a sheer disaster, and Lehman wants to drop that hot salt potato as quickly as possible. Barmy buys the rights to ownership off him for the rest of his inheritance, hires Mayflower Hotel assistant manager-with-dreams-of-Broadway Oscar Fritchie as his aide, and smooches Dinty as Mervyn comes back to triumphantly announce he's better off without his frustrating ex-lady love and he's ready to star in the play.

Of course, the play's a tremendous hit by the time it finishes its try-outs on the road and returns to Manhattan for its glistening Broadway premier. Barmy, Dinty and Oscar stand to make a cartload of cash, and true love reigns o'er all. Happy Ending!

Wait, not so fast. We're only into the beginning of Act III. Enter a lawyer with proof that Sacrifice has been plagiarized (in fact, although it's not mentioned in the novel itself, it bears a startling resemblance to a plot of Rosie M. Banks, Bingo Little's romance-writin' wife), and the owners of the play are being sued for sixty-six percent of the profits. Oh no! Like those two masks hanging alongside so many stages, it's tragedy tonight.

Or...is it? Re-enter Lehman, desperate to regain the rights to the play's ownership, and in a frantically humorous climatic scene, Barmy sells it back to him...for a hundred thousand dollars. And retires from show business. And goes and buys that hotel that J. G. Anderson was trying to sell him in Chapter 1. And puts Oscar Fritchie in charge of it. And folds Dinty in his arms for a last long loving kiss as the final page turns and this really is the happy ending.

Barmy in Wonderland is a very fast and, especially compared to other Wodehouse novels of the fifties, fairly straightforward plot with a minimum of active characters. That, and the lengthy sequences which are mainly delegated to one setting for lengthy periods of time, led me to believe, as other Wodehouse novels like The Small Bachelor or Doctor Sally, that Barmy might be a "novelization" of an earlier Wodehouse stage play. Curiously, it isn't, at least as far as I can tell with minimum research (i.e., Googling it extensively). P'raps when I read one of the Wodehouse bios on my shelf I might find out s'more info, but in the meantime the closest I've come to any mention of the staginess of Barmy is here, which casually hints Wodehouse may been "inspired" by George S. Kaufman's 1925 play The Butter and Egg Man. Goo goo goo jube! This review of The Butter and Egg Man certainly suggests that may be the case: there's characters by the same names as well as a general similar plot structure. I'd love to know the true story behind this and will have to look more into it. (Any of you Wodehouse scholars out there who know, let me in on it and I'll edit and update this listing for internetal posterity.)

But in the end, for the moment, take the joy of Barmy on its own measures as a lovely and whimsical little romp through the world of the theater. A lot of later works owe—if not to Barmy itself but to the grand traditional of tales about theater plays gone awry: fun-filled frolics like The Producers and Noises Off are its modern descendants. The story's nothing new: "All the world's a stage," said this guy sometime way back when, and it certainly continues to be. But only Wodehouse had a heroine named Dinty, and to him I tip my Syracuse Chiefs cap and raise my salt potato in salute.

I've only got one edition of Barmy in Wonderland in my collection: a worn but intact Coronet UK mass market paperback. My Wodehouse scrapbook and collecting list tells me I bought it in 1992 at the Embankment Book fair for a bargain price of £1.20. Here's a photo of me at that same fair last Christmastime:

You'll have to attend a similar fair to read Barmy for yourself, I guess: I'm afraid there's no Amazon link this week, as the book's out of print (as both Barmy and Angel Cake) on both sides of the pond and unavailable except in pricey collectible editions. But although it's not top-tier Wodehouse, it's well worth picking up if you spot it. If there were any independent bookstores left in Syracuse—you're missed, Economy Books—I'd tell you to check there. But there's not. So I won't.


Unknown said...

Wodehouse made no bones about the plot origins of "Barmy in Wonderland" and shared the royalties 50-50 with George S. Kaufman.

PGW got a laugh when an American literary critic griped about his American dialogue, writing, "After all these years Mr Wodehouse has not learned to imitate colloquial American. His Broadway characters talk like Aaron Slick of Punkin Creek, which rather spoils the effect."

As Wodehouse pointed out in "Author, Author!", every single line of Broadway dialogue was taken from "The Butter and Egg Man" by that recognized master of vernacular American, George S. Kaufman.

Bully said...

Ah ha! Thanks, Ian. That answers my question well, ta very much. Consider yourself duly Bull-Prized!

And I haven't gotten to Author, Author!, yet....I'll take a peek at it today.

SallyP said...

Ahhhh...not only Barmy, but Bingo Little as well. Gosh, I just love the Drones Club.

We should all start our own version.

David said...

That Steranko panel could not be more awesome. Look at the fury in Cap's eyes. And there's so much action going on! Just... wow.

Mike Lynch said...

Wonderful stuff. Really enjoying your blog -- and asking my blog readers to go to your blog for a good time!

Had to travel about 18 hours this past weekend and took a Wodehouse collection (NOTHING BUT WODEHOUSE, edited by -- drumroll please! -- Ogden Nash), with a series of good selections from Jeeves, Ukridge, Mulliner, as well as a complete Psmith novel. A large hardcover tome, full of the Wodehouse jazz -- but people do stare at you when you read and giggle on an airplane. Probably not so much on the F train, eh?

Keep up the terrific blogging!


Mike "My F Train Stop Was Bergen Street" Lynch

Bully said...

Why, hello there, Brooklyn Mike! I've got the same Nash-edited volume in my collection, and it would probably be my number one draft choice for a Desert Island Book. When people ask me to recommend a Wodehouse as a gift or to start them off, I always recommend an anthology or omnibus to get a full flavor of the wide range of Wodehouse stories, and Nothing But Wodehouse is one of the best.

I often read Wodehouse on the F train, so if you spot a little stuffed bull (or John, the big doughy guy who takes good care of me) reading a Wodehouse on the F train, especially on Mondays (gotta finish it right before I post!), come on up and say hi!

London Mabel said...

Dear Bully,

I often pass by your blog when looking up Wodehouse covers--I enjoy the pictures of you with your Plum collection.

This time I came breezing through to see what you thought of Barmy in Wonderland before purchasing it.

By the way, this volume can now be purchased second hand on abebooks.com .


Miss Mabel