The Royal Family has been called a joyous and spontaneous comedy, a producer’s and director’s delight, a delicious script. It has also been a rousing success for over fifty years. However, something a bit less known is that, in its opening production, it was a perfect example of a garish misadventure in how not to cast a play.
It started one simple day in l927 when Jed Harris, legendary Broadway director and producer, spoke casually with George S. Kaufman about a play Kaufman and Edna Ferber, by now a well-established writing team, were just finishing. It wasn’t to be a conventional comedy, but a series of sketches about a family of actors, held together, Kaufman hoped, by connective tissue that the writers were then in the process of working out. It was obvious that the play was intended to be a fond spoof on the more legendary aspects of the then reigning stage family in America--the Barrymores.
An agreement was soon reached for Harris to produce The Royal Family, the writing was finished--and then the trouble began.
Ferber had intended that Ethel Barrymore play the role of Julie Cavendish, the leading lady; and the first shock came from Barrymore. She regarded the play as a deliberate insult, threatened to sue, and even went so far as to consult noted criminal lawyer, Max Struer, about enjoining all parties from producing the play. This, in turn, shocked Ferber. (The Marx Brothers announced, tongue in cheek, that if the Barrymores sued, so would they. After all, where could anyone find a more royally theatrical family than the Marxes?) The end result was that, under threat of a lawsuit, everyone was faced with the task of finding an actress with the charm and distinction of a great star to play the role. As Harris wrote years later: “There was, of course, no such actress.”
It also became apparent that both authors were obsessed with having Haidee Wright play Fanny Cavendish, grande dame of the Cavendish clan. Yet, whatever she was, Wright, an elderly English actress, was distinctly not a comedienne and wrong for the part; nevertheless, she was hired. Otto Krueger, who was to play Anthony--the “John Barrymore” role--was hired because there was no one else available.
On the ninth day of rehearsal, the first uninterrupted run-through took place. The mechanics worked perfectly, but the quality of performances was a disaster. One scene in The Royal Family, in which different members of the family are lunching at separate tables strewn about the stage, proved to be the breaking point for Harris. After one particularly horrendous line, Harris fired the cast and had his office pay each member two weeks salary as they were dismissed.
Five days later, however, everyone had forgiven everyone else, the cast was re-hired, and rehearsals were back on.
The out-of town opening in Atlantic City soon followed and was as good as the Harris office hoped for under the circumstances. That the audience failed to respond didn’t surprise him: “I knew we were playing to a lot of mummies,” Harris later said. But Ferber was convinced something was dreadfully wrong, and Kaufman was silent and gloomy.
Harris then reminded the authors that only two weeks before he had fired the entire company and that they were not giving the performance they might have gotten from Ethel and Jack Barrymore, but “tonight it came to life, a life of its own.” Harris concluded by saying that if it were possible, he would open tomorrow night in New York—no re-writing, no cutting and no more rehearsals. The show then rolled into New York.
The Royal Family premiered at the Selwyn Theatre on Dec. 28, l927, and the production ran so smoothly that Alexander Woollcott--“viper of the critics”--was ecstatic: “The Royal Family gave me the most thoroughly enjoyable first night I had experienced in many and many a week. . . .The play does shine with the ancient and still untarnished glamour of the stage.”
In the theatre season of l927, The Royal Family had stiff competition from A Connecticut Yankee, The Doctor’s Dilemma, and Paris Bound, among other popular shows of the period, most of which have been forgotten; but, the play weathered well and ran up a more-than-respectable 345 performances.
It was subsequently revived, with much success, in l95l, at New York’s City Center, featuring Ethel Griffies as Fanny, John Emery as Anthony, and Ruth Hussey as Julie. An even more triumphant revival, in celebration of the Bicentennial, was presented at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts by the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., starring Eva LeGallienne as Fanny, George Grizzard as Anthony, and Rosemary Harris as Julie, brilliantly directed by Ellis Rabb (who won a Tony for Best Director in l976). The Bicentennial production ran up an impressive total of 233 performances.
The play was filmed in l930, under the title, The Royal Family of Broadway, with Ina Claire as Julie and a memorable performance by Frederich March as Anthony. A London production in l934, titled Theatre Royal, was directed by Noel Coward and featured a young actor who would go on to greater fame--Laurence Olivier.
British film critic, James Agate, held that the Paramount film, with Ina Claire, was “delicious” and said that he couldn’t imagine that Ethel Barrymore was fuming about. But Barrymore remained unrelenting to the end. In l943, Kaufman asked her to appear in a Red Cross benefit he was staging in Madison Square Garden--he thought it would be fun to present a vaudeville act called, “The Three Ethels,” with Barrymore, Merman, and Waters.
“When is it to be,” she asked.
Kaufman told her.
“I’m sorry,” Miss Barrymore replied, “but I’m going to have laryngitis that night.”
It took Kaufman a moment to figure out why the line had such a familiar ring to it, until the irony of the situation hit him and he realized Barrymore was quoting from The Royal Family.