The Declining Years of My Dear Children

It is the eventual fate of the cause celebre to turn into anecdotage, which is what happened to My Dear Children in the decades after it had been a theatrical smash hit in Chicago and New York in 1939/40. Part of the smash came from a different kind of hit: the energetic and utterly resounding spanking that John Barrymore gave his leading lady onstage at the end of the second act. It was a spanking so powerful, you may remember, that it propelled Barrymore’s wife right out of the show, complaining that he had been over-enthusiastic. And that was the incident that ultimately turned into anecdote.

29 Feb 16

But anecdotes get embroidered and embellished over the years, and by 1971, more than three decades on, the story of Elaine Barrie’s exit from My Dear Children had taken leave of the truth. According to the storytellers, Barrymore declared afterwards:

‘She had it coming. She missed the cues and messed up the lines – besides, she’s my wife.’

That’s not what Barrymore actually told the press, though it’s also not an inaccurate representation of the emotional and acting tensions that exploded between the couple on the road in 1939. But the incident itself was exaggerated in the telling. What really happened on that fateful night in St Louis was a spanking so vigorous that it split open the seat of her skirt, which was certainly outrage enough. But in the anecdote, Barrymore did something even worse to her: he deliberately lifted her skirt and spanked her on her bare bottom in full view of the audience!

What we’re seeing here is an incident being fictionalized as it loses its original context in a play that is in the process of being gradually forgotten. Of course, oblivion is what ultimately happens to the majority of plays in the ephemeral medium of live theater, and if pressed few would disagree that My Dear Children belongs in that category, for all that it featured a memorable and historically influential spanking scene. (One reviewer remarked that there was in fact some good writing in the play; it was when the characters quoted Shakespeare…) But in the course of being forgotten, My Dear Children went through some interesting byways, which are our subject today.

Plays succumb to this ongoing entropy when they are not performed, but one way of beating the process is to be remade in a more permanent medium. My Dear Children gave it a very good try. Fitful efforts to produce a movie version began when the play was still in Chicago – Barrymore was reportedly offered $150,000 to star in it – but the film rights languished. Made in 1940 in the immediate aftermath of the New York run, The Great Profile used up some of the immediate interest, or notoriety, and after 1942 there was an additional obstacle: if so much of the play’s appeal lay in John Barrymore’s mercurial performance, then what was the point of making a film now that Barrymore was dead?

One actor who thought he had the answer was Adolphe Menjou. He had been due to play the Barrymore role in The Great Profile before Barrymore himself stepped in, and he spent a lot of 1945 pestering film producers to buy the rights to My Dear Children and make the movie, with himself in the lead. In the end, the rights remained unsold until 1948, when they went to the actor Noel Madison, who planned to make the movie in England that fall (but didn’t). The following year, MGM thought of acquiring the property, envisaging it as a starring vehicle for the opera singer Ezio Pinza (but they didn’t make the movie either). Next on the rights merry-go-round was Inga Preminger, brother of Otto who had directed the original production, and in September 1954 he sold them on to Columbia Pictures. Work on the movie began: scriptwriter Roy Huggins, later best known as the creator of The Fugitive, wrote the screenplay and Glenn Ford was touted for the Barrymore role of Allan Manville. But the project foundered, and no My Dear Children movie was ever made.

Maybe that’s not surprising. One thing you can’t effectively reproduce in a recorded medium is the nervous tension of an audience watching an ad-libbing actor who’s riffing on the script instead of playing it straight. And as for the play’s other major attraction, there’s really no substitute for seeing a full-on spanking scene performed live, in real time, by actors sharing the same physical space with their audience. Everything that was appealing and distinctive about the play showed that its future, if any, lay onstage and not onscreen.

So what’s the next best route to longevity, after the movies? It is to get a new lease of life transformed into a successful stage musical, and in 1946, the songwriters Harold Arlen and Leo Robin took an interest in My Dear Children, intending to make it just that, with the Danish singer Carl Brisson as Manville. The plan was stillborn, but once Noel Madison had the rights, in 1948, he touted a similar project alongside the intended movie, signed Hans May to write the book and talked of casting Fredric March as Manville. When his option ran out, the stage and film rights parted company, and Carl Brisson bought the former, whereupon there was renewed talk of a musical to be scored by Rudolf Friml, composer of the 1925 operetta The Vagabond King. But that too never happened!

If not a film and not a musical, what about a straight Broadway revival? Two such plans were laid in 1948, one by the playwright Elmer Rice and the other by the actor Gale Gordon. Rice couldn’t find anyone suitable to play the two leading roles, whereas Gordon at least had a Manville in mind: himself! You’ll have noticed, though, how much thought all these would-be producers were giving to Barrymore’s part, and how little attention they gave to casting Cordelia, the other leading role and recipient of the spanking. Gordon was a partial exception to that tendency, but evidently didn’t use much imagination, since the actress he tried and failed to interest was Elaine Barrie. So there’s no spanking counterfactual to enjoy there – it would have been just more of the same from the original production!

What all this means is that My Dear Children was not destined for a great future on Broadway any more than it was going to be a movie we could watch and enjoy today or a musical that would go through countless revivals like Kiss Me Kate or West Side Story. No, its future lay along the lowest available theatrical trajectory, which had three distinct elements: professional stock productions, overseas productions and amateur productions.

These things were always going to happen anyway, even if there had been a film, a musical or renewed Broadway glory: they were the next stage along when any successful play closed. The only issue was how soon to release the rights. Even after failing to get the show back up in the summer of 1940, the ailing Barrymore, with less than a year to live, talked optimistically of reviving it in the winter of 1941/42, obviously with a new actress recruited to play the spanked Cordelia. The play’s owners knew better, and made it available to stock companies in June 1941; it had a respectable enough run in stock through the mid-1960s, with a few highlights worth mentioning.

One of the first stock productions ran for seven days (July 21-27, 1941) in Stony Creek, Connecticut, with the novelist Sinclair Lewis as Manville and his mistress Marcella Powers as Cordelia.

It finds its place in our history because of something that happened during a rehearsal. Lewis had been reading up on modern acting theory, particularly the approach, or method, associated with the Moscow Art Theater. This became unwelcome to Miss Powers during one particular scene. ‘Sir,’ she asked him, ‘less Stanislavski, please!’ He was, of course, spanking her at the time – too hard!

Also of note in 1941 was a stock production in Pawling, New York, even though the only thing we know about it is the identity of the actress playing Cordelia. For she had played Cordelia before:


In other words, Doris Dudley got spanked again!

Equally obscure is the stock production at Seattle in the 1942/43 season, save for the facts that the roles were played by Burton W. James and Marjorie Nelson, that the spanking scene was considered the highlight of the show and that there are pictures from the production held at the University of Washington, in an archive collection that’s open to the public. Surely they must have photographed the famous spanking scene – so if there are any readers in Seattle, it might be worth taking a look! (Please share what you find: don’t be a hoarder!)

The last two notable stock productions both had direct links to the Barrymore original. On August 17, 1943, My Dear Children opened at the Subway Circuit Theatre in Brooklyn, in a production directed by Arnold Korff, who had played an aged servant in the 1939/40 production. Manville was played by second-league horror star Lionel Atwill, who was hoping the play would give him an entrée on Broadway. (It didn’t.) And ‘the girl who gets spanked’ was blonde June Stewart, who ‘comes close to running away with the play’, according to the reviewer in the Brooklyn Eagle.

My Dear Children 1943 Atwill

The next professional Manville of note was another horror actor, and a close friend of the now late Barrymore, John Carradine. His production opened at the Pasadena Playhouse in Calfornia on December 6, 1944, with Sonia Sorel getting spanked. Here she is:

33 Sonia Sorel

‘One of the comic highlights,’ observed the Los Angeles Times, ‘was the spanking scene, during which the irate Manville turns his eldest daughter Cordelia up and administers proper punishment.’ Sonia can’t have objected too much, because she married Carradine on March 25 the following year. They then took the play out east, and opened for a week at the Brighton Playhouse, Coney Island, on July 31.

The second string of the play’s ongoing existence lay in international productions. Britain may have been deemed a non-starter in view of the stage censor’s attitude to spanking scenes, but an Australian production was mooted in 1942. The play’s greatest international success, however, lay outside the Engish-speaking world.

In 1944, Manuel Barbera translated the play into Spanish as Mis Amadas Hijas (My Beloved Daughters), and it was performed in both Argentina and Uruguay. Narciso Ibáñez Menta both directed the play and took the role of Manville, and was made up to resemble Barrymore. Also like Barrymore, he spanked not one but two Cordelias! On March 16, when the show opened at the Teatro Politeama in Buenos Aires, the girl getting the nalgada was 25-year-old Rosa Rosen:

33a Rosa Rosen

But when he ran the play for two weeks at the Teatro Artigas in Montevideo, from July 15, it was with a mostly new cast, so it was Elsa Martinez he put across his knee:

33b Elsa Martínez

Here’s the whole Argentinian cast and backstage crew at the premiere:

33c Argentina

And it was a great success, running for more than a hundred performances.

Back in the US of A, the play was also taken up sporadically by amateur groups, including the Civic Players of Syracuse, New York, whose production got two brief outings in the summer and fall of 1941, totalling five performances in all. One notable feature of this version was the minor adaptation to make the Swiss setting more generic and Ruritanian, thereby avoiding any specific reference to the current political situation in Europe. And, perhaps more pertinently, this was yet another production with two different Cordelias: Gertrude Waite took the spankings in the summer, but was replaced by Jane Cutting in October. It is not known whether Gertrude had followed in Elaine Barrie’s footsteps and walked out because her bottom couldn’t take it!

However, the play’s slightly risqué reputation meant it made relatively little headway in mid-century America’s thriving culture of school drama. But it was the community play at Cedar City High School on February 11, 1943…

My Dear Children 1943 Cedar City HS Utah

… and ten years later the Senior class of Bellevue High School in Washington State also tackled it, with Stan Burnett and Jo Ann Tate:

34 My Dear Children school 1953

On the adult amateur circuit, it got a production at the North Hollywood Playhouse in 1943, December 6 through 22, with Ed Rees and Constance Cavendish:

The cast of the 1948 production by the Hawthorne Players was made up entirely of the staff of Western Electric in Berwyn, Illinois. Here’s a rather dark newspaper shot of Marilyn Krickman getting a ‘posterior wallop’ from Otto Hesler, who also directed:

And in 1953, the production by the Coronado Players, California, played to capacity houses for two weeks in October and left us a photo of H. C. Rust spanking Marlene Morrisette:

The play continued to be seen intermittently in the 1960s, and the last known production was by amateurs at the Barn Theatre in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as late as 1982. They remembered that My Dear Children had some history in their city: Barrymore had played one performance there on May 2, 1939, in the last week of his pre-Chicago tour.

What they probably didn’t realize was that, contrary to the advertisement, this was Doris Dudley’s second ever performance in the role of Cordelia, owing to the indisposition (or inability to sit down) of Miss Elaine Barrie. They surely didn’t realize that inviting Miss Barrie to attend their opening night on June 11, 1982, was therefore something of a faux-pas. Of course, she declined, which meant that she didn’t get to see Ellen Yeager play Cordelia, and end up across the knee of her director and co-star Erling Duus:

Sadly but unsurprisingly, the show got bad notices, ran for six performances and closed on June 20. And that was the end of the line for My Dear Children.

Acknowledgement: The 1943 Cedar City High School photograph was discovered by Richard Windsor, and identified by me.

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