Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Key (Seven of Them, Actually) to a Great Melodrama -- George M. Cohan's "Seven Keys to Baldpate"

I confess that until a couple of weeks ago, I only knew the name of George M. Cohan as a major vaudevillian player and songwriter, one of the few who successfully made the transition to Broadway stardom. However, even those impressions were pretty fuzzy as they arose from my memories of seeing James Cagney play Cohan in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy -- and that was decades ago.

But even a cursory inquiry revealed to me that Cohan was truly an American superstar. Considered the father of American musical comedy and, at one time, "the fellow who owned Broadway," Cohan was a skilled musician, composer, singer, dancer, actor, stage director and playwright. No wonder they made movies about this guy!

But I need to tell you why my interest was kindled in George M. Cohan in the first place. It was because I came across a rollicking good play that he had written and produced, Seven Keys to Baldpate. It was the last play featured in a library book I had picked up, 10 Classic Mystery and Suspense Plays of the Modern Theater.

The collection was edited by Stanley Richards and sported a 1973 copyright. However, the plays Richards had selected were from a much earlier period of the London and Broadway stage: Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (1943); Joseph Hayes' The Desperate Hours (1955) (The original cast included Karl Malden, James Gegory, Paul Newman and was directed by Robert Montgomery.); Edward Chodorov's Kind Lady (1935); J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls (1946) (The opening cast included Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, and Harry Andrews.); Hostile Witness (1964) (The New York premiere two years later had Ray Milland in the lead.); Night Must Fall (1935); and a few more, including the one I found so quirky and delightful, Seven Keys to Baldpate, which opened at New York's Astor Theater on September 22, 1913.

I enjoyed several of the plays in Richards' collection but Baldpate was clearly my favorite. Wrote Richards about the play, "While Cohan publicly acknowledged that 'it stands for nothing but pure entertainment and a sort of comedy kidding of the technique of melodramatic thrillers," a number of critics and colleagues credited Seven Keys to Baldpate with breaking new ground in the field of playwriting."

Seven Keys to Baldpate
is based on a novel of the same name by Earl Derr Biggers (later the creator of Charlie Chan). It is a novelty of sorts, a melodrama played for laughs but which manages to create real suspense and tension as well.

The plot involves a popular author of "pot-boiler" novels who takes a bet that he can't write a publishable book in 24 hours...24 hours that must be spent in a deserted (and haunted) hotel in a wintry, mountainous area. He tries to come through but his encounters with criminals, political blackmail, a lovely woman and, of course, the ghost, makes it look like his thousand dollar bet is sure to be lost. In fact, he may not even be around to pay off the debt!

Even though Cohan's legend emphasizes his contributions to Broadway's musical heritage, it turns out that Seven Keys To Baldpate was Cohan's most popular play. It has been revived many times over the years (Cohan himself starred in a 1935 production for the esteemed Player's Club) and it has been used as the basis for several film versions. Cohan starred in the first (1917) with the latest being The House Of Long Shadows (1983) which starred some of the leading actors in horror pictures of the century: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, John Carradine, and Peter Cushing.

As visitors to The Book Den know, I'm always recommending older literature, classic stuff that we shouldn't let get away from us -- even if it means doing a little extra work to get it. George M. Cohan's splendid melodrama Seven Keys to Baldpate is just such a treasure.

One final note: the popularity of the play gave the title to a famous magic trick originated by Theodore Annemann back in 1931, a trick that you can still purchase (and by that name too) in magic stores today.