Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"The New Boy": A Pioneer Man-Child Comedy

If the man-child had his way, Mount Rushmore would be redesigned to include a 60- foot-tall granite likeness of Alfred E. Neuman.  He is, after all, the greatest and most longstanding icon of the man-child culture.

The Times' Edward Rothstein wrote, "[F]or the Mad writers, Alfred's [face] is the moronic face left when authority is stripped of all pretense.  But it is also the unfazed visage of the 'gang of idiots' creating and reading the magazine, who are treated like clods by the surrounding world, but are really immune to its surreptitious designs.  The unknowing child with the unyielding smile helps unmask adult venality. . ."  It is no wonder that the man-child faction sees Neuman as one of their own.  The man-child, too, is unfazed by authority, unyielding to adult vices, and immune to the designs of maturity.  He, too, promotes the idea that adulthood is a mask that needs to be stripped away.  Of course, civilization was built upon the designs and virtues of adulthood.  But this is of no interest to our carefree ("What — Me Worry?") friend. 

Neuman, who Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman described as "part leering wiseacre, part happy-go-lucky kid," is sitting sleepily on the threshold of puberty.  He is knowingly defying the beckoning demands of adulthood, which bring nothing but worry.  Al Feldstein, the editor of Mad magazine from 1956 to 1985, carefully worked with illustrator Norman Mingo on the design of Neuman.  He made it clear to Mingo that he didn't want the boy to "look like an idiot — I want him to be lovable and have an intelligence behind his eyes.  But I want him to have this devil-may-care attitude, someone who can maintain a sense of humor while the world is collapsing around him."

Peter Reitan masterfully traced the origins of the Neuman character to a well-received illustration created to promote an 1894 Broadway show called "The New Boy."  The play, which offered a seminal representation of the comic man-child, was a forerunner of Billy Wilder's classic The Major and the Minor (which is discussed at length in my latest book).

Weedon Grossmith as "The New Boy"

Reitan noted, "The New Boy was an immediate success when it opened in London on February 28, 1894, where it ran for fourteen months.  Charles Frohman purchased the American rights to the play in March 1894.  Charles Frohman produced the original Broadway run and 'original cast' tour of The New Boy.  Gustave Frohman produced a national tour that began during the original Broadway run and lasted for more than a year."

The show opened on Broadway with Willis Searle in the lead role, but the critics were thoroughly displeased with Searle's performance and the show's producers realized that the show was doomed to a short run unless they found themselves a new actor.  Searle was promptly replaced by James T. Powers, who The Oxford Companion to American Theatre described as "a thorough genius run wild, with a face quite as grotesque as a gargoyle."  Reitman provided further details on the matter:
The opening was marred by terrible reviews blamed largely on Searle's poor performance.  In his autobiography, "Twinkle Little Star, Sparkling Memories of Seventy Years," James T. Powers recounts that Charles Frohman offered him the role on the day after opening night, promising to give him a "big spread in the newspapers and advertise [him] as 'The New, New Boy.'"  When Powers assumed the role on October 9, 1894, The New Boy was "greatly improved" (The World, October 20, 1894) and "a big hit, the first semblance of great success" that would "go like wildfire now" (The New York Times, October 10, 1894)."
The New York Times also added, "James T. Powers took the place of Willis Searle as Archibald Rennick in 'The New Boy' at the Standard Theatre last night, and the result was a big hit, the first semblance of great success that Arthur Law's very clever farcical comedy has had in New York."

James T. Powers

The plot of the play was pure farce.  Archibald Rennick and his wife, Martha Rennick, have lost their savings in a bad investment.  Mrs. Rennick seeks help from an old paramour, Dr. Candy, who is the headmaster at Birchgrove School.  She understands that Birchgrove needs a new school matron and she hopes that Dr. Candy will give her the job.  Dr. Candy, a good-natured old bachelor, remains devoted to Mrs. Rennick.  He doesn't understand that she has remarried after her first husband's death and he assumes that the diminutive, juvenile-looking Archibald is the son of her late husband.  He promises to will his estate to her on the condition that she never remarries.  The Rennicks' financial prospects now depend upon Archibald pretending to be an adolescent schoolboy.  Archibald's problem is that, as the new boy at school, he is hazed mercilessly by classmates.

Despite the hazing, Archibald's worst humiliations are inflicted upon him by adults.  Dr. Candy is patronizing as he pats Archibald on the head.  Mr. Roach, the father of Archibald's student friend Nancy, bounces the small man on his knee.  This is something that thoroughly discomforts Archibald, who demands that the man not "joggle" him.  As part of his hazing, Archibald is forced to steal apples from an orchard.  Unfortunately, he is not as stealthy as the typical boy and he is caught by the police.  The police return him to the school, where he is sentenced to a dozen strokes with a birch-rod.

Willis Searle as Archibald Rennick and Helen Kunnaird as Mrs. Rennick
As you can see, a largely proportioned actress was cast to dwarf the leading man and exaggerate his small stature.

"The New Boy" combined elements of an 1882 bestselling novel, "Vice Versa," and an immensely popular 1892 play, "Charley's Aunt."  "Vice Versa" involved a father magically exchanging bodies with his son and having now, in his new form, to endure various hardships at his son's boarding school. 

Roger Livesey and Anthony Newley starred in a 1948 film version of Vice Versa.


"The New Boy" shows the obvious influence of "Charley's Aunt."  Like "Charley's Aunt," the play is set against the formal and restrictive backdrop of a boarding school.  Like "Charley's Aunt," the lead character hides his manly ways in his impersonation of a false relation.

Let us look a little more closely at the plot of "Charley's Aunt."  An Oxford undergraduate, Lord Fancourt Babberley, agrees to help his schoolmates out of a bad situation by dressing up as a schoolmate's rich widow aunt.  Babberley, who has attained exceptional charm in his drag apparel, must fend off advances from various men when all he wants to do is go off in secret to smoke a cigar or shave.  It makes the situation even more complicated for Babberly when he finds himself aroused by a beautiful visitor, Ela Delahay.  This is horribly frustrating as the man cannot act on his desire as it would mean exposing his true identity.

 Archibald Rennick, the disguised protagonist of "The New Boy," also must repress his sexual desires while in disguise.  The object of his desire is Nancy Roach, a pretty and saucy sixteen-year-old girl.  The New Zealand Herald noted, "[Rennick] commences his period of rejuvenescene by having a high old time with Nancy Roach, who thinks he is such a wicked little fellow that she is sure she likes him."  According to the Clarence and Richmond Examiner, Nancy's "amorous interviews" remain the only "recompense for his sufferings."

In 1927, Warner Brothers intended to produce a film version of "The New Boy" with Sydney Chaplin, who had recently had great success with the studio's adaptation of "Charley's Aunt."  At first, it was announced that the film would be directed by Alf Goulding.  A subsequent press release indicated that the studio had turned over the direction of the film to Chuck Reisner.  But Chaplin broke off his relations with Warner Brothers to accept a lucrative offer to make films in London.  A film version of "The New Boy" has never been produced.

Powers in adult off-stage dress

Additional notes

These are stills from Powers' many years on stage.

James T. Powers as Jack Point in "Yeomen of the Guard" (1888)

Powers as Faragas and Fred Solomon as Margrave of Bobrumkorff in "Nadj" (1888)


Powers in the title role of "The Drum Major" (1889)


Powers as Cadeaux in "Erminie" (1889)

Powers as Carmencita the Spanish dancer in "A Straight Tip" (1891)


Powers and Rachel Booth in "A Mad Bargain" (1892)


Blanche Astley as Lucille and Powers as Biggs the Barber in "The Circus Girl" (1897) 


The Terrible Turk fighting with Powers in "The Circus Girl" (1897) 

Rachel Booth as Alice and Powers as Flipper in "A Runaway Girl" (1898)


Powers in "San Toy" (1900)

Powers as Tommy Bang in "The Messenger Boy" (1901)


Powers in "A Princess of Kensington" (1903)

Powers as Private Charlie Taylor in "The Blue Moon" (1906)


Powers and Francis Wilson in George C. Tyler's touring production of "The Rivals" (1922)


You can read more on the man-child in comedy in my new book.

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