The Bonehead

Interpreter of the Esoteric:
Nita Naldi Meets
The Bonehead

For someone with no formal training, Nita’s ascent from her theatrical debut as a bathing beauty chorine to an important featured role in a major motion picture to her first speaking role in a Broadway play in just over two years – even in the 1910s when stage employment was plentiful – is nothing short of astonishing. Sadly, the play in which she made the leap to the next level in the theatrical firmament was far from a sturdy vehicle.

Said vehicle, The Bonehead, was, first and foremost, all about Claude Beerbohm.

Photo courtesy the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, used with permission.

Beerbohm. As in the son of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Tree was a noted Shakespearean actor in the UK, where, in 1904, he founded what would become the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He also turned down the chance to originate the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan, a decision he later regretted.[1] Tree found success on the New York stage as well, starring in the first Broadway production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In 1916, the year before his death, Tree preserved his highly regarded Macbeth before the moving picture cameras.  That same year, intent on following in his father’s footsteps, Claude appeared opposite Sir Herbert in a Shakespeare festival at New York’s New Amsterdam Theatre, playing Cardinal Campeius to his dad’s Cardinal Wolsey (Lyn Harding was Henry) in King Henry VIII,[2] and the Prince of Morocco to Tree’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.[3] When Tree assayed the role of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Claude’s contribution to the evening did not warrant a mention in The New York Times review.[4]

Tree was a manager as well as an actor, so it followed logically that Claude, after his father’s passing, would produce as well as act. For his initial foray into the world of the Broadway producer, he chose The Bonehead.

Its author, Frederic Arnold Kummer, was a prolific writer of novels and short stories, often with strong social messages. He also wrote for the stage, most notably the adaptation of his novella The Brute (10/8/1912, 39th Street) and in his biggest dramatic success, providing the book and lyrics for Sigmund Romberg’s The Magic Melody (11/11/1919, Shubert). He returned three months after that opening with The Bonehead.

Kummer’s comedy was the old saw of the spouse straying from the home only to return after the jilted one demonstrates that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Specifically, successful cement dealer Robert Campbell supports his wife Betty’s attempts at writing poetry, cheering when she is first published and even moving from staid, sensible Flatbush to Greenwich Village to enable his wife’s literary ambitions. But when she falls into the clutches of poet Horace Frothingham, Campbell decides to fight fire with fire and become the most bohemian of the lot. He installs a statue of Epicurus in the apartment and has the walls redone in an Egyptian theme.

If the Villagers practice free love, Campbell will assemble a harem.  It’s a role-reversed, earthbound Madam Satan, if you will. Among the beauties, our hero’s primary romantic focus lands on Jean Brent, an aspiring singer, but if the show’s production photos are any indication, he also tussles with spiritualist Mrs. Violet Bacon-Boyle (Nita Naldi).

Photo courtesy the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, used with permission.

He also goes after the wife of self-professed polygamist Mr. St. Claire, only to have the elder St. Claire blanche at the idea of having to share. The Campbells are finally reunited and head back to bucolic Flatbush at the end of the play when Betty learns that her lisping poet is more interested in Campbell’s bank account than his wife.

Beerbohm wisely chose to leave the heavy lifting of the play to veteran Edwin Nicander as the husband and took the showy role of the gigolo poet for himself. To direct, Beerbohm hired actor-turned-director Frank McCormack. McCormack is perhaps best remembered today as the director of the second Princess musical, Very Good Eddie (12/23/1915, Princess).

The play began its pre-Broadway tour on March 22, 1920 at the Providence Opera House. The Rhode Islanders enjoyed poking fun at New York’s bohemian set, and critical reaction was encouraging. The play was overlong, especially in the third act, but the large crowd was clearly pleased.

Nonetheless, Beerbohm pushed back the Broadway opening a week, [5] from April 5th to the 12th to whip the show into shape. The production moved on to Stamford, Connecticut, where the play underwent major surgery. The small roles played by Marion Buckler, Irene Anderson, Cecilla Bertram and Margaret Shockelford were written out as were two undercover policemen played by David M. Callis and Argyll Campbell. Callis was retained to play the new role of Paul Popemoff and Louis Hendricks was called in to play the newly written Serge Levinsky. More serious changes included releasing George Gaston as the faint-hearted bigamist Ashton (renamed Ethelbert) St. Claire in favor of John Daly Murphy and bringing in Myrtle Tannahill to replace Alberta Burton as leading lady. Beerbohm took advantage of his extra week out of town to rehearse his additions to the cast.

Curiously, Beerbohm also chose to relabel his production. In Providence, he advertised it – successfully – as “a smashing farce comedy.” By the time it arrived in New York, it was “a satirical comedy.” The New York critics were already armed with suggestions that, instead of Nicander’s Robert Campbell character, the real bonehead in question might well have been Beerbohm for producing the piece, or the unwary patron who shelled out full price for a ticket.[6] But the use of the word “satire” really irked the New York press. The provinces might well have enjoyed laughing at, rather than with, New York eccentrics, but the likes of Heywood Broun[7] and Burns Mantle, who might have enjoyed a reheated marital farce, were appalled by the heavy, unsubtle hand used to poke fun at Gotham’s odd children. In addition, several critics went so far as to suggest that Kummer’s work, in addition to being not original, might even not be new at all, but an early attempt from the prolific author that was simply removed from the trunk, dusted off, and presented to the hapless, um, boneheaded novice producer.[8]. How else, they suggested, could a playwright of Kummer’s talent still think the likes of cubism was a suitable subject for au courant satire?

With the exception of Alan Dale of the New York American[9] and the unaccredited reviewer for The New York Telegram, [10],  all the reviews from the New York dailies were pans.

But generally, the cast survived unscathed. Nita, in her first speaking role, was favorably received. Some did little more than comment on her beauty and couture:

and Nita Naldi, who was seductively vampirish as a Villager whose specialty was auras.[11]

… Nita Naldi makes a strikingly and almost genuine villager.[12].

Others pointed out that, for a first-timer at least, she had real acting talent:

Nita Naldi makes Mrs. Violet Bacon-Boyle a really effective vampire role. She is exceedingly handsome to look upon. We warn the present vampires of the screen that if Miss Naldi ever enters the Hank of Hair Stakes, they would do well to look to their laurels.[13]

Miss Nita Naldi as a village vamp has a beauty that disarms criticism. Moreover, she can act … She may yet become the ideal Juliet of this generation.[14]

The mention of Juliet is not quite the non sequitur it may appear. While the production was still in Connecticut, Nita sat for an interview for the New York Tribune. While much of its content is Nita’s typical Irish malarkey, one statement rings a bit truer than the others:

“I want to do Shakespearean parts,” she said with a laugh, “so that I can make him sit up with a start and stare. Seriously, I should like to play emotional roles later. At present here I am in this production and the future – it is in the lap of the gods. I have had several offers to appear for the screen since I worked with Mr. Barrymore, but at present I have no plans beyond this play.”[15]

Whether the man she wants to sit up is Beerbohm or Shakespeare himself is subject to debate.

Photo courtesy the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, used with permission.

Nita’s good notices were no doubt aided by her being given perhaps the funniest scene of the piece. With the aid of a Ouija board, Nita’s character placed our hero in touch with the likes of Julius Caesar (with whom Violet is on a first-name basis), Cleopatra and Solomon, all of whom offer Campbell words of advice. At least when communicating through Nita’s fingers, Solomon opined that a man with a wife was a fool … and that a man with more than one wife was damn fool.[16] Shakespeare, Confucius and Adam also make … um … appearances. It is Adam who advises Campbell to return to his caveman roots, which leads to the formation of the harem and the Bonehead’s fur-obsessed fashion choices.[17]

As an actor, Beerbohm’s notices were also positive. Years before the homosexuality depicted in The Captive and the plays of Mae West led to police raids, Beerbohm’s lavender poet was, like the play itself, just enough to titillate, but not outré enough to offend. As one of the women villagers said of Frothingham, “He is only a verbal Romeo. I’ve tried him out and I know.'[18]

Unfortunately, Beerbohm was not as successful playing the role of the producer. Cocksure of his success, he leased the Fulton for a full twelve weeks, paying out $38,000 for the privilege.[19].  But the disgruntled, almost unanimous pans doomed the production. While the show might have proven moderately amusing on the road, New Yorkers refused to buy it, and it closed after only three weeks in Gotham at a $75,000 loss.[20].

With nine weeks left to go on his lease, Beerbohm sublet the house to allow the Bide Dudley comedy Oh, Henry! a place to light. There was small comfort to be had in reading the reviews for the Dudley piece, which were even more poisonous than those for The Bonehead. After three weeks, the Fulton once again went dark..[21]  Martin Brown’s An Innocent Idea hobbled in and managed to eke out six and a half weeks before giving up the ghost.[22].  That was enough to end Beerbohm’s contact at the Fulton … and to end his career as a producer once and for all.

Photo courtesy the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, used with permission.

The novice producer grandly announced his sailing to London to sell the production across the pond. The British proved to have more in their skulls than bone, and The Bonehead was never heard from again.[23] In 1924, he announced his intention to produce the long-running London favorite, Chu Chin Chow, in Paris.[24].  It never crossed the Channel. In the mid-1930s, he was heading the cut-rate agency the Playgoers’ Ticket Club before abandoning that part of the industry as well.[25]  He did, however, continue to act now and then and even appeared in a few late silent films, most notably with Tallulah Bankhead in the (sadly) lost His House in Order.

Although The Bonehead was not a success, Nita remained fond of the production and kept her speaking debut on her resume for decades to come, long after many of her other theatrical credits had fallen by the wayside. Although she was quick with a waspish remark for the many film men for whom she worked, she never spoke against Beerbohm or his star-crossed production. In fact, she once implicated herself in its failure, by claiming to have been fired from the production for shooting dice with the stagehands … and missing her cue.[26].

Considering the appalling box office returns and the three week run, it seems unlikely that Nita would have received anything harsher than a severe tongue lashing had such unprofessional behavior occurred. However she may have occupied herself offstage, at the end of the run, Nita gladly took her favorable Bonehead notices, the experience she had gained, and her fruit-festooned hat and immediately went on to bigger and better things.

[1] “Second Thoughts on First Nights,” New York Times, January 2, 1916, p. X6.

[2] “Tree Appears as Cardinal Wolsey,” New York Times March 15, 1916, p. 9

[3] “Sir Herbert Tree in the ‘Merchant,’” New York Times May 9, 1916, p. 9

[4] “Sir Herbert Tree A Good Falstaff,” New York Times May 26, 1916, p. 9

[5] “Theatrical Notes,” New York Times, March 27, 1920, p. 11.

[6] Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1920

[7] Broun, Heywood, “‘The Bonehead’ Proves to be a Solid Bore,” New York Tribune, April 13, 1920.

[8] Woolcott, Alexander, “The Play,” New York Times, April 13, 1920

[9] Dale, Alan, “‘The Bonehead’ an Amusing Satire,” New York American, April 13, 1920, p. 4

[10] “Our Village Depicted in ‘The Bonehead,’” New York Telegram, April 13, 1920, p. 5

[11] New York Sun, April 13, 1920

[12] “In Manhattan,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 13, 1920

[13] R. B. H., “‘The Bonehead,’ with Edwin Nicander, At the Fulton,” unidentified clipping, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

[14] “Our Village Depicted in ‘The Bonehead,’” New York Telegram, April 13, 1920, p. 5

[15] New York Tribune, April 18, 1920.

[16] Dale, Alan, “‘The Bonehead’ and Amusing Satire,” New York American, April 13, 1920, p. 4

[17] Wolf, Rennold, “Hard to Locate ‘The Bonehead’” New York Morning Telegraph, April 13, 1920.

[18] “Our Village Depicted in ‘The Bonehead,’” New York Telegram, April 13, 1920, p. 5

[19] Variety, April 2, 1920, p. 13.

[20] Variety, June25, 1920, p. 1.

[21] Variety, April 30, 1920, p. 8 and May 21, 1920, p. 14.

[22] Variety, November 12, 1920, p. 11.

[23] Variety, April 23, 1920, p. 8.

[24] Variety, February 14, 1924, p. 2.

[25] Variety, July 31, 1934, p. 48 and August 21, 1934, p. 53.

[26] Oettinger, Malcolm H., “An Optical Illusion,” Picture Play Magazine, December 1922.