Taking the Opportunity


When compiling a backstory to his 1924 interview with Nita Naldi, [1] Max Lief claimed that producer William A. Brady caught Nita’s performance in The Bonehead and offered her a leading role in his upcoming stage production.

Probably not – or at least, not exactly. And while, in the grand scheme of things, a great number of reporters and columnists have, shall we say, altered history by taking a shortcut in the clippings room – and causing greater damage – Nita Central firmly believes that this little footnote to entertainment history should be righted, if only because it helps to make more sene of Nita’s second speaking role on Broadway, in Owen Davis’ Opportunity.

An unaccredited clipping from 1920 may offer a clue as to the origin of Lief’s mistake. In it, the writer, working under the pseudonym of “The Star Gazer,” tells of Brady’s visit to The Bonehead and his offer to Nita.[2] What Lief apparently did not see was the April 1920 notice in the New York Express that clearly stated that Nita, and co-star Vivienne Osborne, would augment their stage salaries during the run of their play by appearing in some locally produced films.[3]

©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Osborne went to Fox for Over the Hill to the Poorhouse before supporting Marion Davies in The Restless Sex, the first production from Hearst’s new studio on 127th Street.[4] The reason for Nita’s re-entry into film was obvious to all at the time. Her feature debut, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had just opened to raves. Sometime in May or early June, she picked up a few days’ work in The Common Sin,[5] but by the end of the month she was clearly filming for Life.[6]

Life was the screen adaptation of Thompson Buchanan’s 1914 play of the same title.[7] One of the co-writers of the screen adaptation, as well as the play’s original producer and co-director was … William A. Brady. Brady was also father to Alice Brady, one of Nita’s fellow students at Holy Angels. Life proved to be the swansong of his William A. Brady Picture Plays. For a variety of reasons, production did not warp until late October[8] and before release Paramount, which had been a partner in the enterprise, owned the film outright.[9] Brady, meanwhile, had returned to the stage, where his first production in a year proved to be … Owen Davis’ Opportunity.

While it is possible … even probable … that either of the Bradys scouted Nita out in The Bonehead with the idea of engaging her for one project or another, Brady never announced her for Opportunity. In fact, neither Variety nor The Billboard mentioned Nita or the character she played, Nellie Ross, in their review of the out of town premiere at Atlantic City’s Globe Theatre on July 5, 1920.[10] When the production moved on to Reade’s Savoy in Asbury Park the following week, Nita’s name was conspicuously absent from the ads.[11]

However, a week after the premiere, Variety reported that Brady had decided to keep his show out on the road for another month and that he would partially re-cast the production.[12] One of few people singled out in the early reviews was Eveta Knudson in the role of Josie Tyler. Both Variety and The Billboard felt she did the best she could with such an unsympathetic role, but it was clear that the woman who would lead the show’s hero away from his wife needed to be made of headier stuff. Knudson … and her role … would remain in the show, but the heavy vamping would need to be handled by someone else.[13]

Unlike most summer productions, which could afford to wait until Labor – or even Columbus – Day to brave that New York opening, Brady’s decision to bring in the play in late July was fraught with risk. At the same time, A. H. Woods had his show, Tomorrow’s Price trying out in Chicago. Both plays dealt with the stock market and each producer knew that the first show to land would have the better chance of survival. Exactly a year before both producers had battled it out with two murder mysteries. Woods’ offering was A Voice in the Dark (7-28-1919, Theatre Republic) but Brady managed to beat him to the punch with Owen Davis’ At 9:45 (6-29-1919, Playhouse) for a slightly longer run.

History appeared to be repeating itself.

Around the 20th of July, Broadway experienced an unusual dip in temperature. In those pre-air conditioning days, the cool evenings proved a balm for Broadway houses and business picked up sharply. Both Woods and Brady, despite their road issues, hurried their productions into town to take advantage of the healthy New York box office.[14] Brady’s original plan, even with the hiatus from his pre-Broadway tour, was to open on Thursday night, July 29th, but his issues re-casting part of his production, forced him to push back the New York premiere to Tuesday, August 3rd. When Harris heard this, he announced, on the 29th, that his Wall Street comic melodrama, Crooked Gamblers would open at the Hudson on Saturday, July 31st, Brady countered and opened Opportunity at the smaller 48th Street Theatre the very next day,[15] on Friday the 30th, beating Woods to the punch yet again.[16] The coup, however, came at a price as many of the new members of the cast, including, presumably, Nita, had their rehearsal time cut extremely short. The New York Clipper claimed many of these actors were cast just a few hours before the premiere performa.[17]

©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

At the time of his death in 1956, Owen Davis held the honor of being America’s most produced playwright.[18] Of the more than 200 plays and musical librettos to bear his name, at least 75 made it to Broadway. He is perhaps best remembered today as the author of The Nervous Wreck (10-9-1923, Sam H. Harris) and its later musical form, Whoopee (12-4-1928, New Amsterdam.) He adapted F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2-2-1926, Ambassador) and Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (10-17-132, Guild) to the stage. His Jezebel (12-19-1933, Ethel Barrymore) provided the source material for Bette Davis’ 1938 Oscar-winning performance and he won the Pulitzer Prize for Icebound (2-10-1923, Sam H. Harris.)

Opportunity, while well into his stage career, came before his more notable successes. It first saw the light of day in a one-performance workshop at Philadelphia’s Lyric Theatre on the afternoon of February 11, 1920. The parts were taken by Alice Brady and the rest of the cast of Davis’ Forever After (9-9-1918, Central.[19]

In its original state, one John T. Glynn was credited as the primary author, with, presumably, some play doctoring help from the more experienced Davis. Long before it got to Atlantic City, Davis claimed sole authorship. In its final form, Davis told the not terribly original story of Larry Bedford (James L. Crane,) a lowly Wall Street clerk who plays the market, makes a bundle, forgets his long suffering wife, is ensnared by a gold digger, begins to suffer financially and almost loses it all before he turns the tables on his enemies and lands back on top – and happily, if penitently, reunited with his wife. While far from innovative theatre, it was a star vehicle of the old school, allowing Crane to play from innocent and nebbish to megalomaniacal power broker to cad to humbled husband. Crane leapt at the … um … opportunity and easily carried the show on his shoulders. 

Completing the family circle, Crane was also, at that time, Mr. Alice Brady. 

Nita, in the added role of Nellie Ross, led a bevy of would-be vampires out to take their percentage of those working in the financial sector. While her notices were not as strong as they had been for The Bonehead, (due, possibly, to a lack of rehearsal time) they were generally positive. However, one thing had clearly changed: after three years on the boards, her appearance in one film had changed Nita’s stock such that she was now considered a film actress taking time off to do a play. 

“Nita Naldi, recruited from the movies, was one of the quickest working vampires we have ever seen. Her naïveté of delivery, her insouciance, were things of wonder.[20].

“Nita Naldi, though obviously of the vampire school developed by the cinema. Is a striking individualist in type and one likely to stir the imagination of all those who believe in vampires.[21]

“Miss Nita Naldi was a very beautiful vampire from Syracuse. The dramatist meant the one in New York State, but Miss Naldi’s beauty suggested the Syracuse of the Old World.”[22]

“This seduction of the simple hero in his office by his former playmate, who has risen to New York vampiredom from merely being a daughter of one of the first families of Syracuse is, by the way, one of the speediest and funniest bits in the play. Miss Nita Naldi, looking like the rag and the bone and the hank of hair of Burne-Jones’ picture, grows more convincing as she grows more wicked, but her aristocracy seems a bit tainted. Or do the first families of Syracuse say, ‘Gimme Broad 240’ to the telephone?”[23]

“Nita Naldi is a picturesque if rather impotent vamp.” [24]

“Nita Naldi was the ‘vamp.’ She looked the part better than she played it.” [25]

In the first few weeks of the run, both plays enjoyed good business, although Crooked Gamblers and the Hudson, with its larger seating capacity, averaged about $9,000 a week to Opportunity’s $8,000 to $8,600. When the hot weather returned to the city a week after the opening, Brady went first to the cut-rate brokers.[26] He may have increased volume, but the grosses for both attractions remained about the same. When summer travelers returned to the city in September, productions saw an increase in business; Crooked Gamblers cracked the 10k mark and Opportunity closed in around 9, but for the former, it was not enough. Even with the larger house, the Woods attraction had a larger overhead, including a $1000/week salary for its star, Taylor Holmes. Hemorrhaging money, Woods jumped in mid-September when George M. Cohan asked for the Hudson to house his incoming attraction, The Meanest Man in the World (10-12-1920, Hudson.)[27]

Having once again won the battle of the Woods, Brady announced that Opportunity would continue to run through the holiday season. The combination of the closing of Crooked Gamblers and the Columbus Day holiday once again pushed the weekly gross above $9000, but it would be for the last time. The crop of fall attractions pushed the Davis show into the back of the pack and grosses slipped, first to about $7,500 in late October to under the break-even 7k mark in early November. It closed on November 27, 1920 after 138 performances, an average, break-even run for its era.[28]

©Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Broadsided by the early closing of Opportunity coinciding with the opening of his The Young Visitors (11-29-1920, 39th Street,) Brady requested – and was granted – a concession from Equity for a break in his artists’ contracts while he scrambled to book the show on a tour to last it through the season, and the contracts of his company.[29].  Crane took the opportunity to sail to Bermuda for a few weeks,[30] but was back in town when the production played the subway circuit of the outer boroughs from mid-January to early March, 1921. After a four week hiatus, it endured two weeks at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre before finally giving up the ghost,[31] allowing James Crane … and Eveta Knudson … to immediately jump into rehearsals for Brady’s next production, Personality. By the time the new show finally limped into the Playhouse Theatre on August 27th, Crane’s marriage to Alice Brady was over … as was his relationship with the Brady stock company. Edmund Lowe enjoyed the dubious honor of replacing him[32].

Nita, meanwhile, had taken advantage of that six week hiatus in late November and extricated herself from the Opportunity company. On the road, her role was essayed by Constance Beaumar. If the Broadway critics thought of her as only a film actress, she would concentrate her efforts in that arena. She went to work for the Selznicks.

[1] Leif, Max, “The Real Inside Dope on the Movie Stars: Nita Naldi Leads in Rise of Nonna Dooley – Looks Before  Brains, Says Film Vamp,” Buffalo Morning Express, July 20, 1924 (syndicated)

[2] Unidentified newspaper article, Star Gazer Column, periodical, Nita Naldi file, New York Public Library, Billy Rose Collection

[3] “Briefs,” New York Express, April 22, 1920

[4] Kozarski, Richard, Hollywood on the Hudson: Film and Television in New York from Griffith to Sarnoff, Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, NJ, 2008, p. 117.

[5] New York Clipper, April 28, 1920, also New York Dramatic Mirror, May 1, 1920 and July 17, 1920.

[6] Chicago Tribune, April 25, 1920

[7] Life (10-24-1924, Manhattan Opera House)

[8] New York Dramatic Mirror, November 6, 1920

[9] New York Dramatic Mirror, January 29, 1921

[10] Variety, July 9, 1920 and , July 9, 1920 and The Billboard, July 17, 1920

[11] Asbury Park Evening press, July 12, 1920

[12] “Guarantee Contracts Latest Stunt on Legit Broadway,” Variety, July 16, 1920

[13] “Broadway Player for Alhambra,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 29, 1923

[14] “Weather Brings Business Back to Broadway Houses,” Variety, July 30, 1920

[15] “Brady-Woods 1920 Race,” Variety, August 6, 1920.

[16] P. V.R., “The Play,” New York Evening Post, July 31, 1920

[17] “’Opportunity’ is Brady’s First Show of the Season,” New York Clipper, August 4, 1920

[18] “Obituaries,” Variety, October 17, 1956

[19] “Try-Out For Two Plays,” New York Times, February 2, 1920.

[20] P. V.R., “The Play,” New York Evening Post, July 31, 1920

[21] Mantle, Burns, “’Opportunity’ Off the Leash,” New York Mail, July 31, 1920

[22] “Manager Brady Produces ’Opportunity’ with Plenty of Punches and Excitement,” New York Evening Telegram, July 31, 1920

[23] Castellun, Maida, “’Opportunity’ is a noisy But Effective Melodrama of Wall Street, With Several Morals,” The New York Call, August 7, 1920.

[24] “Opportunity,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 2, 1920

[25] “Opportunity,” The Billboard, August 14, 1920

[26] “’Opportunity’ Cut,” The Billboard, August 14, 1920

[27] “Geo. M. Cohan Leases Hudson to House ‘Meanest Man’,” Variety, September 17, 1920

[28] Grosses courtesy of the weekly “Grosses in N. Y. and Comment” column, Variety, August-November, 1920

[29] “By Equity Arrangement,” Variety, November 26, 1920

[30] New York Clipper, December 8, 1920

[31] “Shows Closing,” Variety, April 22, 1921

[32] “Gossip of the Rialto,” New York Times, August 14, 1921