Updates, Live

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Saroyan, The Time of Your Life (1939)

You're the first man to ever believe my stories
Kit Carson (James Barton) to Joe (James Cagney)
The Time of Your Life, movie, 1948
(source: Niagara Falls Reporter)
no copyright infringement intended

A dive bar somewhere in Frisco, with the habitual patrons. An old cowboy (fake or genuine, if that matters) whose stories nobody listens to. A woman with a past, traced by a man who could be a probation officer or a pimp, whatever. A slot machine maniac. A guy rather naive falling for the woman. A tap dancer telling jokes and laughing alone. A guy with harmonica. A youngster with a dilemmatic love keeping the phone booth busy. A cop hating his job, and his friend who works in the harbor. The melancholic woogie-boogie pianist. And Nick, the bartender interested in horses and horse races, in control of this universe of gentle anybodies, making the show run.

Now and then accidental clients who come and go, trapped by problems of their own, looking here maybe for an answer. Like that lady starring at her drink. Or the couple nearby. Memories of the great depression are very recent, a new world war is in the air, life is a freaking joke. Is it 1939, is it today?

Then Joe, the guy sitting at a table all day long, observing the others, listening patiently to their stories, with a subtle sympathy for each one (sympathy wrapped in something that smells like mild irony, mixed even with small bits of cynicism - to put things straight), encouraging them to forget their inhibitions, just live and enjoy. And Nick's Pacific Street Saloon becomes The Time of Your Life. Magic.

Saroyan wrote this play in 1939, having in mind a real saloon that he frequented, Izzy's Café in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Definitely Saroyan took from there some of his characters. The saloon owner, Izzy Gomez (a guy famous in the epoch, as it also was his saloon), became in the play Nick, the bartender. And Saroyan himself became Joe, the guy with the great gift of listening to the others.

The Time of Your Life was played firstly on Broadway, at Booth Theatre, with Eddie Dowling staring as Joe. A very young Gene Kelly was playing the tap dancer. Dowling did also the staging, together with Saroyan. Julie Haydon was playing as Kitty Duval, the woman with a past. And William Bendix (remembered today firstly for The Babe Ruth Story) was playing the bartender.

Julie Haydon (as Kitty) and Eddie Dowling (as Joe)
The Time of Your Life (Booth Theatre, New York, 1939)
(source: eBay)
no copyright infringement intended

Gene Kelly as Harry, the tap dancer
The Time of Your Life (Booth Theatre, New York, 1939)
(source: freewebs)
no copyright infringement intended

A movie was made in 1948, with James Cagney as Joe. Jeanne Cagney was playing Kitty, the woman with a past. In the role of Nick, again William Bendix. A nice surprise for me was to see Broderick Crawford in the movie. I had seen him in Felinni's Bidone, from 1955, really a great role. And another great role, in the Yugoslavian-American Square of Violence, from 1961. Here in The Time of Your Life he was playing Krupp (the cop who was hating his job). I watched the movie on youTube very recently and, frankly, its rhythm, its cinematic composition, seemed to me outdated, though it had some scenes with a polyphonic quality: the moments when the miracle unfolds in front of your eyes, the miraculous transformation of a bunch of nobodies in a superb group of personae.  

And so Saroyan's play started its own life. It came again on Broadway in 1969 and 1975. In 1972 it was staged at Los Angeles, at the Huntington Hartford Theater (with a cast including Henry Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss). In 2008 it was put again on stage in Los Angeles, this time at Pacific Resident Theatre on Venice Boulevard. In France The Time of Your Life came as Le bar aux illusions (superb equivalence), in Spain as El momento de tu vida, in Brazil as Nick Bar, in Romania as Clipe de viaţă, in Russia as Лучшие годы вашей жизни, in Italy as I giorni della vita.

I saw the play of Saroyan in 1964, at Bulandra Theatre in Bucharest. It was staged by Liviu Ciulei, who was also staring as Joe. Gina Patrichi was Kitty Duval, Fory Etterle played the role of Kit the cowboy, Petrica Gheorghiu was Nick the bartender, Dumitru Furdui was Dudley (the youngster keeping the phone booth busy). Dorin Dron was playing Tom, Joe's admirer, disciple, errand boy, stooge and friend .... The great generation of the Bulandra Theatre ... Ciulei and all that generation, playing Brecht and Saroyan and Nash, Shakespeare and Gorky, Büchner and Williams and O'Neill ... I was very young and going to the theater was an existential need. I was sometimes going even twice or thrice a week. A generation of actors that is no more... years have passed, they are now in the world of shadows, together with all my memories of a time when life was in front of me, so promising, now so far.

Gina Patrichi as Kitty Duval
Clipe de viaţă (Bulandra Theatre, Bucharest, 1964)
(source: Ziarul Metropolis)
no copyright infringement intended

Looking for references on The Time of Your Life across the world I came upon a photo showing Maria Mercader and Vittorio De Sica as Kitty and Joe, sometime in 1945, or immediately after. It was a surprise, as I knew next to nothing about the stage activity of De Sica.

The photo was accompanied by a splendid text about Maria Mercader [1]. Unfortunately it was no mention about the venue, and also the year was extremely vague. I sent an eMail to Ann Harding, the author of the text, who replied immediately: the photo was from a book (Maria Mercader, Un amour obstiné - Ma vie avec Vittorio de Sica, Ed. L'Herminier, 1981) that she didn't have anymore. I looked for the book to see if I could find it, without success.

So I started a search on the Internet, looking for Italian sites dedicated to De Sica, or The Time of Your Life, or both.

A review of the play was making an interesting parallel with Hopper's heroes from his Nighthawks [2] (I must say I disagree with the parallel made with The Nighthawks; Hopper's painting is telling a story of paradoxical solitude, while the play of Saroyan tells the opposite). Anyway, it wasn't giving any information about De Sica in the lead role. Then, a book by Silvia Bizio and Claudia Laffranchi (Gli italiani di Hollywood: il cinema italiano agli Academy Awards) had a lot of good stuff (though not indication about the year or venue): rather a summary of the whole theatrical activity of De Sica, putting the staging of Saroyan's play in a larger context [3].

I found soon plenty of Italian web sites about De Sica in I giorni della vita: but the information they provided was contradictory.

The page of De Sica from the Italian Wikipedia was giving 1948-1949 as the season in which the Italian actor stared in Saroyan's play (also in Le cocu magnifique, a comedy by the Belgian Fernand Crommelynck) and mentioned Mario Chiari as director for both stagings [4].

So, 1948-1949? Not that simple! Because Sapere Enciclopedia was giving the 1945-1946 season and also mentioned De Sica's staring in Le mariage de Figaro under the direction of Visconti [5].

So, Mario Chiari was the director? Maybe not: Il Porto Ritrovato mentioned Visconti as the director for Saroyan's play [6].

Well, 1946 or 1949? And what about the venue? Or about the director? Visconti? Chiari? Somebody else?

I didn't know how to advance anymore, when I got a call from Vlad Niculescu, the manager of the Bucharest English Bookshop, and a good friend of mine. He had found for me a book having all information I needed! It was Vittorio De Sica: Actor, Director, Auteur by Bert Cardullo:

1946 - De Sica appeared with the Spettacoli Effe company in the following: Il matrimonio di Figaro, by Pierre de Beumarchais, as Figaro - Director, Luchino Visconti; Le cocu magnifique, by Fernand Crommelynck - Director, Mario Chiari, Teatro Olimpia, Milan; I giorni della vita, by William Saroyan, as Joe - Director: Adolfo Celi, Teatro Olimpia, Milan; Ah... ci risiamo by Oreste Biàncoli and Dino Falconi, a musical review, Teatro Olimpia, Milan.

So, 1946, with the Spettacoli Effe company, at Teatro Olimpia, Milan; directed by Adolfo Celi. Later I found the same information on a web site that seemed to me the ultimate source for this topic (Treccani, la cultura italiana). Adolfo Celi was making his directorial debut, by the way - it was his graduation project for l'Accademia nazionale d'arte drammatica Silvio D'Amico of Rome [7].

Saroyan, Dowling, Cagney, Ciulei, De Sica ... a long path, sometimes smooth, sometimes tortuous, some other times totally at random ... The Time of Your Life came into my mind one afternoon in August, I was spending some time in a street corner café in Chelsea ... but all in good time.


Ann Harding (who keeps a great blog dedicated to the movie art) found the photo with Maria Mercader and Vittorio De Sica in I giorni della vita and published it on the web. She answered graciously my questions related to the image source. Mara Chiriţescu (manager of Pavesiana, the Italian Bookshop in Bucharest) offered me precious advice on my search. Vlad Niculescu (manager of Anthony Frost, the English Bookshop in Bucharest) found for me the book having all information I needed to localize in time and space the performance of Vittorio De Sica in Saroyan's play. I thank them all.


1. during the past few days, I have been reading Maria Mercader's memoirs where she recalls her life with Vittorio De Sica. Maria Mercader was a Spanish actress, born in Catalonia. She studied acting in Paris with the great French actor Louis Jouvet. In 1940, she landed a movie contract with Italian producers. At the studios in Rome, she met Vittorio De Sica. He was just starting to work as a director. Considered a matinee idol, he struggled to get a chance to direct his own pictures. Maria Mercader got a part in one of his early features, Un garibaldino al convento (1941), a costume drama. They fell in love, but there was a serious obstacle for them, Vittorio was already married. And according to Italian laws of the time, divorcing was impossible. So for decades, Maria lived separately with her two sons (who couldn't even be recognized legally by their father!) while Vittorio commuted between his two homes. As you can imagine, it was a very difficult situation for Maria who did her best against the odds. Reading about her life as the 'other woman', I kept thinking of all the brilliant Italian comedies which describe this kind of Kafkaesque situation. I felt that screenwriters didn't have to look very far to find subjects for their films! Italian life, very family-centred, was constrained by some rigid laws, almost medieval in their outlooks. She describes very warmly the man whom she lived with for 34 years. They finally got married in 1968, but only after acquiring the French nationality. He had serious flaws like the inability to make decisions regarding his two homes and his compulsive gambling. Otherwise, she describe him as generous and nice. I was very interested by her memories of his first films after the war which started the neorealist movement in Italy. Actually, Sciuscià (1946) was a flop with the Italian public. The film was considered depressing and financially it was a disaster, in spite of the fact that it became a highly regarded film abroad. The story was about the same for Ladri di biciclette (1948). One of the most famous Italian films was at the time criticized by the Italian Prime Minister as giving Italy a bad image. Only after its success abroad, did Italians start to take notice of the film's quality and novelty. After Umberto D. (1952), De Sica accepted to make more 'commercial' pictures of the kind Italian producers liked. I never realised what a struggle it had been for him to get all those 'neo-realist' pictures with little money and amateur actors. When he needed money later on, he took on a massive amount of small parts in big pictures which allowed him to feed his mad gambling habits. She mentions Il giardino dei Finzi Contini (1970) as one of his best later efforts. (I agree with her.) In 1974, Vittorio De Sica died of lung cancer.

2. si ambienta tutta nel locale di Nick - sembra di vedere i nottambuli di Hopper - in una zona poco raccomandabile di San Francisco, intorno a personaggi a volte grotteschi, a volte umanissimi e teneri

3. iniziare la carriera fondando nel 1933, con la moglie Giuditta Rissone, una compagnia teatrale che metteva in scena non solo pièces brillanti, particularmente adatte alle caratteristiche del giovane attore, ma anche testi come I giorni della vita di William Saroyan

4. infine, nella stagione 1948-1949, partecipò alle due novità, I giorni della vita di William Saroyan e Il magnifico cornuto di Fernand Crommelynck, entrambi diretti da Mario Chiari. Quella fu la sua ultima apparizione sul palcoscenico: in seguito, sempre più assorbito da impegni cinematografici e televisivi, non vi farà più ritorno

5. lasciò le scene nel 1946 dopo un'ultima impegnativa stagione in cui aveva interpretato I giorni della vita di Saroyan e, con regia di Visconti, Il matrimonio di Figaro

6. nel 1933 con sua moglie Giuditta Rissone, attrice comica e maliziosa e Sergio Tofano, fonda una sua Compagnia teatrale. Si specializzano in un repertorio brillante ma mettono in scena pièce come Il matrimonio di Figaro di Beumarchais e, per la regìa di Visconti, I giorni della nostra vita di William Saroyan

7. L. Visconti firmò la regia de Il matrimonio di Figaro di Beumarchais, messo in scena dopo il veto fascista di sei anni prima, in una lettura assai discussa per le propensioni verso il balletto ma di grande resa spettacolare (teatro Quirino, 19 genn. 1946)... Se ne Il magnifico cornuto di Fernand Crommelynck (Teatro Olimpia di Milano, 26 marzo successivo) ebbe una parte di fianco, dominò nella novità di W. Saroyan I giorni della vita (ibid, 6 aprile successivo): si trattava del saggio di diploma in regia presso l'Accademia di arte drammatica del giovane A. Celi cui De Sica e N. Besozzi avevano offerto l'opportunità di portarlo, con la loro compagnia, a dimensioni professionali; V. Pandolfi scrisse che "centro di questo fluttuare di casi e di uomini, delle gioie e delle tristezze di ognuno è sempre Joe e De Sica descrive con molta aderenza questo personaggio, accorato apostolo e tenero fratello di ogni uomo"


Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home