Tuesday, October 2, 2018


During April of 1914 Earl D. Biggers (1885-1933) was on a “grand tour” by ship when he saw for the first time the Rock of Gibraltar.  Biggers wrote in an article published by the New York Times on March 7, 1915 that it was looming “ahead of us and looked to me for all the world like the old home town of Romance.  What a setting for a play!”  Biggers’s play Inside the Lines which opened at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre on February 12, 1915 is set in Gibraltar.

As the ship Biggers was sailing on left the harbor of Gibraltar, one of the Americans aboard told him a story. (This person inspired the character in the play named Henry J. Sherman of Kewanee, Illinois.)  He informed Biggers that while ashore he was told “from the tower on the Rock they can keep tab on every ship that comes within sixty miles.” He also told Biggers that the whole harbor and straits for miles around were mined.  “Pull a switch up there in the tower and you can blow every ship in sight to Kingdom Come.”  Biggers was taken with the idea and responded: “Wouldn’t be bad for a play would it—that is, if there was a war.” His American companion responded: “There won’t be any war.  Folks are too civilized for that nowadays.”

Unfortunately, this gentleman’s conclusion about war was incorrect and Biggers wrote a spy play that won him fans in America and Great Britain. Act One for Inside the Lines is set in the lobby of the Hotel Splendide located on Gibraltar.  It is Tuesday, the first day that England is at war with Germany. Joseph Almer, a Swiss, is the proprietor of the hotel that has a group of American travelers in the lobby, who are frantically trying to find a way back to the United States.

                       American Tourist in Lobby of Hotel Splendide--Broadway production

Among the Americans is Jane Gerson, a young New York department store buyer of French designer gowns, plus Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Sherman and their adult daughter Kitty.  Captain Woodhouse, a British officer, has also just arrived at the hotel.  He is scheduled to report for signal duty at the fortress. Jane Gerson believes she had met him several weeks prior, but Woodhouse insists that did not occur. A questionable character named Alfred Capper arrives.  Into this chaos comes Lady Crandall, the American wife of General George Crandall, who is England’s Governor of the “Rock.”  She desires to aid the frantic Americans, especially Jane who has in her possession French gowns designed by the most famous fashion designers of that time--Charles Frederick Worth (1825-1895), Jeanne Paquin (1869-1936), and Paul Poiret (1879-1944).

Through Lady Crandall’s intervention Mr. Reynolds arrives.  He is United States Consul at Gibraltar and he arranges for the Americans to sail in two days. He solves all their problems including cashing letters of credit and checks. Jane goes to stay with Lady Crandall at the Governor General’s house.

Act Two is set in the Library of the Governor General’s home. It is Thursday afternoon. This is when the spy plot starts to develop.  Alfred Capper arrives to inform the Governor General that Woodhouse is a German spy. The plot involves multiple German spies who are there to destroy a major portion of the British fleet.  This is a possibility since the British Mediterranean Fleet is scheduled to arrive at Gibraltar. 

                                                CAPTAIN WOODHOUSE & JANE GERSON 
Act Three is the same setting as Act Two, but it is Thursday evening and the Americans are coming for their farewell dinner. The spy intrigue is in full bloom as is the romance between Jane and Woodhouse. The British Mediterranean Fleet arrives prior to a brief pause in the action of this act, when the curtain is lowered for a few seconds to indicate the passage of five hours.

It is late Thursday night.  The Library continues to be the setting for this scene that is filled with melodrama, intrigue, suspense and accusations. Eventually the threat to the fleet is resolved and the spies are revealed. They are all dealt with in an appropriate manner.  I have not provided a detailed description of the play and all the characters since that would ruin the suspenseful quality of this melodrama. The secrets of this popular type of American play were only revealed to an audience at the end of the performance.

                                                    ACT III from the Broadway Production

Inside the Lines played on Broadway for 103 performances. The New York Times review on February 13, 1915 mentions that: “Mr. Biggers has brightened his play with some moments of considerable humor, most of them inspired by the plight of the disconsolate American tourists struggling to get home, trunks or no trunks.” Lewis S. Stone (1879-1953) played Captain Woodhouse and Carroll Mc Comas (1886-1962) starred as Jane Gerson. Stone played the same role in the 1918 silent film of the play.

Inside the Lines continued to be popular in other cities of the United States throughout the remainder of the war. Other productions were mounted by numerous theatrical groups across the United States such as The Colonial Stock Company in Cleveland, Ohio. This production played in 1916 for more than ten weeks. A revised 1918 version of the play was performed in Boston by the Henry Jewett Players at the Copley Theatre to positive reviews and large audiences.

Bernard Hishin (1885-1944), a London theatrical producer, secured the rights to produce Inside the Lines in England.  His production opened at London’s Apollo Theatre in June of 1917. This was when the spy play genre was beginning to be popular in England. The review in the May 26, 1917 edition of London’s Sporting Times sums up the play: “A clever play, brightly acted and warmly received.”  This production starred Eille Norwood (1861-1948) as Woodhouse and Margaret Clayton (1891-1961) as Jane. She also played the role of Jane in the 1918 film.

The 1930 film remake of Inside the Lines, as a talkie by RKO, starred Betty Compson (1897-1974) as Jane and Ralph Forbes (1904-1951) as Captain Woodhouse. From the plot description, it appears that screen writers John Farrow (1904-1963) and Ewart Adamson (1882-1945) took many liberties with the storyline.

Inside the Lines was published as a novel in 1915 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company. Earl Derr Biggers was assisted in this undertaking by Robert Wells Ritchie (1879-1942), who co-authored the novel. He undoubtedly worked on developing the backstory before the characters reached Gibraltar. There are also meetings between characters that the novel incorporates to build more suspense between the events in the play. This novel is currently available in paperback as a reprint released by Wildside Press, 2003.

The Evening News, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper reported on January 30, 1925 that Inside the Lines would be broadcasted on the radio that evening. This popular spy-thriller reached audiences for decades after it first appeared on Broadway. It is still an entertaining read. 

Broadway production photos from novel reprinted by Wildside Press, LLC
Drawing of stars in British production from THE ILLUSTRATED SPORTING AND DRAMATIC NEWS, June 23, 1917, page 467.

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