Tuesday, March 26, 2019


Samuel Shipman (1881-1937) was a successful writer of vaudeville sketches when he pitched a Broadway producer with a storyline for a full-length play. The producer liked the idea but wanted to read the finished script within a few days. Shipman needed a collaborator in order to write the script quickly. Aaron Hoffman (1880-1924) another writer whose work was popular with vaudeville comedians became the other half of the team. The two writers went to a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey and in five and a half days wrote Friendly Enemies. A few week later the play was ready to open for preview performances in Washington, D.C.

Act I of Friendly Enemies is set in the living room of the Pfeiffers’ New York City “old, substantial, brownstone house.” It is 5:30 P.M. in the Fall of 1917. (All three acts of the play take place in this same room.)

The significant backstory is that Karl Pfeiffer and Henry Block are very close friends.  They were born and raised in the same German town and they immigrated together to the United States when they were young men. Karl has always maintained the German culture in his home while Henry has adopted the American way of life. Karl’s son William is engaged to marry Henry’s daughter June.

Act One: Karl, who is a German patriot, has been very unhappy since the United States entered the war against Germany.  He promises Walter Stuart that he will donate fifty thousand dollars to reduce anti-German propaganda. Stuart, unbeknownst to Karl, is a German agent who will use the money to sabotage American war endeavors.

The major segment of this act consists of Karl and Henry arguing about the war and the German way of life.  They are both waiting for William to return home.  Karl believes his son has been at college, but William has been in basic training since his enlistment in the United States Army.  Karl’s wife, Marie, has kept her son’s secret as has June.  William returns home and tells Karl the truth. Karl is very upset and leaves the house.

                                            Marie                 Karl                     Henry          June

Act II, Scene 1 takes place the next morning. The couple decided to marry today before William leaves on a transport ship for France. Karl returns home, but he refuses to go to City Hall for the wedding.  Scene 2. The family members leave for the wedding. Stuart arrives for the promised money and Karl gives it to him. Once everyone returns to the house except William who has boarded his ship, Karl receives a telephone call. Stuart wants to share his good news--a ship has been sunk two miles from New York City harbor with five thousand American soldiers aboard. The ship is the one that William boarded after the wedding.

Act III. Evening of the same day.  A few minutes after eight o’clock. While everyone is heartbroken over the tragic news, it becomes known that Stuart is a German spy as well as saboteur. William has survived the sinking of the ship and he arrives home. Henry, who has important friends, arranges for William to be credited with Stuart’s arrest.

                                           Marie       William  Karl        June       Henry
This is the barest of plot outlines and it does not attempt to describe the humor in this play. Since Friendly Enemies was written by two writers with vaudeville credits, the characters of Karl and Henry have scenes of broad comic interaction regarding each man’s position about American culture.

Another consideration relating to the plot of this play is that it tackled a very serious problem that was being played out in the United States once it entered World War One. There were more than 1.7 million German-born immigrants living in the United States when President Wilson declared war.  Germans comprised the largest non-English speaking immigrant group in America. There were hundreds of German language publications printed in the United States and many of them and their readers were pro Germany. A large percentage of their readership as well as the publications asserted their Germanness and did not support the United States being in the war. As a result, an anti-German sentiment developed on the home-front.

Friendly Enemies allowed American audiences to gain new insights as well as laugh at this serious situation. The two old friends on stage allowed the audiences to understanding their joys as well as their emotional attachments to family and country. During the preview performance on March 4, 1918 President Wilson rose in his box at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. and said of Friendly Enemies: “All that I can say has already been said most admirably in this beautiful play.  All the sentiments I could express have been admirably represented----sentiments that I hope will soon grip the world.”

Friendly Enemies opened in New York City at the Hudson Theatre on July 22, 1918. It played for 440 performances.  It starred Louis Mann (1865-1931) as Karl Pfeiffer and Sam Bernard (1863-1927) who was an English-born American vaudeville comedian as Henry Block. 
The Washington Post reported on April 27, 1919 that as of that date there were three touring companies presenting Friendly Enemies in the United States and Canada as well as three companies touring in England. The play was a tremendous success.

Friendly Enemies opened with the new title of Uncle Sam in London, England at the Haymarket Theatre on February 11, 1919.  Apparently, the play’s original title was initially misunderstood by Londoners prior to its opening. The Globe newspaper reported on February 12, 1919 that the play “had to combat an unfortunate belief that it was “pro-German.”  Uncle Sam was acted by an entirely American company which occurred for the first time in a London production. Uncle Sam was received with enthusiasm and played for more than 250 performances.

Two films were made of this play using its original title of Friendly Enemies. The first one was released in the United States in March 1925. It starred Lew Fields (1867-1941) as Karl Pfeiffer and Joe Weber (1867-1942) as Henry Block. This duo was the well-known comic team of Weber and Fields that were one of the most popular and profitable acts in vaudeville. This film was released in the United Kingdom in June 1926. The two actors were billed in England as “the greatest burlesque comedians of all time” and the film was successful on both sides of the Atlantic.

The second film was made by United Artists in 1942.  It starred Charles Winninger (1884-1969) as Karl Pfeiffer and Charles Ruggles (1886-1970) as Henry Block. Winninger had a vaudeville background and Ruggles was known for his numerous comedic film roles.  This film did not get released in the United Kingdom until December 1946.

Interest in Friendly Enemies was revived during the World War II years. The theatrical presentations tended to be produced by community theatres and other nonprofessional groups. This play obviously served to delight audiences throughout two grueling periods of war.

PHOTOS from the New York 1918 production appear in the script published by Samuel French, New York, 1923.

No comments:

Post a Comment