Friday, April 3, 2020


The first American World War One play to deal with a “returning soldier” story was Civilian Clothes written in 1919 by Thompson Buchanan (1877-1937). During the early 1920’s, Civilian Clothes, a comedy, was a popular play throughout the United States.

Thompson Buchanan moved to Louisville, Kentucky to start his career in journalism.  It was in his adopted city that he set Civilian Clothes. This three-act play begins in the Library of the Lanham’s “handsome old-fashion home.”  It is a winter afternoon in 1919. 
Sam McGinnis, twenty-seven years old, arrives at the Lanham home to claim his bride. Florence Lanham, twenty-one years old, and Sam were married in France during his one week leave from the Western Front.  While Buchanan does not specify what Florence was doing in France besides serving coffee, Sam states that he tried to contact “Miss Florence Lanham of the Red Cross.” 

The American Red Cross had women volunteers on the frontlines doing support work for the armed services. The organization also operated canteens that served meals and beverages to service men in towns located behind the front-lines.

Sam was a brave, handsome Army Captain in the American Expeditionary Forces.  Shortly after their marriage and honeymoon week, Florence received word that Sam had been killed in battle. Since she never had informed her family about the marriage, she decided not to disclose it when she returned home. When Sam unexpectedly arrives at Florence’s family Louisville home, she is being courted by several men.

                                                                         ACT ONE
Sam is no longer the dashing Captain looking smart in his uniform. He is dressed in a poor-fitting, ready-made suit of loud design, a bright tie, a shirt with a turn-down collar. His outfit is further enhanced by very yellow shoes known as “nobby” a prototype for the sneaker. A brightly colored handkerchief shows in his upper left-hand coat pocket. Florence, a socialite, is shocked that he is among the living and she wants nothing to do with this unstylish vision of manhood. Sam persuades Florence to allow him to be hired as the family’s butler, since the family is advertising for one. He wants to prove to Florence that he can become a socially acceptable husband.

Act Two, scene 1 takes place in the Lanham's dining-room. It is one month later than the previous act and just prior to a formal dinner party. Sam McGinnis, who is now the family’s butler known as “Dodson”, is dressed in a black dress coat with brass buttons, satin knickers and silk stockings. Dodson has become the most coveted butler among the members of Louisville society.  During the dinner, one of the guests, General McInerny recounts a heroic war story from the French battlefield.  It tells of the brave actions that a Captain McGinnis had taken and whose valor was recognized when the United States Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.

                                                  ACT TWO  (Dodson standing on the left)

Scene 2 is in the dining room following the departure of the diners. One of the guests, Zach Hart, returns to congratulate Dodson/Sam’s bravery during battle. He also offers Sam a high-salaried job as a civil engineer. Hart wants Sam to direct a railroad building project in South America.  Sam, who was educated as a civil engineer, refuses the position. The original salary offered is increased each time Sam refuses the position. Eventually, the salary becomes too good to refuse. Sam knows he will be able to provide Florence with the lifestyle to which she is accustomed. The rest of the scene becomes a frolicking comedy that involves Florence running away with Billy, one of her current suitors.

Act Three is set in a parlor of Hotel Grunewald, a popular hotel in New Orleans during that era. It is evening, two days after the previous scene.  Zack Hart is sitting in the parlor reading the newspaper. He questions a Bell Hop and learns that the train from Louisville is twenty hours late. He further hears that Billy and Florence have each wired the hotel requesting a room. Hart is at the hotel since he and Sam are on their way to South America. Sam’s father arrives and learns that his son is married.  Florence has a change of heart about Sam and there is a happy ending.

Oliver Morosco (1875-1945) a Broadway Impresario who owned the rights to this play, decided to hold his tryout production in Los Angeles, California instead of on the east coast of the United States. This production opened on June 29, 1919 with Thurston Hall (1894-1951) and Marion Vantine playing the two leading roles. The play had a successful run in Los Angeles before it moved to the Morosco Theater in New York City where it opened on September 12, 1919. It closed on January 17, 1920 and then toured to many cities throughout the United States.

Civilian Clothes had multiple companies touring this play in the United States all contracted by Morosco during the early years of the 1920’s.  He also opened Civilian Clothes with a new cast at his Broadway theatre in September,1920--a year after the original run closed. The new production starred William Courtenay (1875-1933) and Dorothy Dickson (1893-1995).  Several of the original Broadway cast members were also in this production.

 In 1920 a silent film version of Civilian Clothes was produced by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed by Paramount Pictures.  It starred Thomas Meighan (1879-1936) as Sam and Martha Mansfield as Florence (1899-1923). This successful film with its lesson advertised as “Elope in Haste, Repent at Leisure” was released in the United States on September 5, 1920.  It later was released in several European countries including Denmark in December,1921 and France on June 2, 1922.

The last major stage performance that I found relating to Civilian Clothes was presented in London. This production was staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre and it opened on July 7,1923. It ran for eleven performances closing on August 4, 1923. The cast was a mixture of British and American actors. Thurston Hall reprised his role as Sam and British actress Olwen Roose (1900-????) played Florence.

There was a hint of renewed interest in producing this play on stage and on film in 1944-45 as World War Two was ending. There may have been non-professional productions of Civilian Clothes at that time, but it did not have a major stage or screen revival.

PHOTOS: original New York production. These photographs appear in the original published script
                 released by Samuel French of New York.

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