Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Meltdown in Boston: Jane Cowl vs. James Stewart

Jane Cowl, one of the most famous stage actresses of the early 20th century, was a Boston native who, while appearing in Boston, may have inadvertently aided the future film career of her bumbling stage manager.

The play was “Camille”, and the bumbling stage manager was James Stewart. The year was 1933, that awful financial and emotional trench we’ve come to recognize as the depths of the Great Depression.

James Stewart had begun his fledging acting career with the University Players on the Cape the year before in 1932 upon his college graduation. After the University Players had a seven-week run with “Carrie Nation” in New York, and then broke up, Stewart managed to catch favorable reviews for minor roles in a few other similarly frustratingly short-lived plays. Needing to feed himself between roles, a common problem for actors it seems, Mr. Stewart accepted a job in Boston as the stage manager of “Camille.”

It might have been a slight detour in his quest to be an actor, but any job in a company with Jane Cowl in it was valuable. Miss Cowl, with only a handful of film credits spread out over many years, made her real home the stage where she not only acted, but wrote plays and also directed.

She was perhaps most famous for playing Juliet. In 1933, between her Broadway stints of engagements of doing the romance “A Thousand Summers” ending in 1932 and the comedy “Rain From Heaven” which went up in 1934, Jane Cowl found herself in the city of her birth to sink her scenery-chewing teeth into one of the most famous diva roles ever written.

During her final, famous, frenzied death scene where she coughs her farewell to her sobbing lover, Miss Cowl’s young stage manager became distracted, and left off following the script.

Stewart, fumbling with his cue book, had heard noises out in the alley. He went to investigate and found a drunk amusing himself by lobbing rocks at the theater building, either at the wall or trying to land them on the roof. Stewart went outside to get rid of him.

Then, realizing in a panic that he had left his post at a crucial moment, ran back to his place in the wings, only to mess up the final curtain. We have at least two versions to consider: in “Jimmy Stewart” by Marc Elliot (Harmony, 2006), Stewart is said to have missed the cue to drop the final curtain just as Jane Cowl dies of tuberculosis, leaving her there hanging. Dead. So to speak.

In “James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life” by Lawrence J. Quirk (Applause Books, NY 1997), we are given the further picture of Stewart panicking, rushing back to his post, and ringing down curtain before her death scene was completely over. Jane Cowl, being Jane Cowl, might have taken a rather long time to die.

Cowl was furious, screamed at him, that he had ruined her scene, and had him fired.

James Stewart headed dejectedly back to his shared digs with pal Henry Fonda in New York City, still stinging from his blunder and his return to joblessness. But the darker days of the Depression were coming to a close for Mr. Stewart. He went back to acting, which unlike stage managing does not require one to pay attention every single second, and the following year, to Broadway in “Yellow Jack”, a performance which earned him a screen test with MGM.

Jane Cowl also eventually left Boston and went back to Broadway, where among other roles (as a bit of trivia) she originated the role of Dolly Levi on Broadway in 1938, when Dolly was a minor character in Thornton Wilder's "The Merchant of Yonkers."

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