The Late George Apley Notes

When George S. Kaufman and John P. Marquand met, they only had one thing in common: both were Pulitzer Prize winning writers. They were introduced by literary agent Harold Freedman and Broadway producer Max Gordon on a hunch that Marquand’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Late George Apley, would make a smash hit play.  These were strange bedfellows, described by Marquand biographer Stephen Birmingham as, “the Protestant novelist of New England manners [Marquand] and the Jewish ex-shoe salesman, turned successful playwright, from Pittsburgh [Kaufman].” Yet the meeting was a fruitful one, and despite differences in culture and background, the end result was a wildly successful play that ran on Broadway for a year in 1944/45 and spawned a film adaptation directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1947.

John P. Marquand was born in 1893 in Delaware, but he spent the later years of his adolescence on the family estate at Kent’s Island, near Newburyport, Massachusetts.  The New England setting and upper-middle class social life engaged Marquand in a love-hate relationship that would influence most of his work. At times strongly critical and sharply satirical, Marquand nevertheless moved in the exact social circles he mocked in books such as Apley.  Marquand attended Harvard, another family tradition, but despised the chemistry he was supposedly studying and found comfort only in the staff room of the Harvard Lampoon.  Upon graduating, he worked for a year as a journalist before getting mobilized with the Massachusetts National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border, a post he left in 1917 to fight in France during WWI.  Marquand’s war experiences became the other main influence on his writing, leading to a large amount of travel in Europe and Asia. The time abroad led to his greatest popular success, a series of adventure novels starring the Japanese spy, Mr. Moto, that were made into a string of movies starring Peter Lorre.  While politically incorrect today, the films and books made Marquand enough in royalties to keep him set for life.

John P. Marquand always insisted that his Moto stories and other popular adventure serials were just to pay the rent.  He began his career writing short stories for various magazines such as Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post, and he used these early years to hone his craft and develop as a writer.  His first published novel, The Unspeakable Gentleman(1922), was an historical New England tale and introduced several Marquand trademarks that would reach fruition in his later works. Most prominently, Marquand first used the flashback device, telling the life story of his upper-class male protagonist, Henry Shelton, as Henry reflects upon the situations that have led him to his present state of despair.  The next few years were busy ones for Marquand, with several more novels, numerous short stories, and the debut of Mr. Motoin 1936. By this time, he had already begun The Late George Apley, originally serialized in 1936 and published complete one year later.  When his literary agents, the Brandts, read the manuscript, they were deeply concerned at Marquand’s deviation from popular fiction, even encouraging him to publish the book with a pseudonym.  The Brandts feared low sales, ridicule, and contempt from upper-class Bostonians. Marquand, hurt and disillusioned, insisted on having the book published under his own name.  He would prove his doubters wrong as Apley went on to both strong sales figures and critical acclaim, eventually garnering the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The novel, unlike the play, follows George Apley through his entire life.  It is a fictional memoir, constructed as a series of letters and papers compiled by Horatio Willing, Apley’s friend, after his death.  The device allows Marquand to satirize both the characters of Apley and Willing, who, firmly convinced of the importance of his “distinguished” friend, gropes for explanations to less than savory aspects of Apley’s life as he writes with Marquand-designed bad syntax. The novel is scathing in its treatment of polite Boston society and the vanity among the upper classes, but there is a certain sadness about the life of Apley that boils under the surface. It seemed an unlikely choice for a Broadway hit due to the unique construction of the novel, but it was an inspired move to bring in George S. Kaufman.

Kaufman, often called “the great collaborator,” was famous in New York for his razor sharp one-liners and a wit to rival Wilde.  Kaufman once famously quipped in a theatrical review, “I saw the show under unfortunate circumstances; the curtain was up.”  Born in 1889, he entered the industry as a humor columnist and soon graduated to playwriting and directing. Among Kaufman’s hits were two Marx Brothers vehicles, The Cocoanuts (1925, with music by Irving Berlin) and Animal Crackers(1928, written with Morrie Ryskind), The Royal Family (1927, with Edna Ferber), and several plays with Moss Hart, including Once In a Lifetime (1931), You Can’t Take It With You (1936, TACT 1998), and The Man Who Came to Dinner(1939, TACT 1995).  His Pulitzers came for the political musical comedy Of Thee I Sing (1932, written with Morrie Ryskind and featuring music by George and Ira Gershwin) and for the farce You Can’t Take It With You.  A showman who knew how to milk an audience for laughs, there was no doubt that Kaufman’s fast-paced style of humor was quite different from the mannered social satire of Marquand, but the two managed to balance each other out and create something new. Marquand put it this way: “I write the dialogue and [Kaufman] puts in the punches.” Kaufman’s comments on the collaboration were a tad more irreverent: “[Marquand’s] the only person in the world who can make worse faces than I can.”

Condensing the timeline of the story from a life to a week and an epilogue, Marquand and Kaufman streamlined the book and re-focused it on the middle-aged Apley’s relationship with his children. Losing some of the novel’s epic concerns about labor union unrest, social mobility, Irish influence, and adulterous scandals, the play takes a focused, domestic view, a snapshot of the Apleys as they appeared in person. In many ways, the novel and play complement each other, although both also stand on their own. The two mediums introduce varying ways to get to know someone: in correspondence and memories, or in direct confrontation. Apley, played to great acclaim in the original production by Leo G. Carroll, is a complicated figure, confident and set in his beliefs, but discontent despite it all.  The movie version, in typical Hollywood fashion, has Apley (Ronald Colman) make a life changing transformation into a liberal minded, socially flexible individual, willing to respect his children’s wishes in order to make them happy. By contrast, the Apley in the play is set in his ways, tragic in his rigidity but fascinating due to his firm convictions.  The play is Apley’s story, but it is also the story of his children, stuck under his thumb and scrambling for a way out. The concerns of Apley circa 1912 seem thoroughly old-fashioned (they were even old-fashioned when the play premiered in 1944), but the dynamic between the generations is one that will always remain relevant.  Today, parents and kids might argue over drugs or sex instead of family background and social circles, but an argument is an argument and inspires the same emotions. Audiences responded then, and we think they will continue to.

Asked about the differences between theater and fiction in an interview, Marquand insisted that he had enjoyed the experience but was unlikely to repeat it (he never did, except for a 1951 Broadway adaptation of his book Point of No Return penned by Paul Osborn).  “If you have a book out and the critics get down on it, you just say to yourself, ‘Well, I was born 100 years too soon.’  That makes you feel better.  You write a play, and on the first night everyone walks out. That must be simply dreadful.  There’s nothing you can tell yourself then.  You can just follow them out.” Luckily, Marquand never experienced theatrical failure. Kaufman had his share of flops, but far more successes, and The Late George Apley ranks up there with his best work.  It is something a bit different, a unique collaboration about a world quite alien to Kaufman. Marquand brought Boston, Kaufman brought comedy, and the result was magic.