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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Table (originally published 1/95)

During the extraordinarily fecund decade of the 1920s, the city of Paris saw an amazingly stellar confluence of creative talent, from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso to Gertrude Stein. But across the Atlantic in New York City, a similar amalgamation of talent regularly gathered around a single table at a single restaurant. It was, of course, the famed Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel.

A list of Round Table regulars reads like a who's who of 20s and 30s theater and journalism. It included playwrights George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, and Robert Sherwood, as well as newspaper columnists Heywood Broun, Ring Lardner, and Franklin P. Adams. The group encompassed everything from drama critics like Robert Benchley and Alexander Woollcott to performers like Harpo Marx and Tallulah Bankhead.

It was indeed a heady group of potent personalities that gathered for those illustrious lunches, but perhaps the most compelling personality of all was packed into the diminutive form of Dorothy Parker. Combining a sweetness of manner with a quick and lacerating wit, she was no one to trifle with. Clare Booth Luce, for example, learned the cost of crossing verbal lances with her when she allowed Parker to precede her through a door with a derisive "Age before beauty." Walking past Luce with a flourish, Parker replied, "Pearls before swine."

In the current release, "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," the formidable Mrs. Parker and her talented associates are recreated for a generation that has, incredibly, forgotten most of them. If the film and its attendant publicity has stirred your curiosity about these remarkable men and women, here are some titles featuring their work to look for on video.

"The Man Who Came to Dinner" (1941). Based on a play by Round Tabler George S. Kaufman, the title character of this comedy is in turn based on another member of the group, critic Alexander Woollcott. The character's name is Sheridan Whiteside, an irascible and imperious radio and newspaper columnist. Forced by an accidental injury to convalesce in the home of a family whom he clearly considers beneath him, he makes certain that everyone in the household stays at least as miserable as he is.

"A Star is Born" (1937). Janet Gaynor stars as a small-town girl gone to Hollywood in search of stardom. The roots of this familiar story extend back to a play called "Merton of the Movies" by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, both Round Tablers, and this version was adapted for the screen in part by Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell.

"Abe Lincoln in Illinois" (1940). Round Tabler Robert Sherwood adapted his own Pulitzer Prize winning play focusing on Lincoln's life and careers before winning the presidency. Raymond Massey, who had played the title role on the stage, repeated his widely praised performance for the film version. George Kaufman's comment was, "Massey won't be satisfied until he's assassinated."

"The Sky's the Limit" (1943). The many delightful short films featuring Robert Benchley giving mock-pompous lectures remain, so far, maddeningly unavailable on video. [2010 NOTE: Happily, this is no longer the case. Several of the Benchley short subjects can now be obtained on DVD from Warner Brothers' Warner Archive collection.] Until this outrage is rectified, we'll have to make do with this Fred Astaire musical which includes one of those Benchley lectures as the highlight of one of its scenes. When he begins fumbling around with charts to make a point that he's long since forgotten, you may well get the eerie sensation that Benchley was lampooning Ross Perot some 50 years before Ross got it together.

"Dinner at Eight" (1933). Based on a play by Round Tablers Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman and adapted in part by Round Tabler Herman Mankiewicz, this was one of the all-star productions in which the MGM studio showcased its impressive stable of talent. The film portrays an elegant dinner party at which the patina of glamor and refinement barely masks the miserable lives of its participants. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

In a way, the dinner party of "Dinner at Eight" comes uncomfortably close to mirroring those Round Table luncheons. As talented and clever as they were, most of the Round Table crew were substance abusers, and many of them came to a bad, lonely end. Their story is an object lesson in the frailty of the vessels that incarnate the entertainment and wisdom we most treasure. We might do well to bear that frailty in mind as the chill winds of partisan politics begin to blow through the institutions that support today's creative talents.

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