THE DVD SHELF: "Les Miserables," "Hands on a Hardbody," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Ministry of Fear" and More

By Steven Suskin
31 Mar 2013

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The English dramatist Frederick Lonsdale (1881-1954) fell — artistically and chronologically — somewhere between Oscar Wilde and Noël Coward. A veteran Broadway theatergoer might well have gone through a career of playgoing without coming across his work, but he was steadily popular in the West End over a 40-year career. He started out as a highly successful operetta librettist in 1908 with The King of Cadonia; his biggest hit, the World War I musical The Maid of the Mountains, ran a then-staggering total of 1,352 performances.

Broadway saw 20 Lonsdale productions over the years, the last being a 1985 revival of his 1923 comedy Aren't We All? (The first starred a young Leslie Howard; this time the septuagenarian Rex Harrison played the role, accompanied by the octogenarian Claudette Colbert. We all called it "Aren't We Old?") Lonsdale's most successful play, The Last of Mrs. Cheney, came in 1925. His next, On Approval, actually premiered on Broadway in 1926 before opening on the West End. Lonsdale was also the grandfather or three little Foxes, actors James and Edward and producer Robert.

The play was soon filmed in 1930, and then faded away until stage and screen star Clive Brook wrote, directed, produced and starred in a second On Approval [B2MP] in 1944. (We are told in a bonus interview with costar Googie Withers that the film sat on the shelf for a while, at which point Brook bought it and — having fired the original director — reshot most of it.)



"On approval" refers to an arrangement worked out between a penniless gentleman (Roland Culver) who is in love with a rich widow (Beatrice Lillie). They agree to go off for a properly chaperoned month at Lillie's mansion on an island in Scotland to see whether they are compatible, accompanied by his friend (Brook, as a penniless Duke) and her friend (Withers, as an American heiress). Complications ensue, with not-unpredictable results.

Brook took the play — which was set in contemporary times — and moved it into the quainter Victorian era. (This heightened the humor and at the same time allowed Cecil Beaton to design a ravishing set of costumes.) What makes the whole thing so droll are the expert performances and the often-delicious dialogue. From a modern-day standpoint, the main attraction of this deft comedy of ill-manners comes from the presence of Lillie. One of the prime star comedians of the London/New York stage for more than 40 years (from 1924 on), the Canadian-born Lillie's talents did not seem to translate to the screen. At least, there was very little call for them; she only made a half dozen appearances, ending with her best known screen performance as Mts. Meers in the 1967 "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

"On Approval" gives us Lillie in 1944, at the height of her stardom. This is also Lillie at the age of 50, which in that era was old. What leaps across from the screen is her rapier-sharp tongue enhanced by an ability to speak volumes with a raised eyebrow or a mere sideways glance. For those of us who have long heard about the great Lillie — and heard her on recordings — this is an enlightening opportunity to actually see her in action. She does not disappoint; she even tries to get some singing in, at the pianoforte.

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Fans of Broadway's latest musical — at least when this column was first posted — can now see the documentary that started it all. S. R. Bindler's Hands on a Hardbody — about 23 small-town Texans competing to win a Nissan pickup truck — has been out of print for a decade. This didn't stop composer/lyricist Amanda Green from finding the film and enlisting composer Trey Anastasio and librettist Doug Wright to join her in adapting it into the new show currently in residence at the Brooks Atkinson. The film has now been digitally remastered and rereleased, on DVD and via streaming. The DVD includes over an hour of additional interviews not included in the film.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)