In this paper, I shall attempt to illustrate situational dramaturgy at work in an early twentieth-century play, Armstrong’s Alias Jimmy Valentine (premi `ered at the Studebaker Theater, Chicago, 25 December 1909), and the film adaptation of it directed by Maurice Tourneur for World Film in 1915.
Armstrong’s play derives from a short story by O. Henry, A Retrieved Reformation , first published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1903. The staging that premi `ered at Chicago and then moved to Wallack’s Theater in New York on 21 January 1910 was produced by Liebler & Co., directed by Edward E. Rose, and starred H.B. Warner as Jimmy. Extracts from the play and synopses were published in contemporary magazines, and I have seen four typescripts (prepared in both Chicago and New York) of slightly different versions in the Billy Rose Library in New York. French version of the play adapted by Yves Mirande and Henry Ge´ roule as Le Mysterieux Jimmy was produced at the The´ ˆatre de la Renaissance in Paris, premiering on 26 June 1911. Tourneur later claimed that ‘I produced the French stage version Alias Jimmy Valentine ’. According to Jean Mitry, between 1910 and 1912, Tourneur worked as an actor and stage manager for Abel Tarride, the actor-manager of the The´ ˆatre de la Renaissance, and also directed some productions there, so the claim may well be correct. I have not located a text of the French version, but from the detailed summary included in a review by Montcornet in Le The´ ˆatre , it is clearly close to a version premiered at El Teatre Principal, Barcelona, on 16 April 1912 in a Catalan translation (probably from the French) by Carles Costa as misterio`s Jimmy Samson , which was published many years later. The French and Catalan versions are fairly free adaptations, and it is possible that the French one influenced Tourneur or his uncredited screenwriter (if any) in the film adaptation. This was produced in 1915 by the World Film Corporation with Robert Warwick in the lead part.
O. Henry’s story is only a few pages long, and essentially presents a single situation: Jimmy Valentine, an expert safecracker, is released from prison, collects his burglar’s tools, and travels to Elmore, Arkansas, where he plans to rob the bank. However, he falls in love with the bank manager’s daughter, reforms, opens a shoe shop, prospers, and gets engaged to the girl he loves. A police detective with a warrant for his arrest arrives in Elmore just as Jimmy is preparing to leave for the West with his bride. At that moment it is discovered that her little niece has been shut into the new bank vault, which has a time lock. Jimmy uses his tools to open the safe and save the little girl, and the detective thereupon tears up the warrant, allowing Jimmy to marry and live happily ever after.
This account of the situation involves a lot of backstory; its bare bones is the ironic position Jimmy is placed in: if he rescues the little girl, he betrays his identity, is arrested, and his reform goes for nothing; if he sticks to his new persona, the little girl dies. This is a characteristic situation: the protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, and the action is suspended to allow all its implications to be grasped; the dilemma poses two contrasting moral outcomes; it evokes the chains of circumstances that led to the protagonist’s need to decide, and the possible future outcomes of his decision. Like most situations reduced to bare bones, it is not original. As Montcornet pointed out in Le The´ ˆatre it is the situation in Les Miserables that the escaped convict Jean Valjean finds himself in when, while disguised as M. Madeleine, the humanitarian mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer, he and his nemesis, the police detective Javert, are bystanders as p `ere Fauchelevent is caught under a heavy cart; should he allow Fauchelevent to die, or raise the cart off him, revealing his great strength and thereby reinforcing Javert’s already aroused suspicions as to his real identity? This situation provides the climax and leads to the denouement—acting out of character, the detective tears up the warrant—in all the versions of the Alias Jimmy Valentine story and is consistently described in reviews in ‘situational’ language. However, it is not enough to constitute a full-length stage play, which has to be divided into a number of acts, and, in situational dramaturgy, such acts have to have their own mini-climaxes and denouements, i.e. their own secondary situations. As Tourneur remarked: ‘Structurally there is no more resemblance between the O. Henry fiction and the Armstrong comedy than there is between a chess board and a woman weeping.’ Armstrong motivated the situation by providing a new and more complex chain of prior events, allowing for this series of climaxes. Before his arrival in the town where the action is set (Springfield, Illinois, in the various plays and films), Jimmy had met the banker’s daughter, Rose Lane, before; he had rescued her from the attentions of a masher on a train, and in the resulting fight, the masher had fallen from the train and been so badly injured that he died, not before denouncing his assailant as a safecracker. Rose meets Valentine again when she is visiting Sing Sing prison with her uncle, the Deputy Governor of New York; Valentine has been jailed on the basis of the masher’s testimony, but proclaims his innocence (and his inability to crack safes). On learning of his chivalrous action, Deputy Governor Fay believes his protestations and promises to get him a pardon; Rose subsequently persuades her father to give him a post in his bank in Springfield. Doyle, the detective who had got him convicted and vowed to nail him again after the pardon, traces him to Springfield and arrives with a warrant for another crime (committed in Springfield, Massachusetts). Valentine succeeds in bluffing Doyle with a carefully prepared alibi. The basic situation of the story then follows.
The action is distributed over four acts (though one typescript presents this as three acts, the last having two scenes, as the fourth act in the others is very short). The first act is set in the Warden’s office in Sing Sing, with the visit of Rose, her uncle, and members of the prison reform league the Gate of Hope. The Warden offers his visitors an exhibition of criminal types, culminating in the request to Jimmy that he open a safe without knowing the combination, which he insists he is unable to do. Rose recognises Jimmy, and persuades her uncle to secure him a pardon. The second act takes place immediately after Jimmy’s release, in a hotel lobby in Albany, where Jimmy has arranged to meet Rose. Jimmy is approached by Detective Doyle, but refuses to become a stool pigeon. Red Joclyn and Bill Avery, former associates of Jimmy’s, appear, and Valentine tells them he is going straight (provoking a minor situation where he is nearly seduced back into crime by his former partners, to be discussed in more detail later). Rose introduces Jimmy to her father, and the latter, at her request, offers Jimmy a job in the Springfield bank. Jimmy promises to get Joclyn a job there too. The third act takes place in that bank several years later. Jimmy (going by the name Lee Randall) is now Lane’s trusted right-hand man, and Joclyn is a watchman. Avery, who has reformed and married a widow whose son is a photographer, arrives with a photograph he has had made for Jimmy. Avery has been trailed by Doyle, who announces his imminent arrival. Jimmy decides to brazen out the situation, using the doctored photograph to establish an alibi. He is successful, but as the crestfallen Doyle prepares to leave, Red runs in calling ‘Jimmy’, to say that Kitty Lane has been locked into the safe. Act 4 (or Act 3, scene 2) is set in the vault. A blindfolded Jimmy opens the safe with Red’s assistance, watched unbeknown to them by Doyle and Rose. When Jimmy takes off the blindfold he sees Doyle, and gives himself up. Rose comes forward and pleads for him; realising that the two are in love, Doyle tears up the warrant and leaves the couple together.
The problem with this structure is that it sags in the middle. The first act is fine, climaxing with the attempt by Warden Handler to persuade Jimmy to demonstrate his safecracking skills, Rose’s revelation, and Fay’s promise to have him pardoned; the third has Jimmy bluffing Doyle; and the fourth is the climactic situation; but the second only has the attempt by Joclyn and Avery to tempt Jimmy back to criminality. The French version of the play eliminates the second act, and Tourneur’s film drastically cuts it. The French play has two acts in Jimmy’s office in the bank before the final vault scene (here, too, Act 3, Scene 2), and adds a new character, a villain, to complicate the relations between Jimmy and his former associates on the one hand, and his dealings with the detective on the other. Act 2 reveals that Rose is engaged to a ne’er-do-well cousin, but has fallen in love with Jimmy.Evans(asthedetectiveiscalledintheFrench andCatalanversions)tries persuade Rose’s father that Jimmy and his friends are untrustworthy, without success. Jimmy is unsure of the conversion of one of his associates (here called Dick le Rat) and leaves the office in darkness with the safe open. There is a scuffle in the darkness, and when Jimmy and the bank’s owner return and turn the lights on again, $20,000 is missing, and Dick is unconscious on the floor. In Act 3, Scene 1, the banker wavers in his trust, but the cousin is later caught passing out forged banknotes, and Jimmy reveals that the money stolen from the safe was forged bills he had deliberately substituted for the real thing as a test for Dick’s honesty. The cousin is sent packing, and the detective is baffled, but thenKitty is found to have been locked in the safe, and scene 2 is the standard climax and denouement. The obvious weakness of this solution is the loss of the bluffing scene, as well as something curiously old-fashioned in the introduction of a conventional villain in addition to the more ambiguous nemesis figure detective (though perhaps there is another Hugolian precedent in the doubling of Javert by Thenardier).
The film follows some of the changes introduced into the French version, notably the conflation of Lieutenant Governor Fay and Rose’s father Lane, and the virtual elimination of Act 2 (reduced to two short scenes in a bar sandwiching a third in Fay’s house). This creates some problems: it makes sense that Jimmy, with a former criminal associate in tow, would stop off in Albany to thank his benefactor en route from Sing Sing to New York City, but not that he should travel all the way to Illinois for the same purpose; and it is unclear how the lieutenant governor of another state would have the power in Sing Sing that Fay is supposed to have. This would not worry a Parisian audience, who probably had no idea where either Springfield is, or of the status of a lieutenant governor of an American state, but it might seem a problem for American spectators (though I have no knowledge of adverse critical comment about the film on these grounds at the time). The key situation in Act 2, the moment when Jimmy’s associates try to persuade him back to a life of crime, is shifted by Tourneur into what in the American play is Act 3, in Jimmy’s Springfield office, again following the French adaptation’s model of boosting the incidents in Act 3.
A much more important change in the film is in the exposition. Whereas O. Henry’s story begins with Jimmy’s release from prison, and the first scene in both the American and French versions of the play is set in the Warden’s office in Sing Sing while he is serving his sentence, the 1915 film begins by establishing Lee Randall, alias Jimmy Valentine, as a safe cracker, showing him and his associates Red, Avery, and Cotton carrying out a bank robbery, and their pursuit by Detective Doyle. There follows a direct representation of the incident with Jimmy, Cotton (the masher) and Rose on the train, Cotton’s confession, Jimmy’s arrest and his arrival in Sing Sing.
In directly representing what was backstory in the play, Tourneur is following standard prescriptions of the period. It was generally agreed that whereas in literature it was possible to double back in time and tell earlier events after later ones, this was inappropriate in drama and film, where all significant narrative action should be portrayed in story order. Nevertheless, in medias openings were highly valued . . .
Ben Brewster, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, O. Henry, Published by Gale Group, 2010