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The Royal Family: Broadway Theatre Archive

Today, can we point to a revered family of stage and screen actors that hold the same status the Barrymore clan achieved during the first half of the 20th century? None come to mind. So the Broadway stage audiences who made The Royal Family a big hit in 1927 had an advantage over those of us who rediscover this burlesque three generations later. The Royal Family lampoons the aristocratic Barrymore-Drew theatrical brood, and while quite a number of the script's barbs remain sharp and funny today, it's impossible for us to appreciate this meringue of a period piece as fully as our Gershwin-tuned Jazz Age predecessors, who were well acquainted with the celebrities being parodied with loving exaggeration up there on the stage. The Royal Family plays up for our amusement the fictitious Cavendish dynasty, a reigning New York theatrical family of divas and debutantes, petty vanities, melodramatic histrionics, and the clueless classism of the cultural elite. (Reportedly, the play angered Ethel Barrymore to the point of a threatened lawsuit. George Cukor adapted The Royal Family for the screen in 1930, and said that it "represented what people at the time like to believe about theatre," a summation that's still solid enough today.)

Living large off the glory of prior fame, the Cavendish family is fraying at the edges and might unravel after stage star Julie (Rosemary Harris as the ersatz Ethel Barrymore) and her daughter Gwen (Mary Layne) threaten to marry their respective beaus and leave the footlights behind forever. Of course, elderly grande dame Fanny (the remarkable Eva LeGallienne) will have none of that. Julie's brother Herbert (Keene Curtis) hopes to forestall his encroaching "has-been" status by staging his own trite little play without casting his boorish actress wife (Mary Louise Wilson). Stirring the pot further is the surprise arrival of family black sheep Tony (Ellis Rabb, stealing the show by flamboyantly skewering John Barrymore's petulant excesses). Famous as "America's foremost screen lover," Tony is on the lam from a breach-of-promise suit triggered by a casual dalliance back in Hollywood. All the while, Fanny plans her return to the stage in a national tour — a presumptuous fantasy that alarms Julie, who sees that the great Fanny Cavendish is no longer the woman she once was, neither in body nor mind.

The Royal Family was penned by George S. Kaufman — whose raconteur wit kept Broadway audiences and the celebrated Algonquin Round Table lively for years — and Edna Ferber, whose novels became the sources of Show Boat, Giant, and other Hollywood opuses. Kaufman reveled in the martini-and-formalwear set, and his plays were never deep explorations of Important Issues. Even so, The Royal Family is Kaufman Lite. It's a piffle, a bagatelle, a bubbly cocktail best sipped with the pinky extended. Dramatic crisis rarely rises above mass bickering. Its parts are better than the whole, so by the time an East Indian servant brings the monkey and other animals onstage, you know this isn't Eugene O'Neill. That said, much of Kaufman's rat-a-tat dialogue still holds its champagne effervescence, and in the production preserved here the occasional moments of wistfulness, poignancy, or reflection are played up to everyone's benefit.

This 1977 Great Performances broadcast recreates the play's triumphant 1975-6 revival, which ran an impressive 233 performances at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Most of the superb Lincoln Center ensemble cast remains intact here. A notable exception: the role of Tony was played on stage by George Grizzard — it wasn't until Great Performances that the part was taken by Ellis Rabb, who, by the way, also directed the Lincoln Center staging, earning a Tony for Best Director in 1976. Translating the stage production to television, experienced director Kirk Browning masterfully balances honoring the Lincoln Center performance with the needs of studio-bound television. His camerawork is fluid and respectful, enhancing the stage work without intruding upon it. So while the Kaufman-Ferber script is just a crème de menthe, this particular revival of the 1927 hit is a fine example of how to faithfully bring a stage production to the screen.

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This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD is a splendid piece of work. The 1.33:1 transfer looks great — as clean as a 1977 television event can be, and supported by monaural Dolby 2.0 audio that's strong and clear (although a bit raspy in the high end when things get noisy). The Broadway Theatre Archive series always delivers a handsome product, and The Royal Family keeps up the tradition with extensive previews of other Archive DVDs, lengthy stage/film listings of principle players, and an informative slipsheet. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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