Monday, March 13, 2017

Mandingo (1961)

Franchot with members of the Mandingo cast.
Source: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.
"Mandingo. [1961]" The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Mandingo opened on May 22, 1961 at the Lyceum Theatre, but closed after just eight performances five days later on May 27th. Written by Jack Kirkland and based on the novel by Kyle Onstott, Mandingo was set on an Alabama plantation in 1832. The play was directed by Louis MacMillan and starred Franchot Tone, Dennis Hopper, and, in her Broadway debut, Brooke Hayward. Full cast included Duke Farley, Georgia Burke, Clark Morgan, Philip Huston, Vinie Burrows, Maurishka Ferro, Arnold Moore, Rockne Tarkington, Fran Bennett, Verta Smart, Arnold Soboloff, John A. Topa, and Coley Wallace.

On March 9th, the New York Times suggested that Franchot might play a part in Mandingo and by March 23rd, Franchot had signed a contract to star in the play. Mandingo is often cited in biographical examinations of Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward, because the two became a couple during the production and later wed. Hayward would go on to call it a "potboiler" that "quite rightly closed after a week."

After opening night, N.Y. Times reviewer Howard Taubman wrote:
To a world painfully aware of the anguish of racial tension a play like "Mandingo" can only seem like a crude, sensationalized effort to capitalize on a newsworthy theme...It may well be that he [original author Kyle Onstott] wishes to say something compassionate and purging about the misery of slaves and the malevolence of the slave owners. But what emerges is a group of stereotyped characters taking part in noisome affairs...Franchot Tone, who has an honorable record of worthier things, snorts, wheezes and blusters his accomplished way through the role of Mr. Maxwell...In a time when insight and wisdom are desperately wanted, "Mandingo" offers only a shabby, coarse, surface treatment of an agonizing theme.
In the play, Maxwell (Tone) is a menacing slave owner who treats the slaves on his property with cruelty. His son Hammond (Hopper) does not agree with his father's ways and faces Maxwell's wrath as well. The story moves from one shocking scene to another, each featuring violence and sex (including rape and incest.)

I am surprised that despite the overwhelmingly negative response to the play's theme and the brief run due to this, Hollywood made a commercially successful movie version of Mandingo starring James Mason in 1975. A 1976 sequel Drum followed.

Candid backstage shot of Franchot with costars Maurishka Ferro and Verta Smart. Source: JET, June 1, 1961.


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