The Ten Best Props (of 1921)

The following article, written by Lisle Bell, first appeared in Theatre Magazine in May of 1922. It’s interesting that theatre-goers from almost a hundred years ago recognized that props were forgotten during awards ceremonies. It’s also cool that one of the ten best props of 1921 was the bar in “Anna Christie”, a prop that I tackled earlier this year.

As the dramatic year draws to a close, the critical pastime of handing out the laurel begins. The producers are sitting in their box offices, counting out the money, and the actors are beginning to look forward to the relaxations of the Atlantic or of Great Neck, but meantime the critical judges, both professional and amateur, are busy thumbing over their accumulated programmes. Those who have blue ribbons to pin, prepare to pin them now.

These exercises usually take the form of “ten best” and “ten best that.” Combing over the productions of the season, the experts select the plays and players who have, in their estimation, contributed most to the advancement of their art. Their choices, alphabetically arranged or else tabulated in the order of merit, are duly published to a waiting world, and mere theatregoers spend many a pleasant evening quarreling with their decisions or improving upon them.

The Drama League makes an authentic choice of those who have rendered the greatest service to the cause, and those thus honored are invited to a banquet, where they occupy such positions of distinction, and are in fact so conspicuous, that one wonders whether they really have a chance to enjoy the food. Perhaps, however, the actors who attend those functions do not have to satisfy an appetite, and so merely go through the motions of eating with evident relish, much as they might do while taking part in a stage meal.

There is something truly fascinating about stage food, and the manner of its histrionic disappearance. Who will ever forget that patient loaf of bread that Margaret Wycherly kept eternally cutting in “Jane Clegg”? And does anyone recall a more intense scene of drama than that opening of the last act of “The Grand Duke”—with no one on the stage but Lionel Atwill and his breakfast? Here was drama reduced to highest nutriment—the conflict between an epicure and his spices which was as packed with thrills as a conflict between a dope fiend and his vices. Atwill gave as much thought and deliberation to the dressing of his salad as Ziegfeld gives to the undressing of his chorus.

The more we think about the importance of this property breakfast, the more we are struck with the fact that the whole domain of stage props has been neglected in the annual awards of the drama experts. Burns Mantle edits a volume of the best plays of the year; the magazine critics issue their ukases of ten best “unfeatured male players,” and “unfeatured female players;” even the reviewers at Podunk and one-night stands get out lists of the best things that have come to the “opry house,”—and all this time the props have languished, unwept and unsung.

Here goes, then, for the ten best props of the season of 1921-22:

1. The Sunday paper in “The First Year.” This award might properly have been made last year, only—as we said—the idea wasn’t in operation then. Frank Craven has always placed great trust in the power of props in writing plays. The victrola and the bottle of washwoman’s gin are examples of his skill, but best of all is the Sunday paper. Its delayed appearance in the final act is fraught with as much suspense as the delayed reprieve, which always came just in the nick of time in the old melodramas. It doesn’t seem like a Christian Sunday to the old father until that paper arrives; it is undoubtedly entitled to a position among the “ten best.”

2. The box of chocolates in “Duley.” This noisy prop is on in only one scene, but it holds the center of the stage for the time being. Thanks to a particularly audible brand of waxed paper, it practically drowns out a touching scene on the piano. This box of chocolates must be a near relation to the kind the matinee girls bring with them; it’s the only prop of the season with a speaking part. Its lines fairly crackle.

3. Lenore Ulric’s powder puff in “Kiki.” This prop has a rather intimate and frivolous role, of which it acquits itself well. Its appearances are unexpected—and its disappearances even more so.

4. The Jazz in “The National Anthem.” Although an off-stage part, it really dominates the drama. Mr. J. Hartley Manners is perfectly frank in casting syncopation to the winds, and while Laurette Taylor teeters toward tragedy and then toddles back toward better things, one hears the prop personification of modern evil, soughing and saxophoning in the wings. It’s a big rôle for a prop, admirably interpreted.

5. The family Bible in “The Intimate Strangers.” Booth Tarkington, better than any other American playwright, knows the value of a sentimental prop, discreetly cast. The Bible which enters so tenderly into the question of Billie Burke’s age (we speak solely of the drama; not of the lady herself) could not be improved upon, and in fact has not been since the time of King James.

6. John Drew’s simulated false teeth in “The Circle.” We say simulated because any assumption beyond that is an affair between Mr. Drew and his dentist—not for outsiders. Nevertheless, the occasions when Somerset Maugham has introduced the old roué’s counterfeit molars into the action are sharply defined, and never fail to strike a responsive guffaw from the audience.

7. “Gibbon’s Decline and Fall,” etc. This prop plays the rôle of the “heavy” in Mr. Milne’s otherwise light comedy. The use to which it is put, however, seems to place less emphasis on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire than it does on the decline and fall of Mr. Gibbon himself. A soporific prop in a wide-awake play.

8. The far-western bar in “The Squaw Man.”

9. The middle-western bar in “The Deluge.”

10. The down eastern bar in “Anna Christie.”

Two of these bars figured in productions of Arthur Hopkins, and unquestionably Mr. Hopkins’ well-known theory of unconscious projection was a factor in their success. In truth, the projection did not cease at the footlights but carried over into the consciousness of drama lovers and others, where it stirred vague memories. A prop that can do that deserves the blue ribbon—even under the blue law.

Reprinted from: Bell, Lisle. “The Ten Best ‘Props'” Theatre Magazine, May 1922, collected in Theatre Magazine vol 35, 1922, edited by Arthur Hornblow, pg 288.