“Hoop-skirts are uncomfortable, ungainly and in a high wind, totally unpredictable!” asserts Evelina Applegate—the feminist heroine of “Bloomer Girl”. Instead, she prefers the more liberating garment comprised of loose-fitting trousers gathered at the ankle; yet for a woman in the days leading up to the civil war, to even think of wearing such clothing was apt to cause scandal! Recently, the 1956 televised adaptation of this Broadway smash has been released onto DVD by “Video Artists International”.
Originally airing as part of NBC’s popular “Producer’s Showcase”, this slightly streamlined-for-television version in many ways actually improves on its source material. Based on an unpublished play by Dan and Lilith James, the book by Sig Herzig and Fred Saidy, (adapted for television by Leslie Stevens) is witty and sometimes eerily cogent to today’s headlines. (For instance, Evelina’s father fumes at one point “That ‘rail-splitter’ in the White House has saddled us with a National Debt of Six Million!” to which his wife replies, “Mrs. Lincoln must be an extravagant housekeeper!”)It’s also interesting to consider that the ‘play-within-a-play’ production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” predates Rogers & Hammerstein’s similar use of the material for their “King And I” by seven years when “Bloomer Girl” first bowed in 1944.
Told in four acts, the show boasts a glorious score by the legendary team of Harold Arlen and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg who wrote the songs for the classic, “Wizard of Oz”. However, the subject matter here is light years away from that magical realm, anchored more in the gritty reality of history. Nonetheless, their songs are just as memorable, In fact, taken in their entirely, the score of ’Bloomer Girl” rates among the most clever and intelligent, while still remaining sumptuously lyrical.
Numbers include the lilting “Evelina”, the sprightly “It Was Good Enough for Grandma”, and the beautiful “Right As The Rain”. In the same regard, “Sunday In Cicero Falls” is filled with some very high-minded and pointed satire involving the state of religion and politics–and those who practice them! In addition, “When The Boys Come Home” may start out simply as a home-spun ode to female domesticity sung by eager wives awaiting their husbands return, but by the show’s end it takes on a far deeper, more poignant meaning, as those same husbands are now soldiers going off to battle: “There’ll be drums and trumpets and tea and crumpets served on the town green” they sing with a desperate kind of hope many even today may recognize. Equally unforgettable is “The Eagle And Me”—a run-away slave’s heartfelt and hopeful anthem to the joys of freedom, which delightfully blends powerful sentiments with an exuberant, near show-stopping melody.
The President is Abraham Lincoln, when the action opens in 1861–a year, Horatio Applegate promises will be “A year of peace and plenty—you have my word for it!” He ought to know–after all, he is the leading manufacturer of ladies hoop skirts (a fashion staple at this time–particularly in his southern territories, so any news of political unrest in these areas would surely have been brought to his attention.)
Beguiling with every single frame she’s in, Barbara Cook is the spunky Evelina, the youngest of his six daughters and the only one without a husband. “Suddenly a strange businessman will appear and you’ll inform me that I’m in love” she complains of her father’s insistence she, like all her sisters before her, marry a man connected with the family business. “I wonder which eligible ‘territory’ you’ve picked for me?!” she sighs. Nonetheless, she may be youthful and head-strong, but isn’t so hard-hearted that “A new moon and an old plantation song” with a dashing Kentucky Casanova like Jefferson Calhoun can’t soften her emotions. When he arrives (complete with the expected bouquet of magnolias) to Mr. Applegate’s delight, he also brings the hope of increased sales from “Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee” (won’t that make the Honeymoon a bit cluttered?” Evelina quips.)
As “Jefferson”, Keith Andes is every ounce the charming southern gentleman complete with old-fashioned southern traditions and expectations; in due course though, he comes to see the wrongs some of them (most notably slavery) entail, and in the end wins his liberal-minded Lady-love’s heart by being truly heroic, arranging for his own ‘property’ to ultimately elude his captors via the underground railroad. (He even enlists in the Union Army!) Carmen Mathews is also a force to be reckoned with as Evelina’s Aunt, Dolly Bloomer –“The Working Girl’s Friend” for whom the famous vestment of the title takes its name. Based on the real-life ‘Amelia Jenks Bloomer’ (nicknamed “Dolly”,) her emancipating dress innovation not only shows a girl has legs, it frees up womankind from the tyranny of Horatio’s oppressive and confining hoops. A woman decidedly ahead of her time, Dolly’s a committed Abolitionist, Suffragette and Publisher of “The Lilly” newspaper. Think of her as a more ‘genteel’ type of sixties radical (—1860’s that is!)
Paul Ford co-stars as Horatio Applegate, a man with an equal amount of convictions as his sister-in-law, but in a distinctly more conservative bent. Likewise, Rawn Spearman is thoroughly likable and has an opera-quality tenor voice finer than a Missouri Blue Bird’s as the Calhoun family’s escaped slave Pompey, and Patricia Hammerless does a terrific job as the Applegate’s ditzy ‘whirling dervish of a maid”, Daisy. The cast also featured several who would go onto do bigger things in their own right. Before he made an impact in “To Kill A Mockingbird”, Brock Peters can be seen as Pompey’s equally oppressed cohort, Alexander, while Paula Stewart too, offers top-notch support as Julia, one of the Applegate Sisters, several years before headlining on Broadway as Lucille Ball’s sister ‘Janie’ in “Wildcat. As for her work here, Stewart recalls, “Looking back, I was glad to be part of a production that dealt with such important social matters.”
Her observation is right on the money—seldom has a “Musical Comedy’ dared to incorporate such serious and potentially controversial subjects like civil rights, feminism, and anti-war sentiments as this does. Moreover, Alex Segal’s Direction sometimes borders on remarkable—particularly given the technical state of 1950’s television and the run-time limitations. Segal employs some sophisticated camera and staging techniques including a second act “Carriage Ride” the two principals take and the near continuous motion involved with the “Sunday In Cicero Falls” number. For this TV Production, famed choreographer Agnes De Mille was brought in to recreate several of her dances from the original Broadway version—including the dynamic “Civil War Ballet” assembling the original four principal dancers to similarly re-enact their roles in this, which ranks among the most affecting of the entire spectacle.
Seldom seen or performed, this bona-fide crowd-pleaser is at turns starkly moving and boisterously jubilant and makes a perfect “fit” for anyone who savours entertaining and thought-provoking musicals at their most impressive as well as anyone who recalls (or wishes to become better acquainted with) the best of what the “Golden Age of Television” could be. Digitally restored from a Black and White kinescope, V.A.I. Music’s DVD edition also includes the original commercials as a separate viewing option as well. For more information, or to order on-line check out: http://www.VAIMusic.com .
“Bloomer Girl” Screen Grabs Courtesy Of “Video Artists International” (www,VAIMusic.com) Special Thanks To Foster Grimm and Allan Altman At “Video Artists International”, Paul Lambert And Miss Paula Stewart For Making This Story Possible.