Obsession

A drama in three acts produced by Homer Curran in association with Russell Lewis and Howard Young at the Plymouth Theatre, New York City, October 1, 1946. The play ran for 31 performances on Broadway. Staged by Reginald Denham, setting and lighting by Stewart Chaney, gowns by Adrian.

Cast of Characters

Maurice Basil Rathbone
Nadya Eugenie Leontovich
   
   
Acts I, II and III A Paris Apartment

Obsession is an adaptation of a French play originally titled Monsieur Lamberthier, written by Louis Verneuil in 1927. The play has been translated in 22 languages and produced in many cities around the world, including Brussells, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna, and Buenos Aires. The first time the play was produced in the United States it was titled Jealousy, and it was on Broadway in 1928. A film version of Jealousy was made in 1929. Later film versions were Deception in 1946, and Monsieur Lamberthier (a TV film) in 1957. Basil Rathbone's wife, Ouida, later reworked the script for Obsession and transformed it into Murder in Vienna (a play in two acts, never performed).1

 

The late Eugene Walter's adaptation of the Verneuil play, then entitled "Jealousy," was staged at the Maxine Elliott Theatre, New York, October 22, 1928, by Guthrie McClintic and produced by A.H. Woods. The two characters then were played by John Halliday and Fay Bainter, and the production ran for 136 performances. The Jane Hinton version is more earnestly dramatic than the Walter adaptation, but the story is the same one of two lovers in Paris who marry and settle down in the bride's apartment. Almost immediately the groom becomes jealous and suspicious of the bride's guardian, and later strangles him off stage.
from The Burns Mantle Best Plays of 1946-472
   

Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich

Basil Rathbone
   

In his autobiography In and Out of Character Rathbone claimed, "Ouida had rewritten and modernized an old play called Jealousy, and retitled it Obsession.3  He made no mention of Jane Hinton, whose name appears on the program and all publicity materials. Rathbone was not mistaken; Ouida was apparently uncredited. The May 1, 1946 edition of Variety reported, "Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich will co-star in Obsession, psychological drama by the French playwright, Louis Verneuil. ... Jane Hinton has written the English adaptation, and Ouida Rathbone is collaborating with both authors on the final English script."4


a page in the program booklet
 

Item in Variety, May 1, 1946

Jane Hinton

Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich,
drawing by William Auerbach-Levy

In Obsession, Maurice and Nadya are newlyweds. But their wedded bliss is spoiled by Maurice's insane jealousy regarding Nadya's close relationship to her guardian. Rathbone wrote that Nadya and Maurice were "very much in love, but with 'a skeleton in the closet.' It was her skeleton. I had married her not knowing that she had had an elderly lover who refused to leave her alone in her newfound happiness. This third character never appeared except on the telephone. In her efforts to shake him off, I became suspicious of her. When I found out who he was and suspected her of still carrying on an affair with him I murdered him. The murder was to be the perfect crime and she was never to know I had killed him. The final scene was a complete breakdown on my part and a lengthy confession to her of my crime and the suggestion that it was only a matter of time before the police would arrest me and charge me with murder."5

Prior to opening on Broadway the play toured the United States. It played in the following cities:

  • Santa Barbara, California (Lobero Theatre, June 13)
  • San Francisco, California (Curran Theatre, 10 days starting June 16)
  • Portland, Oregon (Mayfair Theater, two days only: June 27 and 28)
  • Seattle, Washington (Metropolitan Theatre, June 29July 6)
  • Denver, Colorado (Auditorium, July 22-23)
  • Kansas City, Missouri (Music Hall, for 3 days, July 25-27)
  • Chicago (Erlanger Theater, four weeks starting on July 29)
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Shubert Theater, Aug. 26Sept. 7)
  • Boston, Massachusetts (Colonial Theater, Sept. 9-21)
  •  Cleveland, Ohio (Hanna Theater, Sept. 23-29)
  •  New York, NY (Plymouth Theater, Oct. 1)


playbill for the Colonial Theatre in Boston

Regarding the premiere performance in Santa Barbara, Variety wrote the following review:

Despite magnificent mounting, "Obsession" looms as an unlikely contender either for critical or box-office honors. The production might come off the nut handsomely in the one-night stands, but as a long-runner in the major cities it doesn't appear to be a winner. The reason for the customers turning out at all will be on the strength of the Rathbone name at the box officenothing else.

Originally produced in Paris in 1927 under the title of "Monsieur Lamberthier," the play has undergone a switch to the tag of "Jealousy" and hit the boards here in the late 20s as a vehicle for Fay Bainter and John Halliday. Albert Basserman played it in Berlin. Jeanne Eagels, Fredric March and Walter Huston did it in a film by the title of "Jealousy" in 1929. All this bespeaks a nifty history.

But "Obsession" now has value only as a museum-piece, showing wherein lie the roots of "The Voice of the Turtle" and "The Two Mrs. Carrolls," The Verneuil show, however, has none of the entertainment values of the latter two plays. It lacks the humor and the character depth of the newer shows. It also gets pretty monotonous with two people trying to keep the audience amused through three acts of telling what goes on offstage most of the time.

Both Eugenie Leontovich and Basil Rathbone do what any performer would try to do for the play, although their respective accents sometimes are hard to understand. However, coupled with Reginald Denham's fine direction, they turn in professional performances with the material at hand. Denham has worked especially hard trying to create the idea of movement in the talky dialog.

Stewart Chaney's set of a Paris apartment is lavish and in good taste, albeit reminiscent of "Voice of the Turtle," minus the kitchen. The producers expended themselves, but this play isn't the thing.

Variety, June 26, 1946

Regarding the character he plays in Obsession, Rathbone said, "Maurice is as imaginative and clever in his deductions as the famous detective [Holmes]. But he is not infallible! Passionately in love, he is a far more complex and human character than the great Holmes."6


Eugenie Leontovich and Basil Rathbone
photo by Otto Rothschild

Basil Rathbone
photo by Herman Mishkin

While the play was in Kansas City, Variety reported, "Obsession is now being done with its third ending. Opener on the Coast saw a happy ending. In rebuttal, Rathbone turned to killing off Miss Leontovich. That met with less public approval, and current version has Rathbone killing himselfwith better box office response."7


photo by Otto Rothschild
Maurice: "I'm always wondering if what seems to be mine is really mine."

Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich

The Billboard review of the Chicago performance praised the good acting of Rathbone and Leontovich:

Obsession, revival of Verneuil's mid-20s Jealousy, concerns a husband who works himself into a frenzy over the sexual aberrations of his wife and finally winds up killing her lover and then himself.

It's hard for two characters to hold attention for three acts without a stooge of any kind, but Rathbone and Leontovich did it, getting six curtain calls. They did it thru good acting, aided by such gimmicks as Miss Leontovich appearing in one scene sans clothing from the waist up.

It's almost strictly bedroom stuff. Nevertheless, play has drawn good notices (with exception of Chi) and good grosses everywhere in its Coast and Midwest tour and may shape up for Broadway after it finishes its seven-week tenure here. After opening in Santa Barbara June 13, show hit San Francisco for a 26G week; then to Seattle; Portland, Ore., and Kansas City, Mo., for substantial grosses.

If producers Lewis and Young have a winner in Obsession it will be mainly due to the pulling power of the Rathbone-Leontovich combo.

Billboard, August 10, 1946

Rathbone wrote, "We met with considerable success to begin with. But as a very hot summer developed we were less successful as we toured the Middle West. Coming to the Plymouth Theatre in New York in September of 1946 we received mixed reviews and managed to run only three weeks. In spite of Ouida's work on the play and all our efforts it was generally considered old-fashioned and audiences were not particularly interested in watching Miss Leontovitch and myself walking a tightrope for over two hours!"8


Eugenie Leontovich and Basil Rathbone
photo by John E. Reed

Basil Rathbone

After touring the United States since June, Obsession arrived on Broadway on October 1, 1946. The reviews from Variety, Billboard, and the New York Times appear below.

Revival of Louis Verneuil's play, "Jealousy," in a new adaptation by Jane Hinton, has the same catchpenny appeal of the 1928 original (which Eugene Walter originally adapted, and John Halliday and Fay Bainter played). A play with only two characters, it is something of a tour-de-force because of the device, and a play of respectable proportions in spite of it. Yet, as 1946 Broadway fare it disappoints. Its talkiness and many dreary stretches militate against its success.

The device is a stunt, dispensing with subordinate characters and fill-ins for sheer trick value. It's to the credit of the present production that the stunt comes off so well. This is due largely to the efforts of the principals, especially Basil Rathbone, who with Eugenie Leontovich lends a certain dignity and depth to the proceedings. The play itself, a somewhat melodramatic, far-fetched drama of jealousy, tantrums and murder, doesn't stand up.

It's a little difficult to follow the thought-processes of a man, who, marrying his mistress, then accuses herthe moment they arrive home from the ceremonyof infidelity, and goes on from there to stack the cards against himself with one injudicious word or action after another. He might at least have saved himself the trouble of marrying her. Play's sordid quality also detracts from its appeal, the complicated love-affairs of Nadya only adding to the lacklustre in Maurice's ineptitudes.

At that, there are several strong moments in the drama which the cast of two accentuateas, for instance, the moment when Nadya discovers that Maurice has murdered her lover-patron. Rathbone's clipped, nervous manner fits his role admirably, while Miss Leontovich's slightly exotic quality matches her part. Reginald Denham's direction is also intelligent, while Stewart Chaney's elaborate, tasteful set (reminiscent of his set for "Voice of the Turtle") is one of the production's strong points. And Adrian's gowns, which Miss Leontovich wears stunningly, are swank.

Variety, October 2, 1946

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Plymouth Theatre in 1943

The program booklet

.

Back in 1928 A.H. Woods presented Fay Bainter and John Halliday in Eugene Walters' adaptation of Louis Verneuil's drama, M. Lamberthier. That one was called Jealousy and ran for some 136 performancesa tidy Stem stay for those days. Now comes a new edition of the same, scripted by Jane Hinton, and titled Obsession. Not likely that the latest Verneuil twist will hit the 100-performance mark of success.

Obsession still remains what it was in the first placea superficially clever exercise in dramaturgy with a cast limited to two performers. Its interest lies solely in seeing and hearing what sort of a stunt a playwright can accomplish with two characters aided by a prop telephone. It is pretty evident that Verneuil must have regarded his opus in the light, for his concoction of a triangle of love and murderwith the third side of the triangle invisibleis still as artificial and unbelievable as it always was. Nor has time dealt gently with what was once considered slick sophistication. Obsession creaks in the joints and often registers as phony as its telephone bell.

Latest edition features the same pair of newly married lovers and the spiderybut invisibleLamberthier. Pair spend the usual 180 minutes wading progressively into emotional hot water, most of which seems tepidly silly. The lady lies and lies and husband get madder and maddermad enough, finally, to choke the omniverous M. Lamberthier to death midway of Act 2. So the gendarmes arrivealso invisibleand that's that.

Basil Rathbone whips about in a variety of handsome dressing gowns and speaks Maurice's artificially brittle lines with considerable distinction. Eugenie Leontovich whips about in a handsome variety of gowns designed by Adrian and speaks Nadya's lines with a lack of distinctness which is frequently baffling to ears back of the sixth row. Stewart Chaney has designed a sock set of a Paris apartment. Reginald Denham's staging keeps the duo moving around at the required pace. But, in sum, Obsession is a bore. It could well be retitled To Each His Phone.

Billboard, October 12, 1946

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Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich
photo by John E. Reed

Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times praised Rathbone's performance but he was not impressed with the play.

After eighteen years, during which many dramas have hired huge casts, the most important aspect of Louis Verneuil's "Obsession" is still the basic fact that it requires only two characters on stage. In 1928 it was known as "Jealousy." Eugene Walter had made the English adaptation, and John Halliday and Fay Bainter were the cast. The new version, which was staged at the Plymouth last evening, was written by Jane Hinton, and the current cast is Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich.

Unless memory is more deceptive than usual, the new version takes the Verneuil story more seriously, and Mr. Rathbone and Miss Leontovich play the passion and horror more seriously also. But taking seriously the emotional aspects of this exercise in dramatic dexterity is of doubtful validity. For when the tortured Maurice makes his final exit and the torrid Nadya light a cigarette pensively, it is to be feared that "Obsession" really has nothing to give except the interesting fact that it is written for two characters.

As a challenge in craftsmanship, that is no mean achievement, and "Obsession" is a genuine play, despite its thin population. To tell an acceptable story of love, infidelity and murder, M. Verneuil had to resort frequently to the telephone, although no more than less constricted playwrights do upon occasion; and he had to hide the maid and the police. (Didn't the police speak in the former version? At least that would be normal for the police.) But he was not otherwise handicapped by the fact that the actors' salary account could be gratifyingly modest on Saturday night; and even with only two characters he succeeded in getting his play out of the living room and into the bedroom in  just under five minutes.

The real limitation on "Obsession" is not the brevity of the cast but the quality of the story. It comes out of the bottom drawer, where the dirty linen is thrown away. Although Maurice and Nadya are very happy on their somewhat deferred wedding night, Nadya is still in the power of a rich and unscrupulous lover. Sometime between the first and the second acts, Maurice murders the lover; and the "Obsession" has to decide whether Maurice gets caught or not. Since he apparently left no clues, this is entirely a matter of playwright's choice.

To give the play as much substance as possible, Stewart Chaney has endowed the production with a luxurious Paris apartment setting and a glimpse of rooftops outside; and Adrian has supplied Miss Leontovich with gowns of stupendous smartness, including a cylindrical white creation that has a flourishing fungus arrangement to the rear.

Under Reginald Denham's direction, the entire cast plays with increasing earnestness. On the whole, Mr. Rathbone has the better of it. The neatness of outline in his acting and the pleasant, clipped style he has in speaking are economical ways of playing an artificial drama. He does not ask you to believe in the authenticity of Maurice's soul. As Nadya, Miss Leontovich plays with a depth of feeling that would be moving in a more honest drama. Although she skims humorously over subtleties in comic episodes like an expert comedienne, she takes the big scenes at more than face value. She bestows upon them the genuine emotions of a fine actress.

In this playgoer's opinion, "Obsession" cannot carry that much honest cargo. It is only a cleverly contrived play for two characters.

New York Times, Oct. 2, 1946

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The final Broadway performance of Obsession was on October 26, 1946. It seems clear that the play closed because of the poor reviews. Oddly, though, the New York Times reported that it ended because "Mr Rathbone is slated to resume his radio stint."9  What radio stint would that be? He didn't return to the "Sherlock Holmes" radio series. Although he had guest radio appearances in late 1946, he had no regular series until January 21, 1947, when he starred in Scotland Yard.


Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich

Eugenie Leontovich and Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone

Basil Rathbone and Eugenie Leontovich

Notes

  1. Enola Stewart, Basil Rathbone: A Catalogue of the Collection Acquired from the Estate of Basil and Ouida Rathbone (Gravesend Books, 1975), p. 17.
  2. John Chapman, ed., The Burns Mantle Best Plays of 1946-47, (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1947), pp. 77 and 341.
  3. Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character, (New York: Doubleday, 1962),  p. 189.
  4. Variety,  May 1, 1946
  5. In and Out of Character, p. 190.
  6. from the Obsession program booklet
  7. Variety,  July 10, 1946
  8. In and Out of Character, p. 190.
  9. New York Times,  October 11, 1946
 

Reginald Denham, director

Louis Verneuil, author

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2015