‘Taming the Lion’ tells the story of openly gay MGM actor William Haines
Marie Broderick and Landon Beatty | Amir Kojoory

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—A world premiere play that recently opened at Theatre 40 here tells the story of William Haines, at one time renowned as the world’s Number 1 Box Office male movie star. The height of his career took place during the late silent movie era and into the beginning years of the talkies.

Playwright Jack Rushen based his two-act work on true events. The script for Taming the Lion won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild, and Theatre 40 snagged the premiere rights. Melanie MacQueen directs the cast of six.

Though largely forgotten today, except for his gayness, Haines acted in 50 films between 1922 and 1934. He was the first openly gay movie star, a fact that the MGM studio attempted to conceal, fearing that his gayness would prove to be box-office poison. Other movie stars who were known or widely rumored to be gay were photogenically married off as a pretense, or “dated” women for show, such as Ramon Navarro, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Montgomery, and later Rock Hudson. Haines (Landon Beatty) is the lead character in the play, and he is joined by his devoted lover Jimmie Shields (Niko Boles). Other gay characters off-stage but mentioned in the script include director George Cukor and actor Greta Garbo.

Two studio executives also play important roles in the play: Louis B. Mayer (Jeffrey Winner) and Irving Thalberg (Kevin Dulude), who conspire to force Haines into a marriage to please the fans. Mayer goes so far as to send Haines’s best female friend, Joan Crawford (Marie Broderick), his co-star in Spring Fever and West Point among other films, to try and persuade him to go along with the grand plan. The studio will handle everything—choosing the bride, the wedding (with a big MGM lion on the cake!), the house they will live in, and the honeymoon.

A sixth, more minor character is Ida Koverman (Jean Mackie), Mayer’s trusty aide, who would later become MGM’s head of public relations.

Will Haines succumb to MGM’s ultimatum? Or will he give up his film career, stay loyal to Jimmie, and do something else with his life? These are the burning questions Rushen poses in his play.

At the risk of being raked over the coals for plot-spoiling, I simply have to say, the dénouement is not a question any more. Haines’s decision is very well known—perhaps not to the general public (who never heard of him), but to classic film lovers and to those in the LGBTQ community who are interested. The 46-minute documentary Out of the Closet, Off the Screen colorfully recounts Haines’s life and career.

Haines had already shown a talent for interior design, and with Crawford’s help finding clients in the Hollywood community, he had little trouble establishing a successful post-MGM business, with Shields as his partner. Crawford described them as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.”

In the lobby on opening night (March 12) I happened to overhear more than one person who vividly recalled knowing Haines, both as a neighbor and man about town. He died in 1973 at the age of 73, and Shields shortly after.

If the contours of the story are already familiar, what is fresh about Rushen’s play? The studio chiefs demand that Haines not be true to himself, but, as Haines observes, how true to his Jewish self was Louis B. Mayer, whose original name was Lazar Meir, and who, according to the playwright, merrily celebrated Christmas? “At the time, you couldn’t be honest about your sexuality or about being Jewish,” actor Jeffrey Winner told the Jewish Journal in an advance promotional piece about the play.

“Even today, in this country and around the world, people are afraid to speak up because they could lose their jobs or even be deported,” director Melanie MacQueen told the Jewish Journal. “The main message of it is be true to yourself but being true to yourself can sometimes cost you everything—your career or even your life.”

Taming the Lion is a well-spent entertaining evening, the re-creation of a bygone, not always so glamorous Hollywood. (Actually, MGM was based in Culver City.) Accounts of salacious evenings Billie and Jimmie spend at the YMCA, or in drag clubs and back rooms of the era, or in hotel rooms with sailors, remind us that same-gender thrills and cross-dressing urges are hardly new.

Yet what is an author to do when the end is a foredrawn absence of suspense? Rushen tries to simulate the speech and mindsets of his characters, principally the antagonists Haines and Mayer, but his writing struck me as largely utilitarian and episodic. The many scene changes unnecessarily slowed down by recordings of contemporary songs keep the action from moving gamely ahead. It might have been more exciting pared down to an extended one-act format. Lost in all the exposition is a lyrical voice that might have probed a little more deeply into the psyches of these men and women, at the same time lifting them up and out of the prosaic to reveal the passions that set these people apart. Sadly, the stiffness of the writing is unavoidably reflected in the acting.

Jeffrey Winner and Jean Mackie | Amir Kojoory

Relevance and even the enduring topicality of the subject, while important, do not on their own make for great theater, nor does perfunctory moralism. The era of the good guy riding the white horse and the villain the black horse is long behind us. Audiences can withstand more nuance and subtlety.

On the Jewish question, when Haines challenges Mayer to accept himself better, he says, “You don’t even know the word Shabbat!” Well, in 1933, Haines wouldn’t have known that word either. He might have said, “You don’t even observe the Sabbath,” or if he hung around with enough Jews he might have used the Eastern European pronunciation, Shabbes. “Shabbat,” the Sephardic pronunciation that was later adopted by the State of Israel as the official national form of the Hebrew language, was completely unknown to people of Mayer’s background, much less to Haines. Rushen has got to fix that. Another word that he might want to re-examine on the anachronism meter is “lifestyle.”

Lighting design by Brandon Baruch, costume design by Michèle Young, and sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski were all up to Theater 40’s high standards. The same must be said for the set design by Jeff G. Rack, although he has a punctilious style for the stage beautiful that has become perhaps overfamiliar at this theater.

Taming the Lion was scheduled to run through April 20, but it is now on hiatus at least until its projected re-opening date, April 2. Theatre 40, in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, is located at 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills 90212, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Free parking is available in the parking lot beneath the theatre. To access parking, enter through the driveway at the intersection of Durant and Moreno Drives. If and when the play resumes, it is on the boards Thurs.- Sat. at 8:00 p.m., and Sun. at 2:00 p.m. For reservations call (310) 364-0535, or go to www.theatre40.org.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic.

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