NAKED GENIUS, THE [Comedy/Crime/Literature/Romance/Sex/Show Business] A: GYPSY Rose Lee; D: George S. Kaufman; S: Frederick Fox; C: Billy Livingston; P: Michael Todd; T: Plymouth Theatre; 10/21/43 (36)
Gypsy Rose Lee, the intellectual stripper, penned this comedy (with valiant infusions by director Kaufman), but it proved a boring "yawn from curtain to curtain," according to George Freedley ( NYMT). Its first titles had been Seven-Year Cycle and The Ghost in the Woodpile. Lee had hoped to play the lead, but, to her disappointment, producer Todd preferred to cast movie star Joan Blondell, whom he was to wed in 1946. When the play kept bombing during its out-of-town tryouts, Kaufman begged producer Todd to close it, and Lee agreed, but Todd refused to listen to them, preferring to continue doctoring the script. The super showman advertised his show with the slogan, "GUARANTEED NOT TO WIN THE PULITZER PRIZE. IT AIN'T SHAKESPEARE BUT IT'S LAFFS."
Despite its bad press, Todd's exploitative methods--including a title he dreamed up with the word "naked" in it--managed to turn the show into a sellout that was playing to standing room only and grossing over $17,000 a week. When asked how the show could have succeeded, he pointed to the ignorance of the pleasure--seeking wartime crowds, many with money from high-paying defense jobs. Still, Todd closed the show after only a month of performances. According to Art Cohn The Nine Lives of Michael Todd, the producer explained: "In show business you can't please everyone, but I believe pleasing less than half is not a good percentage, therefore in my eagerness to please the public I am closing the show despite the fact that it is earning a substantial profit. I believe the money I might be losing as a result is not as important as the good will of the people who might not like the show." A truer reason for his altruism was that he already had sold the play's film rights to Twentieth-Century Fox for a substantial sum and, under the Dramatists Guild contract, had to have it run on Broadway for three weeks to guarantee the sale. Otherwise, he would have closed it out of town. (The movie, with Carmen Miranda, was called Doll Face.)
The play was a semiautobiographical piece about Honey Bee Carroll ( Blondell), a stripper with intellectual pretensions, who spends her money faster than she earns it. Her best-selling autobiography (with the same title as the play) actually has been written by a ghost-writing gangster named Sam Hinkle ( Lewis Charles). She is loved by her manager, Stuart Tracy ( Millard Mitchell), but she wishes to move into higher social echelons by marrying Charles Goodwin ( Donald Randolph), the son of her publisher. The wedding is to be a major affair held at her country home with tickets sold and the profits given to the Ladies' Aid Society. The marriage to the upper-crust fellow does not come off because he gets cold feet when he learns that her book was ghosted, and she ends up marrying the manager instead. Subplots concern some stolen underwear sold by a ladies' room matron (Doro Merande) and "fenced" by Honey Bee's unscrupulous mother Pansy ( Phyllis Povah), and an attempt by the ghostwriter to blackmail the stripper.