Danish title: Den syngende Oprører (The Singing Rabble-rouser)
Spanish title: La Chica y el Gobernador (The Girl and the Governor)
Based on the Broadway musical with music by Kurt Weill and book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson. Screenplay: David Boehm, Rowland Leigh, and Harold Goldman. Adaptation: Thomas Lennon. Musical Score: Werner R. Heymann. Musical Director: Jacques Samossoud. Photography: Philip Tannura. Editor: John F. Link.
Best remembered for its immortal “September Song,” Knickerbocker Holiday opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on October 19, 1938. Walter Huston played the one-legged “Pieter Stuyvesant,” Ray Middleton was “Washington Irving,” (who doesn’t appear in the film version) and Jeanne Madden and Richard Kollmar were the young lovers. It ran a modest 168 performances.
Nelson Eddy (Brom Broeck)
Charles Coburn (Pieter Stuyvesant)
Constance Dowling (Tina Tienhoven)
Ernest Cossart (Tienhoven)
Johnnie “Scat” Davis (Ten Pin)
Richard Hale (Tammany)
Shelley Winter [Winters] (Ulda Tienhoven)
Glenn Strange (Big Muscle)
Fritz Feld (Poffenburgh)
Otto Kruger (Roosevelt)
Percival Vivian (De Vries)
Charles Judels (Renssaler)
Ferdinand Munier (De Pyster)
Percy Kilbride (Schermerhorn, the jailer)
Chester Conklin (Town crier)
Richard Baldwin (First pal)
Lang Page (Second pal)
Connie Conrad, Freda Stoll, Veta Lehman, May Cloy, Harriet Dean (Councilmen’s Wives)
Herbert Corthell (Captain)
Phil Green (Sailor)
Gerald Oliver Smith (English colonist)
John Sheehan (Irish colonist)
Sven Hugo Borg (Swedish colonist)
Dorothy Granger (Barmaid)
Patti Sheldon, Ruth Tobey (Giggling girls)
Fern Emmett (Critical woman)
Bruce Cameron, Irving Fulton, Walter Pietela, Paul Allen Spears, Tony Shaller (Tumblers)
Harold De Garro (Stilt walker)
Harry Johnson, Fred Johnson, Johnny Johnson (Jugglers)
Lou Manley (Punch and Judy Show)
Casey MacGregor (Fire eater)
Harry Bayfield, Buster Brodie, Bobbie Hale (Clowns)
The Carmen Amaya Troupe (Gypsy dancers)
Irving Bacon (Peter Van Stoon)
Cut from the release print were:
Ralph Dunn (Guard)
Edward Earle (Barker)
Harry C. Bradley, George Bunny (Old men)
Oscar nomination: Best Scoring of a Musical Picture (Werner R. Heymann and Kurt Weill).
Knickerbocker Holiday demonstrates some of the tribulations that can befall a stage production in transition to the screen. The stage Knickerbocker had music by the master, Kurt Weill, but only three of his songs survived the trip. The haunting “It Never Was You” got lost along the way. The stage Knickerbocker (which admittedly enjoyed only a modest success) concerned the gut issues of patriotism, political corruption, man’s inhumanity to man, and the rights of the individual to dissent. In the strongly pacifistic times before World War II, it depicted war as a condition brought about by greedy politicians. The film Knickerbocker, coming in the midst of the worldwide conflict, tiptoed delicately over anything resembling an issue and came up with a curious tangle of operetta love story and patriotic homilies. Villainy was of the black-and-white horse opera variety.
Maxwell Anderson’s stage libretto concerned the search by author Washington Irving for the roots of the American spirit. He finally discovers it in the person of Brom Broeck, “the first American.” Together they explore the elusive American quality in “How Can You Tell an American.” Their description of this highly unorthodox individual seems mild by today’s standards, but in 1944, anyone with “a really fantastic and inexcusable aversion to taking orders” would have been regarded as dangerous, possibly even traitorous.
Eddy’s leading lady is lovely Constance Dowling, who came to Hollywood from Broadway where she appeared in Panama Hattie. She was pretty and pleasant with a clear voice, but her film career never quite clicked. Charles Coburn undertook the Pieter Stuyvesant rôle created so memorably by Walter Huston and did a nice job.
The film opens on the streets of New Amsterdam where the town crier (silent comedian Chester Conklin) is announcing the imminent arrival of Pieter Stuyvesant. The townspeople discuss their new Governor in sung dialogue. He is, it seems, “hard as steel” with “love appeal.” The remarkable Governor Stuyvesant (Charles Coburn) is at that moment at sea, smelling out the land well before his little valet, Poffenburgh (Fritz Feld) can spy it through a telescope. Due to the Governor’s superior navigation, their ship has crossed the Atlantic in ninety days, shaving six days off the Mayflower’s record. Stuyvesant is indeed a most remarkable man! He will rule New Amsterdam with an iron fist, albeit a silver-plated leg.
The city council of “Nieuw Amsterdam” eagerly awaits his arrival. It is a festive day, and there is nothing like a good hanging to make a reception go with a swing. The council’s chief nominee for the honor is the troublemaker, Brom Broeck. Brom thinks, and he makes others think. (We are told this throughout the film, but it is never demonstrated.) If too many people begin thinking, it may reduce the council’s illegal profits. Only one distinguished gentleman does not go along with their logic, a silver-haired elder named Roosevelt (Otto Kruger), who looks oddly familiar.
The council summons the clerk, Schermerhorn (Percy Kilbride, before the “Ma and Pa Kettle” series). Schermerhorn is a veritable monument to wishywashyness. His dour countenance is a visual delight throughout the film. He reads the list of hanging offenses to the eager councilmen, and, though several of them squirm in their seats when a particular one is called out, they can find nothing for which to hang Brom. They must content themselves with putting him in the stocks.
At his printing shop, Brom (Nelson) is happily operating the hand press, printing new attacks against the dishonest councilmen. Being a fighter for liberty is not always profitable or easy, but Brom isn’t discouraged and delivers a fine, breezy rendition of “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up,” one of the three remaining Weill songs. Tina Tienhoven (Constance Dowling) dashes in, completely out of breath. “Don’t talk,” Brom orders. “Stand just where you are, there, with the sun on you.” Tina’s young sister, Ulda (Shelley Winter, later Winters) has come with her to see Brom’s sidekick, Ten Pin (Johnnie “Scat” Davis). She is slightly more forward than Tina. “Don’t talk!” she orders Ten Pin and repeats Brom’s romantic command.
Tina has come to warn Brom about the council and to suggest that if he were a little less of an independent fighter, she might not have to remain a spinster. Her arguments, punctuated by tears and loving looks, finally do the trick, and Brom agrees to go to work for the Dutch Trading Company and make her a good home. (This scene has an especially nice musical background, as does the whole film.)
Tina’s father, Councilman Tienhoven (Ernest Cossart), and Schermerhorn come to arrest Brom and find the two couples oblivious to interruption. Papa Tienhoven admits that arresting Brom isn’t fair—“but it’s legal,” and Brom is marched off to the stocks.
Tina orders Ten Pin to round up the whole town, which he does musically to “Holiday.” (Written by Nelson Eddy and Ted Paxson, it is a nice offbeat tune, but delivered to bear a maximum resemblance to “Hooray for Hollywood,” which Johnnie Davis introduced in Hollywood Hotel, Warners, 1937. It even juxtaposes the words hooray and holiday.)
When Stuyvesant arrives, he finds only a group of dowagers, the councilmen’s wives waiting to greet him. The townspeople are all over in the square, listening to Brom sing in the stocks, another upbeat song called “Let’s Make Tomorrow Today.”
Papa Tienhoven tells the Governor that this is why he has been summoned. To take care of dangerous men who think. “I thought I smelled a thinker,” Stuyvesant mutters. Stuyvesant understands that when you make a martyr out of a nuisance, he becomes a hero. Brom is not only released, but given a job as “Secretary of Printing.” Now he and Tina can be married. In one of the clumsiest exits since “Tennis, anyone?” Brom grabs Tina’s hand, saying, ‘Com’on Tina, we’ve got things to do.”
Brom is soon so busy that he has no time to think, except of course, about Tina: “Love Has Made This Such a Lovely Day.” The Indian, Tammany (Richard Hale), notes that while the white man runs the country, the white woman runs him. His squaw mutters that if they don’t like it, they can go back where they came from.
The councilmen soon discover that the new Governor has not only failed to make their thieving easier, he has taken over their rackets. Papa Tienhoven is especially unhappy, because Brom’s salary from the state permits him to marry Tina. Stuyvesant has the perfect solution to this problem. He will marry her himself.
Brom’s revolutionary plan to unite the Colonies is Stuyvesant’s bait. Brom is appointed his emissary and must leave immediately for Long Island, Albany, Hartford, Boston, and other distant points. There, he will organize free trade and a united front against outside aggression. “It can happen here,” Brom warns (a reference to the isolationists’ motto, “It can’t happen here.”) Of course, the purpose of the trip must be kept a secret, even from Tina.
Brom returns from this successful tour to find that Tina won’t speak to him. She seems to have eyes only for Governor Stuyvesant. At an elegant ball, Stuyvesant entertains her with a group of Spanish dancers led by Carmen Amaya, who just happens to be on the lot—er, in New Amsterdam that day. Brom slips into the party and manages to get Tina into the garden. There they are stormily reconciling when Tienhoven’s voice is heard inside announcing Tina’s betrothal to Stuyvesant. Brom and Tina part in a mutual huff.
Brom thinks that Stuyvesant has been more successful in affairs at home than Brom has been in the affairs of the Colonies. Stuyvesant tells him he has a cure for thinking. Brom is ordered to write a book with chapters and footnotes and references and indices. Don’t think. Write a book.
Stuyvesant wastes no time with his “affairs.” He suggests that Tina marry him within twelve hours. Tina was thinking more in terms of years. “Years!” he cries. He protests any delay in the classic “September Song.” His rendition is perhaps a bit jauntier than Walter Huston’s familiar recording, but no less touching.
Brom turns from thinking to action and tries to elope with the somewhat reluctant Tina. The Governor discovers them and stylishly arrests, tries, convicts, and sentences Brom to five years in jail, all in one minute. Schermerhorn barges in at the wrong moment as usual, but this time it is the right moment, for he can escort Brom to jail.
Tina follows Brom and breaks into jail. Breaking out was what Brom had in mind, and so they use her petticoat, torn into strips, to make a rope. They tie one end to the window grill and the other to Tammany’s horse. The window follows the horse, and they are free, to Schermerhorn’s horror and Ten Pin’s delight. Poor Schermerhorn tries to summon help by firing the cannon, but it revolves and blows the jail to pieces.
Brom and Tina resolve to part temporarily, but first—Ten Pin, trying to get Brom to safety, fears that he is going to sing. Both lovers do, dueting “One More Smile.” (A pathetic substitute for the classic “It Never Was You,” which lurks enticingly in the background music throughout the film.)
The Governor and Tienhoven find the skirtless Tina kissing Brom in the middle of the moonlit woods. Stuyvesant is not persuaded by this scandal to cancel his marriage plans. On the contrary, he murmurs, eyeing Tina’s bare limbs, he is more eager than ever.
Papa Tienhoven is beginning to have doubts about forcing his daughter’s marriage, but Stuyvesant is very persuasive. He points out that when the government takes over selling liquor and guns to the Indians, they will need an agent—who will make ten percent. “Only ten percent” objects Tienhoven. However, they seal the agreement by singing “The One Indispensable Man” (the third Weill song) and doing a sprightly soft shoe.
Brom and his mighty printing press hide out in the last place anyone will look for them, the ruined jail. His blistering pamphlets begin circulating just as the representatives from the Colonies begin arriving for the conference that Brom has arranged. Stuyvesant orders a fair to honor the delegates, a fair that will also draw Brom out of hiding to meet with his friends. With a ten-thousand-guilder reward on his head, Brom will soon know who his real friends are.
Brom appears, but not as Stuyvesant had foreseen. He and Ten Pin circulate through the fair in disguise, handing out leaflets while Tina manages to steal the Governor’s leg. Brom diverts the delegates to the nearby tavern where Ten Pin is to buy them drinks, using the proceeds from pawning the Governor’s leg. Stuyvesant senses that a plot is afoot and summons Tina so that they can be married immediately. The action stops dead for several delightful minutes while the Spanish gypsies again entertain, and then returns to the square where the Governor is preparing to wed Tina.
Brom decides to do just what the Governor wants, make an appearance. The townspeople arrive for the wedding and find Brom sitting in the stocks and singing “Sing Out,” the third and weakest of Eddy’s “up songs” in the film.
In another sung dialogue sequence, he exhorts them to reject the religious and economic tyranny of Stuyvesant (the first time we’ve heard of the religious aspect, although the stage version had the City Council happily hanging Quakers).
The crowd joins him in “Sing Out” as a sign of their agreement. Stuyvesant, a consummate politician, realizes which way the wind is blowing. Brom is not so knowledgeable and is dismayed when the crowd he has started so patriotically becomes a mob completely out of control. Brom and Stuyvesant strike a bargain. Brom will stop the mob from hanging Stuyvesant if he will agree to a democracy. “What’s that?” the Governor asks. “That’s when you’re governed by amateurs.”
Stuyvesant agrees, and Brom convinces the mob that Stuyvesant is a good guy. Stuyvesant, in turn, reforms in time to unite the lovers, become a great Governor, and join in the final chorus of “Let’s Make Tomorrow Today.”
Knickerbocker Holiday can be regarded as a thoughtfully created film that missed. Producer-director Harry Joe Brown (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Hollywood Cavalcade, Down Argentine Way) obviously put a lot of “love” into the film, but critics and audiences alike agreed that it just didn’t click. The time was ripe for a reaffirmation of the “American spirit,” the complex national emotions that are represented in political jargon by “apple pie” and “mother.” Mrs. Miniver, despite its British locale, had done it dramatically. It remained for Meet Me in Saint Louis to do it musically. With a little more thought, a little more insight, and a little more luck, it might have been Knickerbocker Holiday instead.
“When the persons involved in picture production fail to make up their minds just where they’re going with the show, almost anything can develop, up to and including a certain amount of dullness. Nelson Eddy carries his musical chores as he always does, but his attempted acting of the rôle of the harem-scarem young fire brand, Brom Broeck, is too much of a drain on his vitality.” (New York Times)
In listing performers after each title, “and” denotes a genuine duet, while commas between names indicate a sequence of singers.
Overture: “Dutch March” by Werner Richard Heymann; “September Song”
“Hear Ye” (Chester Conklin, chorus) – music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
“There’s Nowhere to Go But Up” (Eddy and male chorus) – music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by
“Holiday” (Johnnie “Scat” Davis and chorus) – music by Theodore Paxson,
lyrics by Nelson Eddy
“Let’s Make Tomorrow Today” (Eddy and chorus) – music by Werner Richard Heymann,
lyrics by Furman Brown
“Love Has Made This Such a Lovely Day” (Eddy, Dowling with Shelley Winter) – music by
Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Spanish dance (Carmen Amaya dancers) – probably traditional
“Zuyder Zee” (male quartet) – music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
“September Song” (Charles Coburn) – music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Maxwell Anderson
“Jail Song” (Eddy) – music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Furman Brown and Nelson Eddy.
“One More Smile” (Eddy and Dowling, possibly dubbed by Sally Sweetland) – music by Jule
Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn
“The One Indispensable Man” (Coburn and Ernest Cossart) – music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by
Spanish dance (Carmen Amaya dancers) – probably traditional
“Sing Out” (Eddy and chorus) – music by Franz Steininger, lyrics by Furman Brown
“Let’s Make Tomorrow Today” reprise (Eddy and chorus)
Songs from the stage version that were used in the film were “September Song,” “The One Indispensable Man,” and “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up,” plus “It Never Was You,” used only as background music. A Weill melody was used for “The Jail Song” with new lyrics by Furman Brown and Nelson Eddy.
In “One More Kiss,” the part in Nelson’s hair keeps switching from right to left. (Joan Woolley)