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    Saturday, September 24, 2022

    A New London Fourth of July

    The weather forecast for the Fourth of July is looking good for picnics and the annual paddling flotilla on Alewife Cove. Parking lots at Ocean Beach and Rocky Neck State Park are likely to reach capacity early. The nation and the neighborhood are feeling liberated from the Covid restrictions that dogged the past couple of summers. People are ready to pursue happiness and fireworks displays.

    To get into the mood of the Fourth or, if by any chance it were to rain on Monday, favorite son Eugene O'Neill and the swell guys at MGM and Amazon Prime have an alternative Independence Day celebration available. Prime is listing the 1935 movie version of "Ah, Wilderness!" to rent/buy for $2.99.

    The trailer for the black-and-white film, set on the Fourth of July in New London, starts with the original pitch from MGM:

    "At last! Eugene O'Neill's great American comedy drama is on the screen. 'Ah, Wilderness!' the sensation of Broadway's stage!

    "It captured the heart of America on tour throughout the nation. It brought the highest price ever paid for a stage play...

    "And now you will agree, amidst your tears and laughter, that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's production of 'Ah, Wilderness!' is the greatest soul thrill of our times."

    It would be Fake News if I went along with this being the greatest soul thrill of ours or any other time, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer never boggled at a big sell. It seems quaint that the studio's promoters thought audiences would especially care that MGM paid top dollar for the script/screenplay, but in 1935, with the Great Depression glooming up America, moviegoers loved to appropriate glamour and wealth from the screen. The studio couldn't help itself.

    Eugene O'Neill must have been laughing all the way to the bank. It isn't glamour that drives "Ah, Wilderness!", just a rueful laugh at itself. In other plays, notably his tragic masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey into Night," O'Neill cast New London's prominent citizens as bourgeois, lace-curtain wannabes. The city he portrayed as hidebound and fogbound.

    But in "Ah, Wilderness!" his only comedy, O'Neill allows his fondness to show. He writes a PG-rated story of a young boy's growing interest in what his big brothers did when they went off to a dive bar. He gives us a mellowed marriage and a courtship past its prime, and he treats all the too-young and too-old romantics kindly. We end up, as they do, pretty okay with what they've got.

    The movie is a charmer that actually fits right in with the big-cast, family-centered movies and series on streaming video. Family relationships obsessed the playwright; the O'Neills lived with dysfunction, including his mother's drug dependence and its supposed cause, his father's cheapskate habits. In "Ah, Wilderness!" O'Neill borrowed from families he knew in New London, the closest thing he had to a hometown.

    "Ah, Wilderness!" could have been set in River City, Iowa or Gary, Indiana or Grover's Corners, New Hampshire. But it is set in New London because two men walked into a bar.

    According to McGinley family lore, one John McGinley, the postmaster or a writer at The Day paper or the city treasurer, depending on exactly when it happened, went to New York City on business. At a bar he met and fell into conversation with one James O'Neill, an actor famed for touring in his signature role, "The Count of Monte Cristo." O'Neill bemoaned his family's lack of roots. McGinley invited him to consider New London. The actor moved his family into the cottage on Pequot Avenue forever since known as Monte Cristo cottage.

    We would have only the word of a family of notorious tale-spinners, except for the fact that Gene grew up hanging around the McGinley kids and, when he decided to write his one comedy, he named the characters for members of the family, among other locals.

    Every Fourth of July, between the picnics and the fireworks, I think of "Ah, Wilderness!" It may not be the soul thrill of our time, but I can see how it might have captured the heart of America.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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