Abie's Irish Rose
is a Broadway comedy play
by Anne Nichols
about an Irish Catholic
girl who marries a young Jewish
man, over the objections of both of their families. Although initially receiving poor reviews, the play was a commercial hit, running for 2,327 performances between May 23, 1922 and October 1, 1927, one of the longest runs in the theatre up to that date. The show's touring company had a similarly long run and held the record for longest running touring company for nearly 40 years until the record was broken by Hello Dolly
in the 1960s. The touring company's male lead was played by a young George Brent
. This was the future Hollywood actor's first major role.
The play has been filmed twice -- in 1928 with Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Nancy Carroll, directed by Victor Fleming, and in 1946 with Richard Norris and Joanne Dru, directed by A. Edward Sutherland.
It inspired the weekly NBC radio program
, Abie's Irish Rose
, which ran from January 24, 1942 through September 2, 1944. Joe Rines directed the cast that starred Richard Bond, Sydney Smith, Richard Coogan
and Clayton "Bud" Collyer
as Abie Levy. Betty Winkler, Mercedes McCambridge
, Julie Stevens and Marion Shockley portrayed Rosemary Levy. Solomon Levy was played by Alfred White, Charlie Cantor and Alan Reed
Others in the cast: Walter Kinsella (as Patrick Murphy), Menasha Skulnik (Isaac Cohen), Anna Appel (Mrs. Cohen), Ann Thomas (Casey), Bill Adams (Father Whelan), Amanda Randolph (maid) and Dolores Gillenas (the Levys' twins). The announcer was Howard Petrie, and Joe Stopak provided the music. The opening theme music was "My Wild Irish Rose" by Chauncey Olcott.
The basic premise of the play was extensively copied, and Anne Nichols sued one imitator, Universal Studios, which had produced The Cohens and the Kellys, a film based on a play about an Irish boy who marries a Jewish girl from feuding families. However, in Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corporation, 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930), the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found for the defendant, holding that copyright protection cannot be extended to the characteristics of stock characters in a story, whether it be a book, play or film.
The plot was ably summarized by Judge Learned Hand
, in his opinion in the lawsuit:
- Abie's Irish Rose presents a Jewish family living in prosperous circumstances in New York. The father, a widower, is in business as a merchant, in which his son and only child helps him. The boy has philandered with young women, who to his father's great disgust have always been Gentiles, for he is obsessed with a passion that his daughter-in-law shall be an orthodox Jewess. When the play opens the son, who has been courting a young Irish Catholic girl, has already married her secretly before a Protestant minister, and is concerned to soften the blow for his father, by securing a favorable impression of his bride, while concealing her faith and race. To accomplish this he introduces her to his father at his home as a Jewess, and lets it appear that he is interested in her, though he conceals the marriage. The girl somewhat reluctantly falls in with the plan; the father takes the bait, becomes infatuated with the girl, concludes that they must marry, and assumes that of course they will, if he so decides. He calls in a rabbi, and prepares for the wedding according to the Jewish rite.
- Meanwhile the girl's father, also a widower, who lives in California, and is as intense in his own religious antagonism as the Jew, has been called to New York, supposing that his daughter is to marry an Irishman and a Catholic. Accompanied by a priest, he arrives at the house at the moment when the marriage is being celebrated, but too late to prevent it, and the two fathers, each infuriated by the proposed union of his child to a heretic, fall into unseemly and grotesque antics. The priest and the rabbi become friendly, exchange trite sentiments about religion, and agree that the match is good. Apparently out of abundant caution, the priest celebrates the marriage for a third time, while the girl's father is inveigled away. The second act closes with each father, still outraged, seeking to find some way by which the union, thus trebly insured, may be dissolved.
- The last act takes place about a year later, the young couple having meanwhile been abjured by each father, and left to their own resources. They have had twins, a boy and a girl, but their fathers know no more than that a child has been born. At Christmas each, led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks' home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his orthodoxy.
There have been some variations of the plot in different versions of the play/film. Nichols' original Broadway play had the couple meeting in France during World War I, with the young man having been a soldier and the girl a nurse who had tended to him. In this version, the priest and the rabbi from the wedding are also veterans of the same war, and recognize one another from their time in the service.
gave voice to the problem some in the theater community had with the show's success, when he wrote these lines for "Manhattan" (song)
: "Our future babies we'll take to Abie's Irish Rose
-- I hope they'll live to see it close."
Stephen Sondheim mentions the play in his song "I'm Still Here" from the musical Follies. "I'm Still Here" contains the lines:
- I've been through Abie's Irish Rose
- Five Dionne Babies
- Major Bowes
Abie's Irish Rose eventually informed the comedy of husband-and-wife team Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who often spiked their routines with references to their differing backgrounds (Stiller was Jewish; Meara converted to Judaism later during their marriage).
The play also provided the basic plot inspiration for the 1972-73 television series Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS), which starred Meredith Baxter and David Birney (who later became husband and wife in real life) in a kind-of reversal of Abie's Irish Rose in that Birney played struggling young Jewish cab driver/aspiring playwright Bernie Steinberg, whose parents ran a modest family delicatessen, and Baxter played Irish Catholic daughter of wealthy parents Bridget Fitzgerald, who falls in love with and elopes with Steinberg to the disappointment of both sets of parents. (The casting also inverted real life, since Birney himself is of Irish descent.) Unlike the play and radio show that inspired it, Bridget Loves Bernie would be cancelled after a short enough life because CBS reputedly tired of protest letters the show's intermarriage theme received---despite the show placing in the top five ratings for its season.
- Sies, Luther F. Encyclopedia of American Radio 1920-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000. ISBN 0-7864-0452-3
- Terrace, Vincent. Radio Programs, 1924-1984. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999. ISBN 0-7864-0351-9