Jacques Barzun, CC ’27, Ph.D ’32, a longtime Columbia professor who was instrumental in the development of the Core Curriculum and served as provost in the 1950s and 1960s, died on Thursday. As an undergraduate, he was Spectator’s drama critic. Below is his review of the 1927 Varsity Show, “Betty Behave,” which appeared on the front page of the March 9, 1927 edition of the Spectator.
BETTY BEHAVE—The 1927 Varsity Show, by William P. Smith and Ferrin Fraser: Lyrics by R. M. Z. Moscowitz; Music by David Barnett, J. Morissey et al.; Presented by They Players Club of Columbia University at the Waldorf-Astoria.
By Jacques M. Barzun
A warmly commendatory reception greeted the first performance of Betty Behave last evening at the Waldorf-Astoria. The annual production of a comic opera by Columbia College students under alumni supervision is in a very real sense a test of the tastes and ability of the producing body, and rightly or wrongly, an index of the intellectual and artistic development of the entire college; since it is assumed fairly enough that on an average genuine talent is available and that the offices of the best talent is available and that the offices of the best talent are taken advantage of. This is especially true in the field of lyrical and musical ability which, for various reasons, exists at Columbia in greater supply and finer quality than elsewhere. The judgment of a Varsity Show, then, both by the public and by the critic, is a judgment of the entire college, expressing itself in a definite way and voluntarily presenting itself to public notice under a testable aspect.
Lyrics Unusually Good
I am, therefore, very much gratified to say that viewed in such a light the current Varsity Show fully measures up to the standards established by an already imposing tradition. In respect of music and lyrics especially is this year’s offering notable. David Barnett’s choruses and finales, his Drinking song, and a finely sentimental number entitled “Lovelight of my Soul” are superlatively good. Strength, originality and subtle workmanship are their characteristics, which completely overcome a not very sympathetic orchestration and execution. I trust that further acquaintance with these on the part of the orchestra will evoke such sympathy. The remaining and jazz numbers are excellent.
The lyrics, as I know from reading, are nothing short of brilliant. Gilbertian rime is allied to original wit and the result is splendid; unfortunately, the needlessly accelerated tempi, and the careless diction of the actors keep an altogether too large portion of the words back of the footlights. In this, Mr. Moskowitz suffers the regrettable fate of most lyricists; but he is nevertheless to be highly congratulated for his achievement.
Both in acting and in plot, Betty Behave is exceedingly tenuous. Of course, we expect that in most traditionary operettas; but it is a question whether, by proper selection and application, our productions might not avoid those conventional defects. The humor, apart from the lyrics is of that difficult type which only the greatest comic writers, Aristophanes, Moliere, and Shaw have successfully handled, namely, low comedy. There are in Betty Behave distinct peaks and equally apparent pits. Five actors deserve mention for their energy, tact, and diction. They are George Fanning, in the role of the maiden Whiffle-hen; Fred Miller as the perennial bootlegger; Don Phillips as his own grandfather through three generations; Leon Scharf as a diminutive backfisch, and the aphrodisiac Mr. Grant.
Last in this survey of excellencies which Chance has turned my critique into, but first, as evevr, in power of attraction is the pony ballet—a highly differentiated group, yet working in perfect order through a maze of fascinating steps. When one realizes the difficulty of making even one person work in co-ordination with himself, one tends to bestow greater praise on the trainers of this unique chorus than on the trainees; but that is only dividing it equally since the latter receive word about the well-disciplined chorus for which the Glee club is pend-jous motion picture in the second act. In the latter I wish to commend Mr. Twiddy’ s superb acting—especially his manly stride—and Mr. Fraser’s subtitles, which form two thirds of the picture.
As the Ecclesiastes has it,
“I am not so very clever,
Yet I could talk like this forever”
so I advise an immediate trip to the Waldorf, which, besides its own reward, will give you an opportunity to determine whether a critic thinks and feels the same way as an ordinary sane mortal about such things as, — say, — a Varsity Show.