The Old Soak

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PROHIBITION was the Great Experiment that failed. The18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1919, sought to prohibit the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, but instead it created a nation of bootleggers and speakeasies. Don Marquis wasn’t the only writer to poke fun at Prohibition, but no one did it with more success than Marquis and his fictional acquaintance Clem Hawley, better known as the Old Soak.

Clem was a lovable reprobate who used fractured Bible verses and rum-soaked logic to bemoan the nation’s misguided “18th commandment.” In the opening chapter of his 1921 book “The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell,” Marquis presents Clem as a forlorn champion of all that is decent, true and 80 proof:

“I see that some persons think there is still hope for a liberal interpretation of the law so that beer and light wines may be sold,” said we.

“Hope,” said he, moodily, “is a fine thing, but it don’t gurgle none when you pour it out of a bottle. Hope is all right, and so is Faith . . . but what I would like to see is a little Charity.

“As far as Hope is concerned, I’d rather have Despair combined with a case of Bourbon liquor than all the Hope in the world by itself.”

Marquis introduced the Old Soak in his Sun Dial column in 1914, when the Prohibition movement was picking up steam. His 1921 collection of Old Soak stories was followed in August 1922 with a hit Broadway comedy based on Clem’s boozy adventures. “The Old Soak” had a corny and predictable plot — lazy, good-for-nothing husband agrees to leave home in disgrace after the family nest egg vanishes, then confronts the real villain and saves the day — but critics applauded Marquis’ deft writing. Alexander Woollcott, in the New York Times, called the play “gorgeously entertaining,” and drama critic Burns Mantle named “The Old Soak” one of the top 10 productions of the 1922-23 season and published an abridged version of the story in his popular theater annual. Mantle said Clem Hawley was “representative of all the genial alcoholics, all the winning failures, all the domestic derelicts with weak characters but good hearts, who have both blessed and infested the world from the days of Bacchus to those of Volstead.”

A poster from the Broadway production is reproduced at right, featuring an illustration by John Held Jr., creator of the classic flapper characters of the 1920s. The play’s most famous phrase was “Al’s here,” alerting Clem that his favorite bootlegger was approaching with a fresh supply of whiskey. The parrot in the poster, a liquor-loving bird named Peter, nearly steals the show after gulping down a glass of homemade hootch.

“The Old Soak” ran for 421 performances at New York’s Plymouth Theatre before embarking on a national tour with vaudeville star Raymond Hitchcock in the leading role. In 1924 Marquis followed his Broadway success with another book, “The Old Soak’s History of the World,” and two years later Marquis had a chance to play the lead role himself when a friend, playwright Howard Lindsay, produced “The Old Soak” in summer stock in Showhegan, Maine. (That’s Don as Clem Hawley smoking a corncob pipe in the photo at the top of this page. It was taken during the Maine production.)

Also in 1926, Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures produced “The Old Soak” as a silent movie. The movie borrowed Marquis’ popular character but none of his inspired writing, and critics promptly dismissed it. The Hollywood newspaper Variety said, “Somewhere between the stage play and the screen version of Don Marquis’ “Old Soak” all of the comedy that played so important a part in the play was lost. … One would think that with a piece of property as valuable as this (Universal) would have taken greater pains to put over a picture that would have clicked.” Marquis was not consulted on the movie and by all accounts was embarrassed by the production.

Clem Hawley went on to take a starring role in a second Brodway production, “Everything’s Jake,” in 1930. The play told the further adventures of Clem and several bootlegging buddies whose search for a reliable source of Scotch whiskey takes them to Paris, France. The comedy earned favorable reviews but didn’t last long; it closed after 76 performances. The character, however, remained popular, and Marquis continued to write short stories featuring the Old Soak even after Prohibition ended in 1933. In Febraury 1935 the Lux Radio Theatre presented a radio dramatization of the stage play, and one year later “The Old Soak” had the distinction of being the first Lux play to be presented twice, after producers received 1,700 requests for an encore performance.

Wallace Beery, the actor who played Clem Hawley in both radio productions, reprised the role again in 1937 in an MGM movie, “Good Old Soak.” The aptly named Beery won praise for his boozy performance, and the movie was widely distributed by MGM, but “Good Old Soak” wasn’t the blockbuster that its stage forerunner was.

During World War II — more than 20 years after it first appeared in bookstores (and 30 years after it first appeared in Marquis’ newspaper columns) — “The Old Soak” was reissued in a special paperback edition for soldiers overseas. It marked the book’s the final publication, ending a long run for a genial character whose very reason for being — Prohibition — had long since left the public stage.

“The Old Soak” was produced by community theaters throughout the 1940s and ’50s, but the character was mostly forgotten until a group of Marquis fans in Washington state discovered the original script of “Everything’s Jake” while making plans for a Marquis 100th birthday celebration in 1978.

The script, never published, was buried in the files of the New York Public Library. The former curator of the library’s theater collection, George Freedly, had played a minor role in the 1930 production of “Everything’s Jake,” and his script, complete with penciled additions and deletions, was published in 1978 by Robert Lyon’s Non-Profit Press in Tacoma, Wash. The book was printed in limited hardcover and paperback editions, and its release coincided with Marquis’ 100th birthday party in Port Townsend, Wash., and a new production of “Everything’s Jake” — the first in 48 years. It was a fitting tribute to two enduring and endearing characters — Clem Hawley, and Don Marquis.

— John Batteiger

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Efforts to locate a copy of “The Old Soak” from 1926, on VHS or film, have been unsuccessful. If you know of a copy somewhere, please let us know. Thanks!

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The Reading Room page has eight complete (and hilarious) chapters from “The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell”

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  1. Pingback: Behind the Mantel: Yellowed, torn paper from 1928 about “The Old Soak” : Expedition Erie

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