Producer Billy Rose let it be known in the Spring of 1953 that he intended to make a stage play of Andre Gide's controversial book THE IMMORALIST, and in October, announced his signing of Louis Jourdan to play the lead, the actor's first appearance on Broadway. Not just a daring move in terms of subject matter, but taking a chance on someone who'd been restricted to parts where he was (to use his own words) mostly “cooing in a woman's ear,” a reference to playing undeveloped characters.
And the result was a Donaldson Award for Best Actor of the Year on Broadway.
Adapted by Ruth and Augustus Goetz from the autobiographical novel, the stage version centers around a gay archaeologist who marries partly in hopes of curbing his homosexual instincts, partly because of a woman's declaration of love.
However, he is unable to consummate the marriage, and after two months, the pair travel from Normandy to Algeria in hopes that a honeymoon there might create the necessary magic.
Unfortunately, it is black magic that he encounters in the form of their Arab houseboy (played by James Dean), a schemer who seduces the husband, and leaves him ridden with guilt. Nevertheless, the act seems to have aroused him enough to have relations with his wife who immediately conceives, leaving the pair trapped in their ill-fated union.
Having recently filmed a more demanding part in the powerful drama “Wages of Fear” for Robert Montgomery presents, in mid December 1953, Louis Jourdan joined seven other actors (a number who'd been black-listed) for initial rehearsals at New York's Ziegfield Building under the highly respected director Herman Shumlin.
In keeping with his regular practice of having an entire screenplay memorized before a production began, Louis Jourdan had prepared for the role with particular intensity, studying all the finest nuances of the script and characterizations.
To appreciate the achievement his highly praised performance represented, and understand the obstacles that threatened it, some consideration of the production's birth pangs is essential.
His leading lady was Geraldine Page, who'd dazzled audiences the previous year in the sensational off-Broadway production of “Summer and Smoke,” not only making her an overnight star, but creating an impact strong enough to propel off-Broadway into a limelight which has never dimmed.
As a Method actress and student of Lee Strasberg, her approach to acting was diametrically opposed to her French-trained, Hollywood-seasoned co-star. Stanislavski vs. Paris/Tinseltown was not a happy match. While this may have caused stresses between the two actors as well as in the development of the play, under Shumlin's direction, the dichotomy was utilized to heighten the tension between the couple at levels beyond those of the script, subtly emphasizing the fact that the two were really living in different worlds.
If Louis Jourdan's studious conception for the play clashed robustly with that of Geraldine Page, her romantic relationship with supporting player James Dean complicated matters further. And if the play was about tension, Dean was a key in supplying an ample quantity of the commodity.
Charming and creative one minute, disinterested and uncooperative the next, his disruptive presence infused hot and cold air in a most random fashion. Nonetheless, in the hands of professionals, the almost constant conflict he represented was actually utilized to the play's benefit.
But it was definitely doing it the hard way, as though often bewitching his colleagues, he made everything more exhausting - in rehearsal, on stage and off, wanting to improvise interpretations of the play into something which suited him, frequently disappearing, and when they actually went before audiences, sometimes just offering a bland reading of his lines (to Dean's lucky benefit, on occasions when no critic was present).
In the middle of all the conflicts which abounded stood Louis Jourdan with the enormous task of carrying the play as well as proving himself as a dramatic actor - in a place where there is no hiding, the centerpiece of American theater.
With the company about to leave New York for Philadelphia try-outs the second week of the new year, producer Billy Rose could see the mounting trouble in dollar signs. However, he interpreted the disorder to stem from mismanagement, and instead of dismissing the source of the upheaval, in January, replaced the easy-going Shumlin with a new director - tough man Daniel Mann under the pretext that Shumlin had no proper conception for staging the homoerotic scenes.
Taking an almost military approach to getting the show on the road, Mann sorted out the seduction scene and mobilized the cast into concerted action to iron out the unstable situation. Along with fellow players, Louis Jourdan put in incredible hours which contributed to his losing 15 pounds in the exercise.
The reason why Dean wasn't fired has been attributed to various causes, but the most credible would appear not to be the paying of his salary over a long run, but the protection of the leading lady who refused to go on unless he stayed. Friends since their days at the Actors Studio, though she realized that his lack of confidence, dressed up as a tough guy, was paralyzing the show, Geraldine Page insisted that he was worth all the turmoil. By this point, no one agreed, but the actress got her way (and with Dean too, as he wanted to quit as much as others wished for an end to his shenanigans)..
So the “artistic soulmates” (as the actress believed them to be) prevailed, and in limited turnover time, under growing influence from the Goetzes, all new sets were built and the script was rewritten, cutting the part of the Arab houseboy. While this appeared to demoralize Dean, instead of calming him down, it seemed to open a new valve for his destructive forces, heaving more pressure on everyone. (One can only wonder how these affected the star, with so much riding on his performance.)
In spite of everything THE IMMORALIST managed to go before audiences as scheduled on January 11, 1954 at Philadelphia's Forest Theater. With a new ending in addition to so many rapidly staged changes, reaction to the try out was positive, and Louis Jourdan's performance was particularly lauded by Henry Murdock in the Philadelphia Enquirer as well as receiving radiant notices in the Evening Bulletin.
After a further three weeks, and more changes, the play opened for New York previews on February 2 at The Royale Theater, a most unusual circumstance at the time - meaning audiences might attend, but critics were not invited. (The fact that a review from this week was done, and did not favor the play indicates how much was accomplished in the last days before the official opening on February 8.)
It was at the last of these previews that the Goetzes inadvertently influenced the removal of the troublemaker when they brought “On Borrowed Time” playwright Paul Osborne to join them. He was then working on an adaptation of John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and called its director Elia Kazan to recommend the fellow playing the Arab houseboy as a possibility for the leading role. Knowing Dean's work, Kazan jumped at the idea. (The actor tendered his resignation the next day - which happened to be opening night - before the reviews came in.) He left behind him at least one performance to remember and a series of drawings of Geraldine Page and Louis Jourdan which survive to this day.
Despite its uncomfortable subject, THE IMMORALIST's official opening was met with rave reviews. Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune noted the deftness and sensitivity of Louis Jourdan's performance, while high praise also came from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times for the depths he'd found in his role. Even Richard Watts of The New York Post, who was not sold on the play, acknowledged the stunning portrayal of a man in deep psychological conflict.
The play ran through May 1, 1954, amazingly long considering the controversy that surrounded the staging of a work on the then taboo subject - something which, at the time could incite some individuals to burn down the theater or worse.
In fact, for many years, Louis Jourdan received countless letters from “moralists” who regarded his very playing of a homosexual tantamount to fostering vice in the community. A sad footnote to what, on many levels may be considered the ultimate triumph in his acting career.
THE IMMORALIST Cast
Geraldine Page & Louis Jourdan
Al Hirschfeld drawing published in the New York Times January 31, 1954
Geraldine Page & Louis Jourdan
James Dean & Louis Jourdan
Louis Jourdan & Geraldine Page
James Dean & Louis Jourdan
Playbill for THE IMMORALIST
Geraldine Page & James Dean
Geraldine Page, Louis Jourdan, James Dean and Charles Dingle
Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich congratulate Louis Jourdan after his opening night performance
sketches of Geraldine Page by James Dean