Tuesday, August 4, 2015
(Many plot spoilers below) In Peggy Finds the Theater, Peggy talks her parents into allowing her to try acting for a year in New York. Convincing them is meant to be a large hurdle for Peggy to overcome, but it's actually pretty darn easy, and once convinced, her parents manage to arrange an audition for her (!) at the best dramatic arts school in New York City. They've even lined up a reputable boarding house for Peggy that is run by a retired actress and is full of amazingly friendly and noncompetitive aspiring actresses. The head of the drama school admits Peggy, even though it's only two weeks before the term starts, on the basis of her answer about why she wants to be an actress -- he doesn't even want her to read for him, so she technically doesn't audition at all. And since her parents don't think she should have to carry too much luggage from Wisconsin to New York, she even gets to buy everything new when she arrives in the city.
Right off, we can see the main similarity to Nancy Drew -- everything comes easily to this young woman! Over the course of the series, she'll experience difficulties in perfecting a role, or in dealing with clashing personalities or small domestic mysteries, but never does Peggy truly have difficulty getting a job. This is due in part to her immediate friendship with Randy Brewster, an aspiring playwright. In the first book, Peggy solves the book's "problem" by literally finding a theater, without which Randy can't put on his first off-Broadway play. Available theaters are very hard to come by, but Peggy thinks to check city records and look for buildings that were originally built as theaters but are now unused and unoccupied. She finds one at which men surreptitiously unload freight each night under cover of dark; the building's owner is so grateful to Peggy and friends for uncovering this smuggling operation that he offers them the entire building at low rent to use as they want.
In book two, Peggy Plays Off-Broadway, Peggy has a role in Randy's first play in the newly renovated Penthouse Theater that she found in book one. Her role is supporting but significant, but her main concern in this book is to discover why Paula Andrews, the brilliant and cooperative young actress in the lead, is clearly ill and miserable. When Paula collapses from malnutrition, Peggy learns that Paula is determined to open in at least one stage role without people knowing the identity of her famous actor parents, because she is convinced she will never be judged on her own merits. Because she's run out of money, however, she's starving herself. Peggy's dilemma is whether to break Paula's trust by contacting her parents, but she finds a way to do it that makes everyone happy. (I note that the "runaway rich girl" plot is not uncommon in fiction from this time period.)
In Peggy Goes Straw Hat, Peggy accepts the role as the contract ingénue for a summer stock theater. In this book, Peggy deals with a fellow actor who is not exactly a diva, but who puts herself first before the company. Peggy also deals with a movie theater owner determined to tank the summer stock theater because he views it as competition. I found this book a bit disappointing, mainly because it didn't have the charm I've come to expect from vintage young adult books about summer stock theater. It didn't help, for instance, that Peggy's group performs in a high school auditorium rather than a converted barn, which was something of a staple in summer stock and is much more romantic. I was also a little frustrated that Peggy is miserable about one role in which the nuances elude her, until she is so numb and dejected that she plays it without feeling anything at all, and somehow gives the best performance of her career to date.
The fifth book, Peggy Goes Hollywood, is perhaps one of my favorites. Notice it says "Peggy Goes Hollywood," not "Peggy Goes to Hollywood." This is because Peggy, naively listening to her rather strange agent, buys the glamorous wardrobe and agrees to contrived publicity dates with a famous screen actor. Because she's not focusing her efforts on her paying job as part of a repertory theater cast, Peggy is actually fired, and she initially doesn't get the screen role she tested for because the movie producer assumes she's a glamour girl and not a serious actress, based on all the superficial publicity she's getting. Eventually she gets her head screwed on right, and with some help from influential friends manages to salvage the situation.
This was probably my least favorite of the series. Just as the French were portrayed as arrogant snobs, here the Italians are depicted as hot-headed chauvinists and manipulative, iron-willed, matchmaking dowagers. To be fair, the book does spend a lot of time dealing with Peggy's difficulties trying to act in this environment when she doesn't know the language. But I was very much turned off by the book's central plot, which was that the female star of the film was being physically threatened by her ex-fiancé. Peggy is horrified that everyone seems to be looking the other way, but the Italians keep saying that the man has his pride, and since the woman made him look foolish to his friends by jilting him, his behavior is to be expected (including showing up on the movie set with a gun). I was also put off by the emphasis that Peggy's hostess kept placing on how Peggy was obliged to treat men -- you can't possibly hurt their feelings by rebuffing them because they are so sensitive and passionate, yet if you refuse to marry them, you are at fault because you've been leading them on! There is a very much a vibe here of "it's all the woman's fault, for being so tempting to men."
Fortunately (!), Peggy eventually comes up with a way for the star's ex-fiancé to save face without anyone getting hurt. So that situation is resolved, but Peggy is miserable because the director keeps showing his displeasure with her and implying that he's going to replace her with another actress. But three weeks after filming ends, when Peggy goes back to work on the English language track -- surprise! We learn that the director was manipulating Peggy to make her feel miserable and depressed as needed, in order to get the performance he wanted out of her. And she forgives him, because "every time a New York television producer or a Hollywood casting director needed an ingénue, the first name he'd think of would be Peggy Lane."
Overall, I feel as though I haven't been, and am perhaps incapable of being, fair to this series. After all, when I read Nancy Drew as a kid, I wasn't concerned with all the convenient developments, or how easy it was for Nancy to quickly master any task to which she put her mind. So I have to remember that these books, which were published from 1962 to 1965, were meant for kids, and they're weren't intended to provide a particularly realistic portrayal of the acting profession. I also have to remember that this publisher's series were primarily mysteries, and so of course they felt compelled to inject some little mystery or problem into each book that wasn't necessarily centered on Peggy herself. I think I might have been able to remember all that, were it not for the fact that I've read so many career romance books from the same time period that I felt to be at least a little more realistic.
But there were things to like in this series. Peggy was reminded, and reminded herself, on more than one occasion that in many cases, actors don't get parts simply because they don't have the precise look that the director has in mind. I'm glad that the series covered both stage and screen acting. I liked that Peggy was encouraged to travel and gain broader experience. And I absolutely loved the interior illustrations by Sergio Leone -- they are the same type of black and white line illustrations that we see in the pictorial cover editions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but a bit more sharp, in my opinion. Peggy is recognizably Peggy in every single illustration in all eight books, and the pictures directly represent specific scenes. I just love the time and care that went into these drawings, and I wish we had more illustration in books being published today.
It would have been nice if the series had had a definite end. Randy is essentially Ned Nickerson from Nancy Drew, although a little bit more useful. He mainly served to provide jobs for Peggy, and to give her a sort-of boyfriend even though she says in book six or seven that they're both so young and want to meet other people. Oh, and occasionally there were jealous misunderstandings, when one of them (usually Randy, of course) thought the other was too interested in one of those new people they were supposed to be meeting. The expected resolution, of course, would be an engagement by the end of the series, but the way the last book ends leads me to believe that someone hoped there would still be a few more to come out.
In the end, I'm glad I read these. I'm somewhat unlikely to read them again, yet I can't quite part with my set at this point -- in large part because of the illustrations, I think.