by Clarence Budington Kelland

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Saturday Evening Post, 25 May 1935 - 29 June 1935

Harper: New York, 1935
250 pages

June 2011

The dream of self-improvement

This easy novel, the romantic comedy Dreamland by Clarence Budington Kelland, is rather fun, but slight — yet on an important level it succeeds better than some of its more thoughtful and better-constructed siblings from Kelland's pen. How can this be? Let's look first at what's doing in Dreamland, and then compare it briefly to several other Kelland novels.

Most simply, Dreamland is an amusement park in a midsize city, brand new and almost ready to open. Through an odd but reasonable chain of events, Hadrian Pink, a bright and healthy young fellow but quite the milquetoast, finds himself thrust into the job of general manager of the amusement park. In addition to knowing virtually nothing about running a park, he also needs to get the business safely open and popular, with very little lead time.

Pink's driving motivation is to somehow win the hand of a girl, Ariadne Joyce, a rich socialite and model whom he worships from afar but never has met: generally an insuperable challenge even for non-milquetoasts. She has publicized her standards, defining the challenge:

Miss Joyce's interview depicted her ideal in somewhat lofty terms; her specifications for the lover were somewhat short of those of an archangel, but a fraction more demanding than those which would make up a composite of Lord Byron, Achilles, Jack Dempsey, Galahad, John D. Rockefeller and Mussolini.

"A man," she said," must first be a gentleman, with all that word implies of charm and tact and education. He need not be beautiful, but he must look intelligent, and his face must display strength of character. ... He must compel my respect and the respect of the world. I insist upon a man of iron will modified by reason and innate gentleness. He must not know the meaning of the word 'fear,' and he must be able to meet any emergency. He must be a man willing to fight — for me or for a principle. I could not endure a man in whom could be found the faintest flaw of cowardice, either moral or physical."

Hadrian read this recipe and then, for the first time in his twenty-seven years, indulged in the humiliating occupation of introspection and self-analysis. ... Did he look intelligent? He was compelled to admit that there was a certain touch of intellectuality, somewhat heightened by his spectacles. But did his face display strength of character? On this point he was doubtful.

And so on. Ariadne Joyce has set quite a high hurdle! Hadrian Pink's thoughtful introspection, combined with his distant infatuation, impels him to an act perhaps as foolish as his love itself. Risking a dollar (worth much more in those days), he sends away for a booklet titled "Mouse or Man" from an outfit called Character Builders, Inc. Over the ensuing months he practices character-building, quite in private, as the instructions advise. Then comes an odd confluence of events, including a murder mystery, gangsters, and the opportunity at Dreamland.

Some quick comparisons. I doubt that Clarence Budington Kelland wrote Dreamland aiming at a target as ambitious as, say, his Gold (1931), Archibald the Great (1942), or Merchant of Valor (1947). These are more serious novels, although Archibald the Great has plenty of fun with character and wordplay. Yet there is something lacking in each.

  • In Gold, Kelland's mid-19th Century heroine has inherited a big New York banking house. Her personality is exasperating, and before the end of the novel not only the reader but Kelland himself seems tired of her.
  • In Archibald the Great, the two principal men — the title character and the narrator — seem as much accidental as self-defined and self-motivated. The reader can applaud their struggling through a tangle of problems alternately funny and deadly, but insofar as their talents mostly are predefined and given, their successes are correspondingly unearned.
  • In Merchant of Valor, a 16th-Century English trader is diverted from his natural bent, instead fighting in some battles of Renaissance Italy, allied with a Borgia. The presentation failed to make the protagonist's course feel likely to me.

In all four of these novels, the protagonists are substantially powered and hampered by romantic yearning. This motivation is fine, and even more common in the slick-magazine tradition that Kelland swam in with considerable success, than in the pulp-magazine tradition. In all the novels the protagonists are helped by friends and allies they make, as well as thwarted by enemies, the ignorant, and the inertia-bound. This is what makes most plots.

I also want to mention a movie, Strike Me Pink (1936), loosely based on Dreamland, with Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman. In the Hollywood tradition, the special strengths of the story as written mostly are swapped out for hijinks, chase scenes, and some ill-fitting songs.

What makes Dreamland different from the above novels (and the movie) is that the hero tries to grab ahold of his own character, improve who he is and thus shape his own destiny. Yes, his starting point is that of milquetoast, and for all he knows, that is his basic and unalterable nature. Sure, he must deal with helpful and thwartful people aplenty. Of course, there are surprises thick and fast, both good and bad and often quite amusing. But amidst all this —

Hadrian Pink has something which Kelland's protagonists in those more thoughtful and sophisticated novels do not. He may be outrageously optimistic, foolish in love and foolhardy in action, but he has a goal for his life and he takes a grip on it. He works at lucid dreaming. Or in words of my own motto, They who make, may find. For all its lightness of touch, Dreamland has a spine.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

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