Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s Once in a Lifetime was one of the pair’s best collaborations, the first of eight they wrote together in the 1930s. Inspired by the rise of the talkies—movies with sound—and the excess of Hollywood, the play is a wisecracking satire, though not particularly mean or bitter. Hart had originally written the play in 1929. Kaufman, a more established comic playwright, collaborated with Hart on several rewrites in late 1929 and early 1930. After several problematic outof- town tryouts, Once in a Lifetime opened on September 24, 1930, at the Music Box in New York City. It ran for 406 performances and won the Roi Cooper Megrue Prize for comedy in 1930. The play was very popular with both critics and audiences, giving them something to think about other than the growing economic depression. Since its original production, Once in a Lifetime was revived regularly through years, both on and off Broadway, as well as regionally and in Europe. Subsequent critics saw the play as a product of its time, but many believed its humor stood up well. The excesses of Hollywood were still contemporary, though some of the plays’ references were dated. As the New York Times’ Howard Taubman wrote in a 1962 review ‘‘Once in a Lifetime is still pertinent and funny. The film industry has been through more upheavals than an old-time banana republic, but the more it changes the more some of its foibles remain the same.’’
Once in a Lifetime Summary
Act I, Scene 1
In a small furnished room in New York City, vaudeville partners George Lewis and May Daniels talk about their immediate future. Their third partner, Jerry Hyland, is supposed to be working on a booking for them. May worries because they have only $128 in their bank account. George is less concerned, sure that something will turn up.
When Jerry arrives, he announces that he has sold their act for $500. Jerry believes he has seen the future in the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer. Despite May’s protests, Jerry insists that the three of them go to Los Angeles and get into the movies. Because films have been silent until this point, actors did not have to speak well. Jerry believes that stage-trained actors, who have voice training, will be in demand.
After agreeing with Jerry’s decisions, May comes up with an idea about what they will do there. They will open a school of elocution (the art of public speaking) to teach film actors and actresses how to talk. They believe it will make lots of money, though none of them have actually taught it before.
Act I, Scene 2
On the train to Los Angeles, the three prepare to open their school. May discovers that Helen Hobart, the foremost film critic in the United States, is on the train. May knows Helen because they used to be in an acting troupe together. May convinces her to talk to them. They tell Helen that May taught elocution in England, Jerry is May’s business manager, and George is a doctor and May’s technical advisor. Helen becomes interested in their project, and agrees to introduce them to Herman Glogauer, the owner of Glogauer Studios.
Susan Walker, a young wannabe actress, finds Helen in the threesome’s car. She is trying to get Helen to help start her acting career. George becomes interested in Susan, and escorts her back to her mother.
Act I, Scene 3
Inside the Gold Room of the Hotel Stilton in Los Angeles, actors, actresses, and wannabes work to see and be seen by others. Everyone, even the workers, has some connection to film. Susan and her mother, Mrs. Walker, come in. Susan is impressed by everyone in the room. George, May, and Jerry show up to meet Helen and Glogauer about their school. George sees Susan and promises to help her meet the studio owner. May and Jerry are not pleased that he has made this promise.
After Glogauer makes a sweeping entrance, Helen, May, Jerry and George meet with him. They convince him that their school would put him ahead of other movie moguls, playing on the fact that he passed on Vitaphone, the technology behind the talkies. George has Glogauer meet Susan, but her presence does not impress him.
Act II, Scene 1
At the reception room of the Glogauer Studio, the secretary, Miss Leighton, manages the chaos of calls and visitors. A playwright, Lawrence Vail, waits for a meeting with Glogauer. Vail has been bounced between many people, and unhappy. His meeting is put off, and he is bounced around again.
May’s school is in full swing. She is overworked, but Jerry and George are little help. Jerry is busy playing the Hollywood game, to the detriment...
(The entire section is 1310 words.)