Once in a Lifetime

by George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart

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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 of his relationship with May. George inquires about Susan’s progress in her class, informing her that they will marry when she has a career. May tells him to talk to her before he does anything rash.

Their conversation is interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Walker. She needs to take Susan to the...

(This entire section contains 1310 words.)

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hotel so they can take a long-distance call from Mr. Walker. George escorts the pair out. In the meantime, Vail is still waiting. Miss Leighton cannot remember who he is. He becomes angry that he cannot meet anyone and does not have enough work to do. Soon after he leaves, Helen comes looking for him. Miss Leighton does not know who he is when the movie critic asks.

May runs into Helen. Helen implies that the life of the school will be short. After she leaves, a man, Flick, comes to take their names off the door of their office. This confirms the school’s status. Jerry and George show up, and May tells them they have been fired.

George’s first thought is of Susan and her career. Susan returns. Her father wants her to come home. George decides to look for Glogauer. He comes across Vail, who is shocked to learn that George has actually met Glogauer. Vail vents his frustrations on George, and Vail announces that he is quitting.

Glogauer appears, arguing with German director Rudolph Kammerling. Kammerling is angry about the casting of an actress who is totally wrong for the role. George steps in and suggests Susan would be more appropriate. When Glogauer tells him that they must have a name actress, George tells him off, using many of the same words that Vail used to describe the movie industry.

Glogauer is impressed by George’s ideas. After casting Susan in the role and arranging for the publicity machine to go to work on her, Glogauer appoints George as the supervisor of the studio. George immediately hires May and Jerry, over the objections of Glogauer.

Act III, Scene 1
On the set of Kammerling’s movie, Gingham and Orchids, all is chaos on the last day of shooting. As Kammerling starts to explain to everyone how the scene on the church steps will be shot, Susan claims she does not know this scene. May reminds Susan that they rehearsed it just five minutes ago, though it was called another name.

May’s sarcastic attitude catches the attention of Jerry. While Jerry is enthusiastic about the movie and its future, May points out every fault. George appears and, the set temporarily focuses all its attention on him. Just as Kammerling and company return to work, Glogauer shows up. He is impressed that the movie is exactly on schedule. As a token of his appreciation, he gives George a solid gold dinner set.

Finally, the scene is shot. After it is over, Glogauer realizes that George had Kammerling do the wrong movie script. Glogauer suspends production and takes back his present to George. Jerry chides May for being sarcastic to Glogauer, while May points out that Jerry just kissed up to him. Susan refuses to speak to George. Glogauer fires everyone.

Act III, Scene 2
May is on the train back to New York. Vail comes aboard at a stop near a sanitarium. May has Vail read the reviews for Gingham and Orchids. To her surprise, they are very positive. Everything that was a mistake is praised. A telegram is given to her. It is from George who wants her and Jerry to come back. May decides she will return, if only to promote her agenda.

Act III, Scene 3
At Glogauer’s studio, George is back in charge. Many demands are made on his time. Susan visits him, telling him about a premiere. George tells her that he has bought a number of aeroplanes. Glogauer appears and demands to know why he has bought 2,000 planes. He is extremely angry.

May enters, and George immediately wants to know where Jerry is. George tells her that Jerry went to find her when she left. While May wants to know more about that situation, George is more concerned about what to do with the aeroplane situation. Jerry appears and reassures her about their relationship. George is still worried about the aeroplanes. Glogauer interrupts, calling George a genius. Because he has bought all the planes, they are in demand by other studios. Glogauer is extremely happy with George’s work. George is seen as even smarter as he allows the studio to be torn down so that a bigger one can be built.