Depiction of Female Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1652

One interesting aspect of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s play Once in a Lifetime (1930) is its depiction of women. In this time period, the perception and status of women in the United States had recently undergone a fundamental change, and the play reflects the inherent contradictions. Some female characters have some complexity to them. This essay looks at the status of women in America in this time period, then the female characters in Once in a Lifetime.

By the late 1920s, many women in the United States had more power and much different social values than even a decade early. In 1920, women were finally given the right to vote, a fight that had been going on for many years. During the so-called Jazz Age of the 1920s, young women rejected the values of their mothers and grandmothers, wearing shorter skirts and bobbed hair as well as intensifying their social contact with young men. According to American Decades: 1920–29, 11 million women were working by 1930, about 27 percent of the total workforce. Women worked in all areas of the economy— office jobs, factories, servants, farming, and professional—but those in manufacturing jobs, at least, made less than their male counterparts for the same work. Most professional women did what was termed ‘‘women’s work,’’ including teaching and nursing.

According to Sara M. Evans in Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America, the workplace, especially offices, were seen as places were one could meet a husband. Despite the fact that many women worked, marriage was still the ideal for them. They were expected to marry and lead domestic lives. While this expectation changed a little as the Great Depression deepened, and while marriage was seen as economically unfeasible for many, wife and mother were still the primary accepted social roles for women.

Yet in Once in a Lifetime, only Mrs. Walker clearly is married, and she is functioning away from her home and husband. Nearly every woman depicted in the play is single and has or wants a career. While show business was a semi-acceptable place for women at this time, the number of independent, sometimes powerful, women in the play is still extraordinary. Characters like May Daniels, who was part of a vaudeville act with two men and at the age of twenty-five still unmarried, and Helen Hobart, described as the foremost movie critic in the United States, are strong and in charge.

Most minor female characters do what were considered women’s jobs. In Act I, scene iii, the cigarette girl and the coat check girl are both young women in the service industry. While they have aspirations to become more successful actresses— they take roles as they are available—for now they work in the hotel and search for their next part. Neither is married, and neither seems to be looking for a husband. A similar statement can be made about the maids to the famous actresses depicted in the scene, Phyllis Fontaine and Florabel Leigh. While they do domestic labor, they also look for acting work as well.

The receptionist at Glogauer Studio, Miss Leighton, does clerical work, another common job for women at this time Like the characters mentioned above, she is not obviously in pursuit of a husband. Though she is forgetful of the frustrated playwright for Lawrence Vail, Miss Leighton jug gles phones, people, and information with calm ease, emphasized perhaps by her choice of an evening gown for daytime office attire.

Two women with more nontraditional career choices are Fontaine and Leigh, the successful actresses. Stars of silent film, Fontaine and Leigh do not seem particularly concerned with the advent of talkies, that is movies with a prerecorded, synchronized soundtrack. Like the other female, neither seems to be married or particularly concerned about it. Though Hart and Kaufman do not depict them as particularly bright—in Act II, scene i, May tells them that ‘‘I won’t be happy till you get the rigor mortis,’’ a quip the actresses take as a compliment— they are prosperous single women with careers.

Similarly career driven is Susan Walker, the teenage wannabe actress who is on the train to Hollywood in Act I, scene ii. Escorted by her mother, Susan wants to become a famous actress, though she does not exactly know what that means. When she sees Helen Hobart, the famous movie critic, on the train, she tries to enlist her help. Susan later tries to get noticed at the Hotel Stilton. It is only through her relationship with George, and his connections, that she achieves her goal. She succeeds despite the fact that she is a horrible actress, as dumb as Leigh and Fontaine. Yet Susan has one very interesting characteristic: she will not marry George until she has become a successful actress. Her career is more important than love and marriage.

The woman enjoying the most abundance is Hobart, described as ‘‘America’s foremost film critic’’ by May. Again, she seems husband-free. Her occupation is somewhat unusual for a woman at this time, and her power as a film critic most certainly is. She is syndicated in 203 papers in the United States, and respected by men in lofty positions. Indeed, Hobart brags to May, George, and Jerry in Act I, scene ii that the studios shower her with gifts, including a twenty-two-room home in Beverly Hills. Hobart calls it Parwarmet, named after the first syllable in each of the major studios names: Paramount, Warner Bros., and Metro- Goldwyn. Fox Studios gave her a dog kennel, and she named each of the animals after an a studio executive.

May, Jerry Hyland, and George Lewis, appreciate her position. In that scene, they realize that her support could get their elocution school off the ground in Hollywood, and they get her on their side by lying about their background. Hobart arranges their meeting with Herman Glogauer of Glogauer Studios, and the school does open. However, Hobart gets a significant percentage of the profits. She is also a savvy businesswoman who knows how to get what she wants. Though in many way Hobart is a cog in the public relations machine that is the movie industry, she has milked it for all it is worth. She is the epitome of powerful woman in this play.

May Daniels, though, is the primary female character, just as powerful in her own way. She is one of the three vaudevillians who are looking to better their life in Hollywood. Of the three, May is the only woman and, in many ways, the center and leader of the group. George is malleable and goes along for the ride, while Jerry takes chances and arranges for their trip to Los Angeles. But it is May who comes up with the idea for the elocution school, and it is May who uses her connection to Hobart to get them jump-started in Hollywood. May takes the lead, and the others follow.

Yet when the three arrive in Los Angeles, and the school is opened, May does most of the related work. She teaches all the classes while Jerry leads a life in the fast land and George swoons over Susan. Thus while May is a leader among the three, she also fulfils a typical role for women of her day, that of teacher. After the school fails, May plays more of a supporting role to the men. Through a number of satirical twists, it is hapless George that ends up becoming a production supervisor at the studio. He needs May’s expertise, as well as Jerry’s help, for him to succeed and he knows it. George insists that she is hired, and though he and Jerry test her limits, May is there for them. She becomes something of a mother hen, all-knowing but supportive.

Unlike most of the female characters in Once in a Lifetime, May has a love interest, Jerry. This relationship, however, is subtle, if not underdeveloped, over the course of the play. In Act II, scene i, May chides Jerry for not spending any time with her. He broke a date with her to be with some Hollywood-types. Later, in Act III scene i, she becomes angry with Jerry for nearly selling her and George out after George has his director shoot the wrong script. She breaks up with him, telling him ‘‘as far as I’m concerned, that’s that.’’ May leaves Hollywood in the next scene, intending to return to New York. She changes her mind after reading the reviews of Gingham and Orchids and returns in the next scene. It is only then that she learns that Jerry has left to look for her. When he comes back, they make up and it is implied that they are back together again. Thus May’s future as a wife and mother seem assured.

Countering these strong, if not sometimes contradictory, images of women in Once in a Lifetime are the more conventional characters and characterizations of women. Mrs. Walker is retiring. She supports her daughter’s ambitions because she wants the best for her, yet when her husband calls them from Ohio, she wants to please him as well. It is only through George’s intervention that Susan does get a role that allows them to stay, but Mrs. Walker would have gone home if her husband had demanded it. Also, on the film set, men and women play their traditional roles. The only women working on the film are May, Susan’s coach, and the script girl. All the scenario writers are men, as is the director, the studio head, cameraman, electricians, and pages. These are minor details, however. In the big picture, Once in a Lifetime was ahead of its time in its portrayal of women.

Source: Annette Petruso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001. Annette Petruso is a freelance author and screenwriter in Austin, TX.

Historical Context of This Play

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The play Once in a Lifetime, by Kaufman and Hart, takes place during a very particular phase in the history of the Hollywood film industry: the transition from silent film to sound film, or ‘‘talkies.’’ In order to fully appreciate the play itself, it is helpful to have a grasp of the specific elements of this era of Hollywood history which are referred to in the play.

This play was originally performed in 1930, and takes place in 1927, during the period of transition from silent film to ‘‘talkies,’’ or movies with synchronized sound. The initial incident of the play occurs when Jerry returns from attending the film The Jazz Singer, which was the first feature-length sound film to be released by Hollywood, by Warner Brothers in 1927. Al Jolson (1886–1950) plays a Jewish boy who runs away from home to become a jazz singer and minstrel performer on the stage. The Jazz Singer featured four singing numbers in synchronized sound, while the rest of the film used standard silent film titles for dialogue. Between 1927 and 1930, all of the studios converted to sound film production, and by 1930 Hollywood was producing only ‘‘talkies.’’

In the play, Jerry explains to May and George that the ‘‘talking picture’’ he has just seen was made possible by the newly developed technology under the brand name Vitaphone. Vitaphone was developed and marketed as a subsidiary of Warner Brothers in partnership with General Electric in 1926. Vitaphone technology, however, had various problems and was replaced by more advanced sound film technology in 1931. In the play by Kaufman and Hart, George makes a big impression on the studio head, Mr. Glogauer, by pointing out that he had made a huge mistake in ‘‘passing up Vitaphone.’’ In other words, this fictional head of a fictional studio within the story had passed up the opportunity to be at the forefront of the transition to synchronized sound. Mr. Glogauer at one point laments that the pioneering of sound film by the ‘‘Schlepkin Brothers’’ has forced the other studios to make this costly and complex transition; the fictional ‘‘Schlepkin Brothers’’ are clearly meant to represent the real life Warner Brothers who did, in fact, pioneer the production of ‘‘talkies.’’

This play refers to most of the major Hollywood studios and studio heads of this period in the history of the film industry. In order to appreciate the significance of these references, it is helpful to understand the structure of the film industry at this time. From the beginning of the sound era until 1948, the Hollywood film industry was dominated by five major studios, known as ‘‘The Big 5,’’ which included: Warner Brothers, Paramount, Twentieth- Century Fox, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corp. (RKO), and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). All of the major studios are mentioned at various points throughout the play. For instance, the stage directions describing the character of Helen Hobart, the film critic, state that the outfit she is wearing ‘‘is the Hollywood idea of next year’s style a la Metro- Goldwyn.’’ Metro-Goldwyn, which later merged to become MGM, was known for the elaborate and sumptuous sets and costuming in their films. Later, Helen Hobart explains that she has named her home Parwarmet, after the three studios Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Metro-Goldwyn. She explains that she also has a kennel of dogs, all named after studio executives at Fox (which in 1935 merged with Twentieth Century studios to become Twentieth Century-Fox). Mr. Glogauer in the play also makes reference to the tendency during this era of Hollywood history for studios, such as MGM and Twentieth Century-Fox, to ‘‘merge’’; he complains that the Schlepkin Brothers are ‘‘always wanting to merge, merge, merge.’’

The major Hollywood studios during this era were also known for their famous executive producers, referred to as ‘‘movie moguls,’’ and included: Jack Warner at Warner Brothers, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Y. Frank Freedman at Paramount, and Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. The fictional character of Mr. Glogauer in this play is meant to represent a caricature of the famous movie moguls, known for their extraordinary power at all levels of the film industry.

The play also makes specific reference to such famous early movie moguls as the Laskys, the de Milles, and others. Jesse L. Lasky (1880–1958), in partnership with Samuel Goldwyn and Cecil B. De Mille (1991–1959), formed the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913. In 1916, they merged with the Famous Players company to become the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. This company later became Paramount, one of the major Hollywood production studios. De Mille’s reputation as a successful producer is indicated in a line of the play by George. While they are on the film set, someone questions whether the pigeons that are supposed to be released during a wedding scene will know what to do; George replies, ‘‘Those pigeons know what to do. They were with Cecile De Mille for two years.’’

This play also makes reference to D. W. Grif- fith (1875–1948) and the Biograph production company. D. W. Griffith is known as the master director of the silent film era. Many of his films were released through Biograph studios. D. W. Griffith is also controversial, however, for what some consider a masterpiece of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation (1915). While in many ways a brilliant work of cinematic art, The Birth of a Nation is an extremely racist depiction of the South during and after the Civil War. In the play by Kaufman and Hart, when someone refers in passing to the Civil War, another character responds, ‘‘The Civil War? Didn’t D. W. Griffith make that?’’ The joke is in part that, while the first character was talking about the actual historical Civil War, the second character can only conceive of this historical event as a cinematic production. The play later refers to Biograph as a more significant element of the story. It is discovered after George directs his fist movie that he has directed from the wrong script. He has accidentally used a script for a movie made in 1910 by Biograph.

This play also refers to the development of early color film technology. Technicolor was originally a trademark name for a color film process; the first time a feature length movie was produced in Technicolor was 1917. In 1922, Technicolor incorporated to become the Technicolor Corporation. In the late 1920s, several feature films were produced in Technicolor. But, because the process was expensive, most films that used Technicolor had only one color sequence. By the early 1930s, with the Depression forcing the studios to cut costs, almost no color features were produced. In 1932, however, developments in the processing technology lead to a rise in the production of color films, and from 1932 to 1957 all color films were made using the Technicolor process. In this play, Mrs. Walker, the mother of the wannabe starlet Helen Walker, mentions that May had said Helen might do better on film in Technicolor. This comment is merely a joke at Helen’s expense, implying that only extravagant film technology could counteract her poor acting abilities.

Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) is perhaps the most famous Russian film director and pioneer in the field of film theory. He is famous for his epic productions of events from Russian history, such as Strike (1925) and October (1928), about the Russian Revolution, as well as masterpieces such as Battleship Potempkin (1925). Eisenstein is best known in film theory for his theory of film ‘‘montage,’’ by which films are edited in such a way as to juxtapose images to create a symbolic set of meanings with the greatest impact upon the viewer. In the play by Kaufman and Hart, the fictional foreign director Kammerling makes reference to Eisenstein when he is fed up with the American film industry, and cries out, ‘‘What a country! Oh, to be in Russia with Eisenstein!’’

Will Hays was an important figure head of the film industry beginning in 1922, when he was appointed head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), an association of Hollywood studios founded for the purpose of addressing public relations issues. The Hollywood industry had met with various forms of protest over the years in regards to the moral value of film content. Various sets of written guidelines for what was and wasn’t considered acceptable film content were produced throughout the 1920s, but it was not until 1930 that the MPPDA adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, which became the standard basis of industry censorship until 1968.

In this play, reference is made to Will Hays when the receptionist at the film studio mentions that there had been a drunken man in the office. Helen responds that, ‘‘they’ll soon be weeded out. Will Hays is working on that as fast as he can.’’ One of the concerns of the Production Code administration was that Hollywood movies not depict excessive consumption of alcohol. The joke is about Will Hays, suggesting that his crackdown on Hollywood morality threatens to extend to control of the behavior of those within the industry, as well as that of characters on the screen.

While all of the characters who actually appear in the play are fictional, reference is made to some of the most famous and successful film actors of the time, including: Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo, Mae West, John Barrymore, Elsie Barrymore, and Janet Gaynor.

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 2001 Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Overview of the Satire

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1930 satire on the dawn of talking pictures, Once in a Lifetime, still produces a goodly sampling of verbal and sight gags, and director David Pittu has whipped a cast of 21 actors (in more than 40 roles) into a briskly paced send-up. Pittu trusts his authors, and while some situations and characters have become cliches, the satirical romp remains an innocent nod to a bygone era.

Attempting to cash in on the Hollywood gold rush, three second-rate vaudevillians sell their tired act and head west to open an elocution school. Gaining the favor of a movie mogul, the trio gain a certain amount of influence in the industry before bringing near-ruin to the studio.

Peppered with extravagant performances and delightfully silly cartoon characters, the show never seems crowded on the Atlantic’s small stage. Bellhops, porters, chauffeurs and leggy starlets flit about trains, soundstages and hotel lobbies with giddy abandon. The break-neck tempo is vital and the antics suffer from any stalls along the way.

John Ellison Coulee is grand as a doltish vaudevillian who blunders into success by repeating simple words of theatrical wisdom he has read (most often in Variety). Johanna Day captures the flavor of the era as his aggressively flippant partner. When Larry Bryggman, as the hot-tempered, bumbling studio chief, points a dictatorial finger, it becomes a peninsula.

Cynthia Darlow is a gushing syndicated columnist from the Hedda Hopper mold, Kate Blumberg a winsome ingenue, and Peter Jacobson raps his riding crop with frequent frustration as the German film director.

Kaufman not only co-wrote the play, he also staged it and appeared as the neglected playwright in the original 1930 production; in homage to him, Pittu appears in that role of Lawrence Vail. (But he misses the manic desperation Max Wright summoned for the 1978 Circle in the Square revival.)

The period costumes are dapper and colorful, and the compact set changes, wrapped in a goldenedged proscenium. arch, boast a Technicolor gloss.

Adolph Green and Betty Comden May have refined the familiar elements of spoofing early talkies with their classic screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, but Kaufman and Hart got there first. Sixty-eight years years later, their first collaboration remains an amiable antic treat.

For the record, Once in a Lifetime opened at the Music Box on Sept. 24, 1930, and ran for 406 performances. Peter Bogdanovich directed a York Playhouse revival in 1964, and Adam Arkin appeared in an ETC Theatre Co. production in 1975. The 1978 Broadway revival at Circle in the Square featured John Lithgow, Treat Williams, Jayne Meadows Allen and George S. Irving.

Source: Robert L. Daniels, ‘‘Once in a Lifetime,’’ in Variety, Vol. 371, No. 5, June 8, 1998, p. 81.

Stage: Once in a Lifetime

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When Once in a Lifetime, the first play that Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote together, was revived here a number of years ago it ran for exactly one performance.

The Circle in the Square’s leisurely but delightful version, which opened here last night, should do a great deal better. Some of the bones have fallen from the meat of this 1930 comedy; its insance logic has lost some of its logic, but there is plenty of insanity left.

And with John Lithgow sagging gently into a very large comic performance as George, the Heaven- favored fool who out-imbeciles Hollywood, and George Irving as athundering film tycoon constructed entirely of tiny gas-filled balloons, the Circle production surmounts the play’s weakesses and its own blank spots to give New York something pretty close to ideal summer theater.

At its most alive, Lifetime has the wacky, mounting, improbable comic climaxes that distinguish the humor of the 1930s. The Marx Brothers had it, and at their best it was in a rhythm that raced and slowed but never dropped.

Quite a bit of Lifetimes drops. There is a lot of carpentry showing by now in this tale of the three out-of-work actors who set up an elocution school in Hollywood. It was the time when the talkies came in, and the stars who were the plumed swans of that particular puddle turned out to be as inaudible as swans.

There are grand chains of lunacy to the scenes in a Hollywood studio. A small but deadly not of bitter satire—Kaufman and Hart were New Yorkers, and Hollywood, which ate playwrights alive, was a joke that was no joke—gives the play some real bite. There is, as well, a good deal of stilted dialogue, particularly in the occasional scenes of sentiment. Caricatures wound better than they kiss.

But a lot of the limitlessness of the comedy of that time, the feeling that a joke could end up almost anywhere, remains. Sometimes it made for silliness and contrivance; sometimes for a beautifully irresponsible inspiration. Take the play’s final joke.

Mr. Lithgow’s George, whose mistakes that turn out lucky keep getting him alternately fired and promoted by the irascible Glogauer, makes one final mistake. He buys 2,000 airplanes. Now, at 50 years distance, this is something of a bald and heavy joke, especially for the climax of a long play.

But then somebody remarks hopefully that there must be some way you can use 2,000 airplanes. ‘‘Sure,’’ says May, the acid, good hearted heroine. ‘‘Make applesauce.’’ That afterthought, pure comic madness, is worth a ton of machinery and all the humor in a year’s worth of Saturday Night Live.

The Circle production, directed by Tom Moore on a bare stage upon which furniture is toted in and out, does very well by the best moments, and nurses the longer worn spots with reasonable cheerfulness.

Mr. Moore is particularly good at some of the visual absurdities. The first entrance of Mr. Irving as Glogauer is a dignified retreat from the portable mob of sycophants he carries with him. He is pursued by a pair of emoting bellboys who, like everyone else in this hectic Hollywood of the imagination, are always auditioning. Even two electricians, having lunch, begin to improvise a song—it is ‘‘Pretty Baby’’ but they get it wrong—and wash off, presumably to see their agents.

Mr. Lithgow, as the bumbling George, is tall as Jacques Tati is tall. Like a mountain, his peak disappears into a cloudy of tentativeness. He looks like a cartoon of the 1930s, hips thrust forward, rocking back on his heels, and with one slow tugboat pulling bargeloads of silliness across his face. He moves in jecks, as if he were a sideshow.

In a scene with Max Wright, a playwright demented by underwork—he has been kept in an empty room for months and nobody has asked him for anything—Mr. Lithgow shows his art. Mr. Wright’s performance, all hisses and jerks and twitches, embroiders its own embroideries. There is skill there but it is a sideshow and stops things dead.

Mr. Lithgow, drooping, simply listens. He follows Mr. Wright’s gyrations as a sunflower turns with the sun. He does nothing, in effect; he just stands there, and it is quite the best thing to do.

Mr. Irving is a comic roarer, a source of energy and noise but of considerable subtlety as well. His chin is an offshore continent, a kind of Iceland that precedes, the rest of his face and is full of glaciers an dvolcanic activity.

May, the heroine, is a fairly straight part, and difficult to do. Deborah May translates her gestures and expressions back into the 1930s; she is pert, tart and radiant.

Treat Williams is agreeable as Jerry Hyland, the ambitious but ultimately decent boyfriend of Miss May’s. Julia Duffy makes a fine, brassy-haired and brassy-voiced young girl who possesses ambitions for stardom and the total doglike devotion of Mr. Lithgow.

MacIntyre Dixon, Jayne Meadows Allen, Beverly May and Bella Jarrett are all amusing in smaller parts. Jack Straw makes a fine screen bishop, who bets on horses between takes, and the rest of the cast is mostly good, too.

Source: Richard Eder, ‘‘Stage: ‘Once in a Lifetime,’’’ in New York Times, June 16, 1978, p. 237.

The Comic Theatre of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula

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Undoubtedly, Hart was fortunate in that his ‘‘formula’’ had a parallel in the work of George S. Kaufman, with whom he entered into a most fruitful collaboration after the success of Once in a Lifetime. In between, however, he had tested this formula as it buttresses many a musical book or revue sketch. Later, he was less fortunate in seeing fit to extend this formula into some serious works which reflect an ambition for his craft as do his comedies for his career.

Throughout this study distinctions between drama (content) and theatre (drama on stage) are continually made and must be continually understood. Such a distinction is inevitable in considering comedy—which gains so much from performance.

Further, comedy is accepted as [what Robert Lewis Shayon identified as] ‘‘a form of rational discourse, questioning and exposing absurdities and vices.’’ Although the comic form may range from slapstick to verbal gymnastics, Louis Kronenberger, a connoisseur of comedy, identified a consistent characteristic when he writes [in The Thread of Laughter ] that it is ‘‘a trenchant way of regarding life.’’

The nature and the effect of the comic have intrigued the poet and the philosopher from Aristotle to Sigmund Freud. Indeed, the theatre’s comic mask has as many expressions and evokes as many varying responses as there are mirrors of distortion in an amusement park, but in pinning labels on them all, one runs the risk of echoing Polonius’ category of plays.

Moss Hart took to the stage as a writer of comedy at the end of one of its most productive periods, and was highly active during its bleaker period when laughter was a precious commodity and cultural introspection unavoidable. We propose to gauge how Moss Hart met the challenge of his time, his theatre, and the venerable tradition of comedy. Hart’s autobiography ended with the successful premiere of Once in a Lifetime. This study begins with it.

There is little doubt or mystery that Hart’s involvement with Kaufman made a deep effect on his work. An investigation of Hart’s plays can neither neglect Once in a Lifetime nor observe it cursorily. Fortunately, two versions exist: Hart’s original, submitted to Kaufman, and the final, collaborative result. A comparison not only reveals the development of a play from its rough beginnings to a craftily polished stage piece, but it also indicates the authors’ disposition toward the nature of comedy, their audiences, and the demands of their theatre as well. Importantly, a comparative study reveals characteristics repeated in the body of Hart’s subsequent work, whether it be the product of collaboration or of solitary labor. These plays, Once in a Lifetime included, must be viewed partially in light of Hart’s own recorded sentiment concerning an important aspect of his dramatic material:

An audience is not interested in how hard an author has worked at his research, or how much material he has unearthed, and they do not take kindly to his parading in front of the footlights his hard-earned knowledge. They are quite right. They have not come to a school room; they have come to a theatre.

This was the theatre for which he desired to write, an inspiration notably described and detailed in his famous autobiography. Even its title, Act One, becomes particularly interesting in the context of Hart’s lifelong preoccupation with the theatre world. It offers a somewhat tantalizing self-view of the author as a man of the theatre whose life runs like a play, and entices one to investigate the playwright on a psychological level. His plays, coupled with the available library of his personal papers, offer ample evidence that the work was an exceedingly personal extension of the man. . . .

Although Kaufman wrote in a fairly late letter to Hart ‘‘of those twin targets at which I have aimed so many times, business and politics. . . .’’ He too, had an affinity for the theatrical theme which must have contributed to the bond that was established between them with Once in a Lifetime. . . .

Admittedly, it is Kaufman rather than Hart upon whom the spotlight is mainly turned whenever their collaboration is under focus. In his eulogy to Kaufman, Hart admitted his ‘‘debt to George is incalculable.’’ The beginnings of indebtedness would seem to have been established some time before Kaufman ever saw the young Hart’s script, for there is much evidence of the strong influence of Kaufman’s comedies in Once in a Lifetime. This initial influence stimulated Hart into (1) treating a theatrical milieu in (2) a farce frame.

Once in a Lifetime, a Comedy with Sound and Fury by Moss Hart, reads the title page of the script. It bears no copyright date but was written in either September or October of 1929. The garish film industry and its newly found ‘‘sound’’ are the subjects of Hart’s play. This original version of Once in a Lifetime is obviously an apprentice work, but a highly promising one when it is considered that Hart was just past twenty years old, had never visited Hollywood, nor even written a comedy. [The critic adds in a footnote: ‘‘Hart tells us he had already written six serious plays.’’] What it lacks in structure and character development, it compensates for in energy and extravagance, and a sense of parody and satire. It is certainly ‘‘native’’ in its lack of cerebral subtleties, in the popularity of its aggressive farce form, and in its theme of the innocent (a Kaufman analogue) who stumbles his way to success, winning a beautiful bride along the way.

The script is so topical in its theme that the passage of time and the passing of a particular Hollywood era have robbed it of much of its original pertinence. Yet, Hart’s script can claim an abundance of amusing moments and comic invention of situation and character. Although unsatisfactorily episodic in its dramaturgy, it is in its Hollywood caricatures that Hart’s original is the most theatrically telling: Dahlberg, the man who rejected sound, who will not make a film without a ‘‘name’’ no matter how miscast the ‘‘name’’ may be, and to whom everything, regardless of subject, is ‘‘just too colossal,’’ is in performance actually more humorously drawn than a description might indicate. It is the same with the narcissism of the mass-manufactured starlets; the ire of the foreign film director; and the ubiquity of the Hollywood hopeful, auditioning by way of vigorous, kaleidoscopic facial expression whenever important studio personnel appear.

It is of particular interest to note the grandly intense and ‘‘tragic’’ demeanor of the studio receptionist, a pose which anticipates the ‘‘bravura’’ manner of the theatrical and royal folk of the later comedies.

But for all the theatrical heightening and comic absurdity, one repeatedly concludes that the reach exceeds the grasp as one fertile idea after another fails realization in a dramatically sustained way, or is so overdrawn as to blunt the edge of laughter. Repeated promise of genuine satire is lost or weakened amid the general and increasing extravagance.

The impression emerges, at least from a reading of Once in a Lifetime, that the play is a series of comic vignettes held together by a loose narrative rather than a dramatic plot. A lack of development in character treatment accounts for much of this. There is little conflict or story development, since Hart sacrifices narrative for burlesque sequences.

This native facility for ‘‘extravagance’’ can be traced throughout Hart’s work. It contributes not only to the unique character of the comedies, but also to the later theatrical ingenuity of Lady in the Dark and the dramatic weaknesses of Christopher Blake.

Although the intent and spirit of the collaborative version sustains intact those of the original, it may be called an entirely new play in light of its more deliberate comic air and direction. The quality of burlesque remains the same as often does the incident of the original, but the accumulative effect is overwhelmingly superior to Hart’s. This is mainly achieved through the infusion of an obvious theatrical skill and sureness of effect, a more sophisticated narrative, more dimensionalized characters, and smoother dialogue. A filling out of the drama’s connective tissues has been added to Hart’s skele tal schemes. An impression is gained that where Hart worked through intuition and an imitative sense, producing but the healthy embryo of an idea, Kaufman’s theatrical disciplines helped ‘‘humanize’’ it.

Should one, however, find it failing to achieve on a satirical level what it has the potential to achieve, one could predicate of it the following view [expressed by James Agee in Films in Review]:

Farce, like melodrama, offers very special chances for accurate observation, but here accuracy is avoided ten times to one in favor of the easy burlesque or the easier idealization which drops the bottom out of farce. Every good moment frazzles or drowns.

Even this collaborative version of Once in a Lifetime is, essentially, a parody less of Hollywood life and film-making than it is a parody of a typical genre film story, film decor, and the people involved in their production. Although possessed of moments of satire and satirical allusion, it is essentially a sympathetic lampoon.

On the other hand, as a carefully constructed farce containing timely and irreverent allusion, the collaborative version of Once in a Lifetime certainly possesses the merit to be included in the comedies which reflect the American scene as described by Alan Downer [in Revolution in the American Drama]:

Here, in the mockery of the serious, the classic, the formal, and the eventual victory of the much-beaten underdog, is the theatrical equivalent of the tall talk and the comic folk story which reflect so accurately the American temper. Here, waiting for a playwright to put them to use, or give them form or purpose, were the elements of American comedy.

Twenty-four years later, Hart looked over his original script. He recorded his reaction in his journal:

It was quite well constructed, the lines extremely funny, and I think perhaps, if a manuscript like this were submitted to me today, I would have to admit that the author had real talent for the theatre.

In 1954, Moss Hart entered the following observation in his journal:

Again, I was struck by the fact that the three biggest hits of the season—Teahouse Of The August Moon, Tea and Sympathy, and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial—violate almost every theatre rule. It is a lesson that there are no rules whatever about the theatre, but one which is very hard to remember.

Yet, guided by principles of the theatre which had made their Once in a Lifetime a notable success, Hart and Kaufman apparently established a set of rules for themselves which they applied to their joint comedies and to which Hart returned with his Light Up the Sky.

A certain pattern emerges from the merest reading or viewing of these plays, and certain broad judgments are unavoidable. You Can’t Take It with You is the most imaginative and exudes the most warmth and sentiment. Tonally, The Man Who Came to Dinner is reminiscent of the earlier Kaufman satires. It is of superior construction and, by way of Sheridan Whiteside, its caustic and principal role, proves a particularly effective sounding board for Kaufmanesque dialogue. Neither a reading nor viewing can disguise the fact that George Washington Slept Here is the weakest of the group, and strong in evidence that the collaboration was wearing thin or losing fire. Their joint authorship terminated with this play, but the influence of Kaufman thoroughly permeates the writing of Light Up the Sky. Although varying in degrees of accomplishment, the comedies suggest, by their very similarities, that the authors were writing for a theatre they knew and that they knew what that theatre wanted.

Once in a Lifetime proved to be the prime example of a formula constructed earlier by Kaufman and his various collaborators: the successful rise in a jungle world of the helpless innocent almost despite himself. Although such a theme has been replaced in the comedies written with Hart which are under scrutiny here, the formula persists in the theatrical frame and theatrical devices which are common to both.

Source: Richard Mason, ‘‘The Comic Theatre of Moss Hart: Persistence of a Formula,’’ in The Theatre Annual, Vol. 23, 1967, p. 60.

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Critical Overview