Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Act One (Schary/Warner Bros., 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Act One, a 1963 Dore Schary production, released through Warner Bros. and written and directed, as well as produced, by Schary, based on Moss Hart’s entertaining memoir of his start in the theatre. After having had five of his plays — all serious dramas modeled after the works of Eugene O’Neill — rejected, Hart (George Hamilton) decides to take the advice of his friend and patron Joe Hyman (Jack Klugman) and his sort-of agent Richard Maxwell (Sam Levene) and write a comedy instead. He has no idea what he’s going to do for a comedy plot until he reads an issue of Variety and notes that the featured story in it is the turmoil being caused in Hollywood by the advent of talking pictures. He concocts a story called Once In a Lifetime and drafts a play on it, only to get the runaround from a producer named Warren Simon, who keeps him waiting in the lobby of Simon’s hotel for two days (during which time he’s nearly bitten several times by an obnoxious small dog one of the bellboys is walking for a guest — I kept waiting for the payoff of the gag to be that it’s Warren Simon’s dog, but somehow Messrs. Hart and Schary missed that one).

A friend of his who has a contact with the legendary producer Sam Harris (the man who partnered with George M. Cohan for years, gave the Marx Brothers their first major hit, The Cocoanuts, and was reportedly so wonderful and sweet to everyone that the nastiest thing anyone could ever remember him saying about anybody was in 1933, when the Nazis took power in Germany, about which his comment was, “Hitler is not a nice fellow”) gets Hart’s play a reading in Harris’s office, whereupon Harris’s verdict is he’ll produce it if Hart can get the legendary George S. Kaufman (Jason Robards, Jr.) to rewrite and direct it. Warren Simon tells Hart to be sure to tell Kaufman that he thinks the play is great, whereupon — on his first phone call with the Great Man — Kaufman snarls that he would never in a million years have anything to do with a play Warren Simon liked, and hangs up. Of course Hart is fearful that he’s blown his big opportunity, but Harris mediates and convinces Kaufman that Hart simply was naïve enough to fall for Simon’s nasty trick.

Work starts on the script, accompanied by a lot of bouncy underscoring by Skitch Henderson that doesn’t sound anything like the real pop music of the 1920’s and 1930’s (and the “source” music heard throughout the film is only marginally closer!), and Schary proves utterly unable to make the on-screen act of writing seem dramatic. He may also have been hamstrung by being unable to quote more than snippets of the actual play Hart and Kaufman wrote: Once in a Lifetime was bought by Universal and filmed by them in 1932, and in the early 1970’s PBS showed the film and hailed it as a major rediscovery — then it got stuffed back in the vaults and hasn’t been let out since then! (The actual film of Once in a Lifetime and Act One would make an interesting double bill, and it definitely goes alongside The Power and the Glory and The Man Who Reclaimed His Head among the early-1930’s movies that remain frustratingly unavailable on DVD.) With Kaufman directing and also casting himself as the fictitious playwright in the story, Once in a Lifetime gets an out-of-town tryout in Atlantic City — and bombs; all Kaufman’s changes haven’t been able to fix the weaknesses in the second and third acts. Hart says he started writing the play at a beach and so he takes his notepad and his script to the beach in hopes that lightning, or at least inspiration, will strike twice — and it does; several months later the play premieres on Broadway, is a smash hit, and Hart’s reputation as a playwright is made.

Hart called the book on which the film was based Act One to denote that he wasn’t writing his entire life story — just the start of his career — and it’s full of wonderful Jewish character actors (including an unrecognizable George Segal at the start of his career as Hart’s nihilistic friend Lester Sweyd), and there’s an odd in-joke in the character of “Archie Leach” (Bert Convy), aspiring young actor and friend of Hart’s, who sits in at his lunches at a cheap restaurant (Hart usually ends up paying because he’s the only guy in the circle who’s got a regular job — he’s director of an amateur theatre company sponsored by the — I’m not making this up, you know — “Young Men’s Hebrew Association”!) only to be accosted by one or more girls who remember seeing him at some short-running independent play out in the Village (or somewhere equally obscure), until he laments he’s got a fan club without having wanted one, and at the end he announces to the group that he’s going off to Hollywood, and Hart’s parting shot is, “Don’t let them change your name!” I wonder how many moviegoers in 1963 got it — Archie Leach not only went to Hollywood but became a superstar after he changed his name … to Cary Grant; it would have been easier for the non-cognoscenti to have figured it out if Convy had been able to do a more credible Grant impression (the way Tony Curtis did brilliantly in Some Like It Hot), but here he just sounds like an American trying to talk with rocks in his mouth.

Act One the book I remember as a charming but also thrilling memoir that made the act of writing seem as vertiginously exciting as watching a tightrope walker; Act One the movie is charming but also awfully sentimental (a flaw in Hart’s writing generally; just compare the well-made but sometimes sugary script he wrote for the 1954 version of A Star Is Born to the marvelously acerbic one Dorothy Parker co-wrote for the 1937 original), and George Hamilton doesn’t look particularly Jewish (especially by comparison with the real-life Jews playing his parents, Martin Wolfson and Sylvia Straus!) but he acts the part well enough within limits — Charles commented that Hamilton’s acting skills actually seemed to deteriorate as he got older and lost his boyish good looks! — and the supporting cast is a delight, especially Robards (though one wonders how someone that curmudgeonly could come up with so many great funny lines in his plays!) and Klugman.