Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Once in a Lifetime (Universal, 1932)

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

The night before last Charles and I had screened a quite interesting, if rather obscure, movie from the early 1930’s: Once in a Lifetime, the film adaptation of the George S. Kaufman-Moss Hart play from 1930 that lampooned Hollywood in the early years of the talkies. I’d been interested in seeing this (again; I had caught it on PBS in the 1970’s in what was ballyhooed as a major rediscovery, before the film just disappeared again!) after seeing Act One, the 1963 film based on Moss Hart’s autobiography, which told the story of how he came to write Once in a Lifetime and Sam H. Harris accepted it for production if he could get the far more experienced and well-known Kaufman to rewrite it with him and direct the production. The movie was one of those stage-writers’ spoofs of Hollywood that made the movie business seem terminally silly — the running gag is that even the most stupid mistakes of a boy-wonder studio executive are hailed as manifestations of genius — that the film was prefaced by a written foreword by Universal’s owner, Carl Laemmle, stating, “When I bought the motion picture rights to Once in a Lifetime, the stage play which so mercilessly and hilariously poked fun at Hollywood and its motion picture people, the critics said I would not dare make use of its best material on the screen. It was too funny, they said, and it would make the world laugh at us! I pity the man who cannot enjoy a laugh at his own expense.”

Ironically, both the New York Times and Variety complained that some of the original wisecracks were bowdlerized or omitted altogether in the film (inevitably, given the typical 2 ½-hour length of a three-act play in 1930 versus the 90 minutes available for the film version), though the biggest surprise in the movie today for anyone who’s read Act One or seen the movie based on it is, contrary to the impression Hart left that the first act jelled really easily while the second and third acts still needed work practically to the moment of the New York premiere, the film actually gets considerably funnier as it goes along. The film opens with a marquee advertising The Jazz Singer (mistakenly called an all-talking film in the dialogue — it was actually a part-talkie with two dialogue scenes and six songs) — itself an oddity because it was unusual in 1932 for one studio even to acknowledge the existence of a film made by another — and then cuts to a vaudeville theater where, because of competition from talking pictures, almost no one has shown up to see the trio of George Lewis (Jack Oakie, top-billed), May Daniels (Aline MacMahon) and Jerry Hyland (Russell Hopton) perform. After their last performance, Jerry goes to see The Jazz Singer at a late-night showing and comes back convinced that the way to salvage their fortunes is to abandon their vaudeville act (which he actually sells to another performer to finance their trip!) and go to Hollywood. He’s not sure what they should do there, but he’s sure they’ll think of something. May remembers an elocution class she once took and suggests they set themselves up as voice teachers, coaching the stars of the silent screen in how to act with their voices.

On the train they meet an ex-vaudevillian, Helen Hobart (Louise Fazenda, funny though hardly used to her best capacity), who’s become a leading movie gossip columnist; and Lawrence Vail (Onslow Stevens, playing a part Kaufman played himself in the original stage production), a frustrated screenwriter who laments the writer’s lot in Hollywood: he’s signed up, offered a fantastic sum of money, ensconced in an office on the studio lot — and then never sent for or given any actual work. For Kaufman, who had never been to Hollywood before he worked on the play — though he’d worked on the script of the Marx Brothers’ film The Cocoanuts, based on the script he and Morrie Ryskind wrote for them as a stage show, since that film was shot in New York — this was a peculiar case of life imitating art: when he was brought out to Hollywood to write another Marx Brothers’ project, A Night at the Opera, he was given an office at MGM and for nearly a year had no contact with anyone in the studio except the anonymous page who shoved his paycheck under his office door every week. Kaufman eventually got bored and decided to walk out on the studio and take a three-month vacation — and when he returned, everything in his office was exactly as he had left it and the only difference was three months’ more paychecks shoved under his door in the interim. A month later, he was finally summoned by MGM production chief Irving Thalberg — and he showed up with no one at the studio the wiser about where he’d been in the meantime!

Vail mentions that the person the vaudevillians are going to Hollywood to see, Herman Glogauer of the Glogauer studios, turned down the Vitaphone (so did a lot of real-life Hollywood moguls who didn’t see any point in adding sound to pictures!) — and Lewis, whose name is now prefaced by “Dr.” because he’s posing as a voice specialist (as which he and his comrades have already failed and been fired), repeats Vail’s anti-Hollywood tirades to the face of Glogauer (Gregory Ratoff) himself, thereby gaining an instant reputation as a genius and winning a job as a production supervisor. He gets to work on a movie directed by the studio’s top director, Rudolf Kammerling (Gregory Gaye), and he’s even able to cast the female lead with Susan Walker (Sidney Fox), a pretty but singularly untalented actress he met on the train and instantly became infatuated with. Lewis starts shooting his film and just about everything goes wrong — the Indian nuts he’s constantly cracking open and eating make clicking noises on the soundtrack, two days’ worth of scenes end up totally dark because he forgot to tell the technicians to turn on the lights, and at the end of the film Glogauer finds out that instead of shooting the backstage story he was supposed to be making, he mistakenly shot a 1910 script originally made with Florence Lawrence and Maurice Costello.

Then the film is previewed — and the reviews are raves, with the critics saying it’s about time Hollywood made something that wasn’t a backstage story, the clicking on the soundtrack is an interesting effect that adds tension to the drama, and the scenes played in total darkness are a refreshing bit of subtlety and artistry in the movies. Even Lewis’s other boners — like blowing up all Glogauer’s silent stages to make room for soundstages (which Glogauer orders filmed for special-effects sequences, anticipating David O. Selznick burning down his backlot at the start of Gone With the Wind — thus clearing the space for the new sets he needed and also creating a spectacular fire sequence used to represent the burning of Atlanta) and buying 2,000 airplanes for the studio in order to get one free for himself (which turns out to be a great move when aviation pictures become the newest rage — no doubt Kaufman and Hart were thinking of the similarly extravagant Howard Hughes and Hell’s Angels here — and, since Glogauer owns all the airplanes in town now, he can make back twice what he paid for them by selling them to other studios) — just add to his reputation and his “genius.”

Once in a Lifetime is a great movie (though Singin’ in the Rain remains the best film about the transition from silent to sound) that gets better as it goes along, and particularly after it moves from the dull opening act (one wonders if the characters will ever get out of that damned train!) to the parts that actually lampoon Hollywood and moviemaking. It could have used a stronger director than Russell Mack (what a pity Universal didn’t put Preston Sturges, then working on the lot as a journeyman screenwriter but with a burning itch to direct, on it!) and possibly a better cast (imagine Groucho Marx in one of the key male roles and ZaSu Pitts, stuck in the minor role of Glogauer’s secretary, in the MacMahon part), but Seton I. Miller’s script preserves the loony wisecrackery of a George S. Kaufman (alone or in collaboration; just about everybody who worked with him ultimately developed his sense of humor) script and the movie is great fun.