The sixth and final screening in our Classics on TV: Great American Playwrights season at BFI Southbank this month is of the fast-paced and sparkling comedy Once in a Lifetime by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. First staged to acclaim on Broadway in 1930, this play satirizes Hollywood at the point in 1927 when talking pictures were on the cusp of becoming a global commercial phenomenon.
Book your ticket on the BFI website here for the 6.10pm screening on Thursday 29 January 2015.
Once in a Lifetime romps delightfully and with enormous energy through the blunders and misadventures of three out-of-work vaudeville performers from New York — Jerry, May and George — who head west to try their luck in Hollywood just as ‘talkies’ are coming into vogue. Having set themselves up as elocution experts for the talking pictures, they are taken on by megalomaniacal movie mogul Herman Glogauer and, at first, can do no wrong. But then it does all go wrong … before it all goes right again! At the play’s end, George, the ‘straight man’ of the trio, is running the studio with his magnificent mistakes being hailed as innovative strokes of genius. This wonderful satire on the excesses of Hollywood’s golden age has, in addition to some strong leading roles, a raft of minor characters whose antics weave further strands of hilarity through this wonderful comedy: there is the New York playwright Lawrence Vail who has a nervous breakdown after being taken on by Glogauer seemingly for no purpose, a pair of silent screen goddesses whose elocution, we discover, leaves much to be desired, and a middle-aged mother who is repeatedly found on set after filming has started, still fussing over her daughter’s costume.
Moss Hart wrote the first draft of the Once in a Lifetime in 1929 and then collaborated with the more experienced playwright George S. Kaufman on a substantial rewrite before it opened in 1930 on Broadway, where it ran for over 400 performances in a production by Kaufman. It was a marked success with both critics and audiences, offering lighthearted distraction from the rigours of economic depression. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that ‘It is all swift shrieking and lethal. It is merciless and fairly comprehensive. If the fun lags a little during the middle sketches, it is only because the first act is so hilariously compact and because the best scenes all the way through are so outrageously fantastico’. A film version was released in 1932 by Universal Studios.
This would be the first of eight major, and extremely popular collaborations between the two men, with later works including Merrily We Roll Along (1934), the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take it With You (1936), I’d Rather Be Right (1937) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Their collaboration, but not their friendship, ended in 1940 owing to Hart’s desire to make a name for himself as an independent talent. Hart’s 1959 memoir Act One contains much detail on Once in a Lifetime as the beginning of a decade of work together; last year the memoir was adapted and directed by James Lapine as a play for Broadway: see the reviews in Vanity Fair and The Washington Post.
In 1937, just a few years after the Broadway production, Eric Crozier produced it for the BBC. Happily a little is known about this production beyond the fact that it received no less than three further live transmissions in the month following its first screening on 6 December. The Listener of 5 January 1938, p. 35 mentions it as one of 1936-37’s ‘outstanding studio productions’ and certainly it garnered some attention for being allocated an unusual ninety minutes in the programme schedule: ‘As far as I can remember’, writes ‘The Scanner’ in the Radio Times, ‘no television producer has yet sat on duty in the control-room for as long as an hour and a half’ (3 December 1937, p. 19).
This anonymous writer continues: ‘From the production point of view, however, Once in a Lifetime won’t be so funny. The “sets”, five different ones, will be prepared and a preliminary rehearsal will be held on Sunday — the first time that such a thing has been found necessary at Alexandra Palace’. But at least the sequences that were set in the Hollywood film studio did not need much dressing: ‘put a “blimp” over an Emitron, and only an expert would know that it was not a film camera. On the screen you will see several of the studio staff doing their best to look like the staff of a film studio’. Filmed across two studios, this production required actors — including Fred Conyngham (Jerry), Joan Miller (May) and Charles Farrell (George) — to race up and down the corridor between them to take up their positions for the live transmissions. The image adjacent was taken at Alexandra Palace during transmission.
There was a further BBC production on 13 December 1953, produced by Ian Atkins and directed by Julian Amyes, but Philip Hope-Wallace, writing in The Listener, doubted that this would be featuring ‘among the ten best television plays of the year’ (24 December 1953, p. 1099). He considered that the production, starring Paul Carpenter (Jerry), Mari Aldon (May) and Michael Balfour (George), had been ‘too ambitious a business, with about twenty-five characters’ but that ‘perhaps, with a good deal more working up, it could all be made to shine again’.
On Christmas Day 1988, the BBC transmitted a new production by Robin Midgely, made in collaboration with WNET, which indeed allowed the play to shine once more. This fast-faced production features splendid comic performances from Kristoffer Tabori (Jerry), Niall Buggy (George) and David Suchet (Glogauer), but Zoë Wanamaker’s more nuanced performance as May brings depth to this comedy of blunders: her sparkling wisecracks resonate with cynical resignation and this is occasionally cut through with momentary flashes of hope for a more joyous and meaningful life, symbolised by the possibility of a relationship with Jerry.
Of course, Wanamaker and Suchet were reprising their roles from Trevor Nunn’s successful RSC production of a few years earlier (and Suchet again played Glogauer in Edward Hall’s 2005 RNT production). Nunn’s 1979 stage production culminated in a glorious fifteen-minute tap-dancing finale; by contrast the television production ended with a witty nod back to the era of silent films, running the (substantial) end credits-with-music simultaneously against an inset showing the action (but not the sound) of George’s latest studio project – a blockbuster set in ancient Egypt.