Monday, May 11, 2020

This Nutty World: The Triple Glories of Kaufman and Hart

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1937.

Moss Hart was an aspiring young playwright, still living in the Bronx with his family and working in the office of a theatrical agent, when he sent producer Sam Harris a copy of his satirical comedy about the talking-picture revolution. Harris liked it but thought it needed a veteran’s knowhow, so he teamed Hart up with George S. Kaufman, the author or co-author of many Broadway hits. The story of Once in a Lifetime, which underwent significant changes during an extended pre-New York tour, was rewritten over the summer and rewritten again before it opened to rave reviews at the end of September 1930, is well-known to theatre buffs because it forms the triumphant final section of Hart’s memoir, Act One. Act One is the best theatrical memoir I’ve ever read – and I’ve read it four times, twice when I staged my own productions of Once in a Lifetime. The play would be my choice for the finest comedy ever written by Americans, with the possible exception of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. Both are hard-boiled comedies, a genre that contemporary playwrights and screenwriters seldom attempt.

The success of Once in a Lifetime began a collaboration between Kaufman and Hart that lasted a decade. It included two other first-rate comedies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning You Can’t Take It with You – certainly their most famous play – in 1936 and The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1939. The titles of the other plays they wrote together are less recognizable, except for their second, Merrily We Roll Along (1934), and most people who know the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, written half a century later, don’t realize that Kaufman and Hart wrote the source material (or, probably, that there was a source). It’s a melodrama with a reverse chronology about three miserable people who were once hopeful young college grads and inseparable friends. But by the time the authors get to that stage in their lives – when we might finally be drawn to the characters – act three is halfway over and we’ve long since stopped caring about the assholes they turned into. (The musical trips over the same self-destructive device, and it was a notorious bomb on Broadway. Yet it keeps getting revived and every time it does, critics find fresh reasons to rediscover qualities in it that continue to elude me.) The American Way (1939) is also a melodrama, this one an attack on fascism; it’s very much of its time, and like every other anti-fascist play or movie written in the late thirties and the forties except perhaps for Casablanca, it has aged badly. The Fabulous Invalid, ominously subtitled A Cavalcade of the Theater, came just before The American Way, in late 1938. It’s a sentimental tribute to the indomitability of the American theatre, and the only distinguished thing about it is its title, a catch phrase for years. Both these plays are unrevivable – not only because they would mean nothing to today’s audiences (The Fabulous Invalid is a pastiche that relied on the memories of middle-aged playgoers) but also because they demand massive ensembles.

Kaufman and Hart also wrote the book for one musical, I’d Rather Be Right (1937), which has a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart and featured George M. Cohan, that grand old man of the American musical stage, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It’s more a series of comedy sketches and songs than a book musical, and it’s not as good as either of the light satires that Hart and Irving Berlin turned out during the early days of the Depression, Face the Music and As Thousands Cheer. But it has some period charm (not to mention the song “Have You Met Miss Jones?”); one can imagine Encores! producing it sometime. The last Kaufman and Hart show, which opened in 1940, was a dim comedy called George Washington Slept Here about a Manhattan couple who buy an antique house in the Pennsylvania countryside. (The movie, with Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan, is even dimmer.)

Bette Davis and Monty Woolley in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942).

Once in a Lifetime burlesques, with merciless precision, the manifold idiocies of Hollywood at a time when the threat of sound – to topple studios and cut off the careers of silent-movie stars – ramped up all the follies and vices of the movie industry: narcissism, greed, extravagance, tastelessness and stupidity, to name a few. The exclusive group at the heart of any hard-boiled comedy, those with a nose for bullshit and an appreciation for the ridiculous, is limited here to three – May Daniels and Jerry Hyland, who weather the death of vaudeville by opting to go out to Hollywood, pretending expertise in “voice culture,” and teaching actors at Glogauer Studios how to talk; and the playwright Lawrence Vail (played by Kaufman in the original production), imported from Broadway along with dozens of others of his ilk, paid an exorbitant salary and then given nothing to do. He and May are kindred spirits (but not a romantic match), though they cross paths just at the moment when he implodes and walks away from Hollywood. (They meet again on an eastbound train near the end of the play – the scene that, according to Act One, solved the play’s dramatic problems at the eleventh hour and transformed it into a solid hit.) Jerry leaves the hard-boiled group for a while, seduced by Hollywood’s excesses, until May rescues him. The dozens of supporting characters are all movie-studio types – a few inspired by celebrities (Sam Goldwyn, Hedda Hopper, Erich von Stroheim), and many others like the headwaiter who pens screenplays, the electricians who write songs, and the receptionist who lounges at her desk, playing with her beads, as if she were Norma Shearer in a drawing-room drama.

You Can’t Take It with You is partly a family play and partly a romantic comedy built around the young aristocrat Tony Kirby Jr.’s courtship of his father’s secretary, Alice Sycamore. Alice comes from a clan of blissfully un-self-conscious non-conformists who pursue their passions; the values-opposed worlds the two lovers hail from provides the tension that romantic comedy thrives on. But though the word is mentioned only once, this is also a Depression play – perhaps the only example of that genre that is entirely comic in tone. (More typical Depression plays are Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost by Clifford Odets and Of Mice and Men, based on John Steinbeck’s novel, which Kaufman staged for Broadway. Kaufman also directed the original productions of all the plays he and Hart wrote together.) Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of the family, who walked out on his corporate job twenty-five year ago because he felt it was robbing him of all the pleasures life offers, and Tony’s ulcerated father, a Wall Street tycoon, present two alternative responses to the travails of the Depression. Grandpa’s values are similar to those of Joe, the main character in another unusual Depression play, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life. Joe drinks in a watering hole on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco all day every day and treats the men and women who stroll in and out of the bar with a wholehearted respect for their dreams, choosing to ignore the realities those dreams evade. But Saroyan’s play is a tragicomedy; the cruel world just outside Nick’s Saloon is beating on its doors, and sometimes, in the form of a sadistic, racist cop named Blick, it bursts in. You Can’t Take It with You never ventures into the dark side of its era; the most serious moment comes when Grandpa and Tony tag-team to point out the waste Mr. Kirby is making of his life and Tony refuses to carry on his dad’s legacy.

The Man Who Came to Dinner has a situation-comedy premise: a celebrated columnist and radio personality named Sheridan Whiteside on a lecture tour, induced against his better judgment to dine at the home of a wealthy small-town Ohio family, is injured when he slips on their front steps.  As a result they have to put him up for weeks – and put up with his irascible temperament and absurd demands. But the play is really a high comedy in which Whiteside, transparently a parody of Kaufman and Hart’s Algonquin Round Table friend Alexander Woollcott, presides over a glittering group of famous friends who pop in and out of the play. (Equally thinly disguised are the play’s versions of Noël Coward and Harpo Marx.) The playwrights capture Woollcott’s trademark mix of epigrammatic and usually insulting wit and suffocating sentimentality, and Whiteside is a marvelous anti-hero even for audiences who have never heard of Woollcott. So the play still gets revived, though not as frequently as You Can’t Take It with You, which last turned up on Broadway in 2014, in a tip-top mounting helmed by James Earl Jones as Grandpa.

Jean Arthur, James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore in You Can't Take It with You (1938).

It’s intriguing that these three plays represent such different comic genres. What they share, however, are lunatic house-of-card scenarios. Events are piled precariously on top of one another, along with eccentric characters who spout hilarious one-liners, but due to the playwrights’ breathtaking acrobatic finesse the structure never tumbles, never even falters. In You Can’t Take It with You the edge-of-chaos mechanics are brought on by Tony’s decision to arrive with his parents for dinner with Alice’s family on the wrong night so that they can see her family for who they really are and not some version that she’s manufactured out of anxiety and desperation.  Naturally it has to be the night Alice’s mother Penny invites a dipsomaniac actress home to read one of her plays and a pair of men from the Justice Department arrest everyone in the house on suspicion of being bomb-building anarchists. The Man Who Came to Dinner is fueled by the onslaught of Whiteside’s flamboyant pals, but the plotline that generates the complications has to do with his nefarious scheme to keep his indispensable secretary, Maggie Culver, from marrying a local newspaperman and deserting him – and her counter-efforts to defuse it. The insanity in Once in a Lifetime is propelled by not one but two dramaturgical treadmills. The first, obviously, is its satirical target, Hollywood. The second is the third member of the vaudeville act, George Lewis, an innocent who is simultaneously oblivious, literal-minded and possessed of a mind that can only recognize one track at a time but follows that track with dogged persistence. He’s also the darling of the gods: everything he does, however idiotic, turns out well. At least it does in Hollywood, which is peopled with such dunderheads and egomaniacs and ass-kissers that George wounds up being proclaimed “that new genius of the films.”

All three of these comedies have been filmed and the two later ones have also been produced on TV. Frank Capra’s 1938 movie of You Can’t Take It with You won the Academy Award, but it’s dreadful; Robert Riskin rewrote it into one of Capra’s insufferable populist screeds, with Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore at his phoniest) standing in for American democracy while Kirby Sr. (Edward Arnold) is a proto-fascist villain whose business practices literally kill the competitor whose company he bankrupts while he prepares to corner the market on munitions (as Hitler marches on Poland, though the movie doesn’t allude directly to European politics). Luckily his soul is saved when Grandpa gets him to play a harmonica duet. (I wonder if people would love these iconic Capra pictures as much as they do if they rattled off the plots.) Only Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, as the lovers, redeem the movie. You’re far better off to chase down the 1979 television version, directed by Paul Bogart, with Art Carney as Grandpa, Jean Stapleton as Penny, and the ineffable Blythe Danner, playing opposite Barry Bostwick, as Alice; it’s the best You Can’t Take It with You I’ve ever seen.

The 1942 film of The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Monty Woolley repeating his stage performance as Sheridan Whiteside, is a little labored but quite pleasurable. Jimmy Durante plays Banjo (Harpo), Reginald Gardner is Beverly Carlton (Coward), and Bette Davis elevates the role of Maggie – which she’s too good for – by bringing her both elegance and emotional authenticity. One wishes that the object of her romantic ardor weren’t that dullard Richard Travis, who never appeared in another high-profile picture, but as Kaufman and Hart wrote it, the role – a true-blue Midwesterner who turns out to be not just a passionate reporter but gifted playwright – is hopeless. Jerry Zaks directed a Broadway revival starring Nathan Lane, which was televised in 2000, and it’s sharper and funnier. Lane may not be quite right as Whiteside, but his line readings and his range of facial reactions – indicating disgust, fury, vengefulness – are delectable. Harriet Harris is miscast as Maggie, but the marvelous supporting cast includes Jean Smart as the movie siren Sheridan employs to tempt the journalist away from Maggie (Ann Sheridan overplayed the part in the movie), Lewis J. Stadlen as Banjo (retooled to evoke Groucho, whom Stadlen has been impersonating for decades) and Byron Jennings in a brilliant parodic turn as Beverly. The movie omits Carlton’s song, “What Am I to Do?,” which Cole Porter wrote to send up Coward’s distinctive style, but you can hear it here, and the rendition by Jennings is one masterstroke in what amounts to a brilliantly accomplished line drawing of Coward.

Once in a Lifetime was filmed in 1932. The movie isn’t especially well directed (by Russell Mack), and the screenwriter, Seton I. Miller, trimmed the text down to an hour and a half. But most of the great Kaufman and Hart dialogue has been retained, the production design is highly entertaining, and the cast, which includes Jack Oakie as George, Gregory Ratoff as the malapropping studio head Herman Glogauer, Louise Fazenda as the columnist Helen Hobart and Zasu Pitts as the brainless receptionist Miss Leighton, appears to be having a wonderful time with the priceless material. Aline MacMahon is ideally cast as May Daniels. She was Kaufman’s original choice for the role, and she played it on the road in the spring of 1930, but when the show was reconvened at the end of the summer Jean Dixon replaced her. Enjoyable as Oakie is, a hard-boiled comedy by its nature rests inevitably on the talents of the actors who play the realist heroes, and MacMahon and Onslow Stevens as Lawrence Vail ground the preposterous, high-flying world of Once in a Lifetime.  This movie, long forgotten, is worth a look. But here’s a caveat: if you look it up on Amazon, the movie of that title adjacent to a photo from the Kaufman and Hart adaptation is some other film entirely. Fortunately you can watch it on Youtube.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment