18 September 2011 | mgconlan-1
Charming but too sentimental
"Act One" was 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.
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.) 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). "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.