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Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Race To Tackle Talkies


Once In A Lifetime (1932) Sticks It To The Movies


Down-and-out vaudevillians figure to scam Hollywood with a voice elocution school now that talkies have swept the industry. At times clever when not smug, this came off a play that skewered an art form that Easterners did not consider art. Carl Laemmle gave himself the back-pat for adapting the comedy and standing for ridicule of his bread-butter, though Once In A Lifetime is less acid than broadest of lampoon. Where it's Jack Oakie trying to breach studio walls manned by Gregory Ratoff, where is chance of filmland being seriously maligned? Funnier if you know the context, so it helps to be a dyed-in-wool old movie buff. Details are flavorful --- a train ride sees everyone, plus seats and baggage, caked with dust from open windows, but close them and you'll suffocate, so where was glamour in those cross-country treks? Once In A Lifetime posits that no one in studio power is competent, success always a product of dumb luck. To that goal, Oakie comes well-equipped.






Vaudeville is presented from an opening scene as deadest of formats, California an only option for performers who wanted to eat. Those who make the move are fakers to a man/woman, each reinventing themselves as something they're not. Interesting is this closed society knowing one another from way back, so pretense is dropped when reunions are had, as when Aline MacMahon of the bogus talk school meets self-styled columnist Louise Fazenda who used to work stock in the stix. All this rings of authenticity, as we assume anyone who was in variety long enough knew everyone else who trod the same boards. Star interviews would bear this out, many if not most biz friendships grown from years on the road before movies beckoned. Everyone who hits big, or not, is presumed to have come from humblest beginnings, eaten dust in the same rail cars. I doubt Hollywood was much bothered by class conflict, since most if not all populace knew the same scramble up from nothing.

12 Comments:

Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I saw ONCE IN A LIFETIME eons ago on public television, which claimed it was a lost film. I suppose it was lost in the same way ANIMAL CRACKERS and YOU'RE TELLING ME! were lost, still existing on film but withheld from circulation. Even now, ONCE IN A LIFETIME can't get a break: when I looked on Amazon to see if Universal Vault had released it, Amazon's title and description are for the 1932 movie, but the reviews are for a documentary about soccer!

Anyway, the only thing I remember about the movie was studio boss Herman Glogauer, and I don't even remember Ratoff as Glogauer. Just the name. And this is coming from a guy who would faithfully watch Oakie and other Paramount stars on late-night TV each time they came around (DUDE RANCH, anyone?)

So thank you, John, for the thoughtful piece and for reminding us of this rarity.

8:32 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I remember the public television broadcast you mention, Scott, maybe around 1973-74. I was surprised at the time to see such a rarity turn up; it was the only time I got to see the film until years later when a few 16mm prints got out. That was sometime in the mid-80's. It would be nice if someone like Kino or Shout! would license the film for Blu-Ray release, as there have been a lot of Universal titles on their schedules of late (THE SPOILERS and PITTSBURGH are recently from Kino, and both look very nice).

10:03 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

https://ok.ru/video/836675373710

10:29 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

I missed that '70s PBS airing, and I have accordingly never seen the movie of ONCE IN A LIFETIME. What a tantalizing post! You do make the picture sound most enticing. This must have some distinct legal issues; I don't remember this ever airing in syndication.

I loved the little Joie ad mentioning "Last Day! THE OLD DARK HOUSE." ONCE, of course, is out of circulation, and HOUSE was for many years impossible to see. I can only imagine the Joie lobby featuring posters for NIGHT FLIGHT... and heralds for a special "silent series" reviving old classics LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT and THE PATRIOT!

Regards,
-- Griff

11:04 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Moss Hart's autobiography, ACT ONE, ends with the triumphant Broadway opening of ONCE IN A LIFETIME. I don't recall any mention of the movie version, although he did include anecdotes about other later moments in his career.

Growing up poor and never getting far from New York, Hart wrote the original play with no experience of Hollywood whatsoever -- just what he gleaned from the press. His eventual collaborator, the already famous George S. Kaufman, probably added some first-hand color from eminent buddies whom were lured west. Kaufman not only directed the original play, but appeared in it as a famous writer being paid to sit and wait. A little later P.G. Wodehouse caused an uproar in studio boardrooms by joking about how little he was asked to do in exchange for a huge weekly paycheck.

There was a movie version of ACT ONE in the 60s, starring George Hamilton as Hart and Jason Robards Jr. as Kaufman. It was written and directed by Dore Schary, the former MGM boss who knew Hart when they were both ambitious nobodies. It was not successful.

A few years ago there was a lavish Broadway version of ACT ONE (not a musical, but scaled like one) starring Tony Shalhoub. He narrated as Hart in the 1950s, and doubled as Hart's father and as Kaufman. It ran on PBS's Great Performances.

Neither the movie nor the play seems to be readily available. Either might make for a nifty double feature with OIAL.

2:31 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I have an "unauthorized" copy of the film on DVD. It is absolutely one of my all-time favorite plays, but is more or less unproduceable nowdays because of its mammoth cast.

I saw a superb production of it at the Mark Taper Forum in rep with (of all things) "Too Much Johnson." It was wonderful.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Dr. OTR said...

I've been watching the early Fleischer Popeye shorts recently. Consequently, I can't see any reference to Zazu Pitts without immediately thinking of Olive Oyl.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

ONCE IN A LIFETIME aired 2/11/71 on the pre-PBS "NET Playhouse.'' This appears to be the one and only US television broadcast.

10:17 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I saw a nice, spiffed-up print of ONCE IN A LIFETIME at the Museum of Modern Art maybe a year and a half back. Based on the reputation of the play, I hoped for more from the movie. It was good, some laughs, nice cast (especially Aline MacMahon and Zasu Pitts), but it was a bit of a disappointment overall. Good, not great. Amusing, not riotous. Still, glad to have seen it.

3:03 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I saw the PBS broadcast of it, and in the introduction they claimed that the film hadn't been shown publicly since 1932! Really?

11:55 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Looks like I'm not the only one who saw that PBS airing nearly 40 years ago. And I remember nothing of it, other than being mildly disappointed.

10:52 AM  
Blogger tmwctd said...

Saw this movie in a New York revival house about 30 years ago. Years later, the show was done off-Broadway and it was a hoot, especially Larry Bryggman as Glogauer...

10:34 AM  

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