Act One (1963)

Moss Hart’s autobiography ‘Act One’, which follows the struggles he and his writing partner George S. Kaufman endured as they guided their play ‘Once in a Lifetime’ through tryouts and rewrites into a Broadway hit, is regarded as one of the best depictions of life in the theatre. Former MGM head Dore Schary not only produced and adapted his friend’s book for the screen, the film also marked his debut as a movie director. If only Schary, a noted screenwriter himself, realised that his script could have also done with a few rewrites before committing the work to film.

 

For there are moments in this movie, from the opening to the penultimate scene, that are wonderfully realised. Simple observations, be it emptying an icebox or pressing a suit under a mattress, establish a time and place with a minimum of fuss. Similarly, the scenes depicting Hart’s relationship with his father and the casting of the play work because of how much is left unsaid. Yet when the film attempts a deliberate light touch, the scenes remain stagnant.

A clash of acting styles is also evident from a cast of familiar faces. When seen against the natural ease of Jason Robards, Eli Wallach and Jack Klugman, the performances of George Hamilton and a young George Segal seem staid and affected.

 

Hamilton later observed that in his adaptation of Moss Hart’s book, Schary de-ethnicized the entire production and took out the brilliance for good measure. Perhaps if he had lived to see the film, Hart may have quoted his writing partner’s remark during a Marx Brothers’ performance of his play 'The Cocoanuts' – “I’m sorry. I just thought I heard one of my original lines.”

cast, George Hamilton, Moss Hart, Jason Robards, George S. Kaufman
George Hamilton
George Hamilton

as Moss Hart

Jason Robards
Jason Robards

as George S. Kaufman

Bert Convy
Bert Convy

as Cary Grant (Archie Leach)

Earl Montgomery
Earl Montgomery

as Alexander Woollcott

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Helen Hayes, Fanny Brice, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George Gershwin

Movie opens in Brooklyn, New York, 1929, with Moss Hart listening to a radio broadcast that mentions former President Theodore Roosevelt talking about his recent trip to Africa. Teddy Roosevelt died in 1919.

Months before ‘Once in a Lifetime’ debuts on Broadway on September 24 1930, Archie Leach advises his friends that he departing for Hollywood. Cary Grant didn’t leave New York until after his role in ‘Nikki’ ended its run on Broadway on October 31 1931.

Bert Convy, Archie Leach, Earl Montgomery, Janet Fox, Leslie Howard

Biopic restages some scenes from Moss Hart's first play 'Once in a Lifetime', which was later adapted into a film.

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