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"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.
Four years before his death in 1961 Moss Hart wrote his incredibly
successful autobiography Act One where he detailed the story of his
life as the son of a cigar maker until the opening night of his first
Broadway success, Once In A Lifetime. The film skips all of his
childhood and early adulthood and concentrates on the creation of that
first success and the process that went into it.
With Dore Schary producing and directing the film for Warner Brothers it certainly could be said that this was someone who knew the creative process and could empathize with Moss struggling to write that first success, accepting the help of George S. Kaufman who had already achieved success on Broadway as a collaborator with such folks as Morrie Ryskind and Edna Ferber and Marc Connelly. Two heads are often better than one when it's right two heads.
As this was written way before Stonewall, the gay side of Moss Hart was certainly not explored. Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle and they did have two children, but Moss was forever a man on the prowl as any number of Broadway folks could have attested to back in the day. Young George Hamilton may not have looked Jewish, but he certainly gave off some attractive vibes.
With his hair styled as a straight up flat top and a pair of glasses, Jason Robards, Jr. was the spitting image of George S. Kaufman who probably put more wit into the mouths of actors than anyone else in the last century, not to mention some of the offhanded cracks he was credited with. Ruth Ford played a sympathetic first wife who was soon to be an injured innocent party when Kaufman got dragged into Mary Astor's divorce case via her diary. According to her Kaufman had more than wit available in his arsenal.
Eli Wallach puts in an appearance as a producer who was supposed to be based on Jed Harris who was one of the most disliked men on Broadway, the spiritual father of David Merrick later on. He doesn't get much to work with so it's not one of his better portrayals.
You also had to love that delicatessen round-table that included such folks as Jack Klugman, George Segal, and Bert Convy playing a young actor named Archie Leach. As Cary Grant said in His Girl Friday, no one ever heard from him again. Sort of a warm up for Hart of the famous Algonquin round-table where he and Kaufman were charter members.
Moss Hart probably came along at one of the peak times for creativity in the American theater and he became a very big part of it. He also got over his distaste for musicals being associated with quite a few good ones in his time, the last being Camelot. Maybe had he lived we might have seen an Act Two. But his whole life was one big creative process.
Playwright Moss Hart delighted readers with his bestselling memoir of
his early career. But when producer Dore Schary turned the book into a
script after Hart's death, something got lost. This is a bland movie.
While people interested in the literary scene of the 1920s will surely
enjoy watching it, there's not much to enthrall the average viewer.
George Hamilton plays the young Hart, a talented guy with big dreams and little money. His close-knit Jewish family inspires him to push on with his writing career, but his equally penniless friends can sometimes be more discouraging than supportive.
After many disappointments trying to market his plays, Hart gets a foot in the door when the famed George S. Kaufman agrees to collaborate with him. But Hart soon finds that writing as part of a team can be harder than working alone. Jason Robards Jr., as the maddeningly eccentric Kaufman, is the best part of this movie.
"Act One" is about a man's struggle to come up with a good story to tell, but the story it tells is disappointingly weak. Especially in the early portion, it seems more like a series of anecdotes than a narrative. That may be because the film was adapted from a memoir, but a better writer than Schary might have been able to make it flow better.
Besides Kaufman, there are lots of real historical personages portrayed in the film, such as writers Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott and actor Archie Leach, who would later become film star Cary Grant. But they come and go so fast that the effect is often more like name dropping than characterization. Some of them don't even have any lines. (Bert Convy does have a few lines as Leach, but he speaks them without a trace of a British accent.)
Despite its flaws, this picture will appeal to viewers who are really interested in the people and events depicted. Otherwise it's hard to recommend as entertainment. Though it gets considerably better, more intense, toward the end, I suspect that many people won't stay with it that long.
Moss Hart wrote one of the great books on theater, Act One, and here
it's turned into a film starring George Hamilton as Hart. The film also
features Jason Robards as George S. Kaufman, Eli Wallach as a producer,
George Segal as Hart's friend Lester, Sam Groom as a student, Ruth Ford
as Mrs. Kaufman, Jack Klugman as a good friend to Moss, and Bert Convy
as "Archie Leach," another friend, whom film fans know became Cary
The story goes from Hart's days as a young, serious playwright to the Broadway opening of Hart's first play, "Once in a Lifetime," co-written with George S. Kaufman. They became one of the finest Broadway writing teamsin theater history.
George Hamilton is a handsome man who has become a wonderful parody of himself and his tan in later years. He was never really much of an actor though he does an okay job here. Someone certainly thought a lot of his looks here - he is photographed in closeup with a special light in his eyes, the kind designed for Dirk Bogarde in the '50s.
I don't know if Dore Schary, the director, had a limited budget or what, but casting Bert Convy as Cary Grant was such an insult to probably the biggest male film star of all time. Convy was nice looking, but he made no attempt at an accent. The problem is, it was too small a part to cast someone like John Gavin. The rest of the performances were fine, but Jason Robards as Kaufman was a true standout. Wallach didn't have much to do.
The film has been criticized for being too sentimental. I didn't find it sentimental, I found it unexciting, when there's probably nothing more exciting than preparing a show for Broadway. It's possible that the book wasn't really adaptable as a movie. It's hard to make writing exciting on screen. Hart was a huge talent who wrote some fabulous plays. I just don't think that somehow, his story made for an impressive film.
The movie, unlike the weighty memoir upon which it was based, is a
typical showbiz-in-the-1920s yarn about a young man making it big on
Broadway in spite of his own insecurity and the many setbacks in the
production of his first play. It is satisfying as such, with memorable
performances by Jason Robards as the grumpy genius George S. Kaufman,
Bert Convy as the struggling Archie Leach, and Eli Wallach as a Jed
Harris-like obnoxious producer, and many other cameos of well known
actors playing legendary New Yorkers of the day.
George Hamilton was too suave, too dapper, and just too damn pretty to be all that convincing as Moss Hart, but he was at his peak here, and he does a pretty good acting turn.
The story is predictable, but the movie still works, depicting a legend in an industry that loves legends about itself. There is a show playing in New York now based on the same material, and it is a huge hit. Maybe it portrays more of the poverty and the agony from which the real Moss Hart sprang, I don't know; but this movie hardly attempts to do that. Instead it gives us another fantasy of a time and place we love to think about and a life we would love to live. If you're not interested in that, this movie is not for you.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In this movie, the play seems to falter with the 2nd act, even after 2
The first part of the movie is quite good as Moss Hart writes a comedy and tries to get people to sign on to it. The problem is when they do sign on and that problem with act 2. At least, we hear that the play itself provides for the foundation of whether or not it shall be successful. The thespians and others involved in the production are only of secondary importance.
George Hamilton, as Moss Hart, is terribly miscast here. We possibly needed a Dustin Hoffman for the role.
The ending is really a slap in the face of the life he had led prior to his success.
I am an actress and the book "Act One" is one of my favorites and a must-read for every actor, director, producer, etc. I know. The kind of book I re-read every 5 years or so. This movie was a disgrace. Although it had some good actors in it: Jason Robards, Jack Klugman, George Segal. Just awful and a slap in the face to the great Moss Hart. Bert Convy as "Archie Leach", a.k.a. Cary Grant and no English accent? What was that? Also, Moss Hart's family lived in grinding poverty and that was not shown accurately. The apartment they lived in looked much too nice. One of the many horrible things about it was the score! Intrusive, inappropriate, childish. Shame on you, Skitch Henderson!
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