Cast & Crew
With the extraordinary success of the talking motion picture The Jazz Singer , hardly anyone remains interested in attending the vaudeville act of Jerry Hyland, May Daniels and George Lewis. To take advantage of the new craze for talking pictures, the three leave New York for Hollywood to open an elocution and voice culture school before the panic-stricken "Broadway bunch" get there. On the train, May meets an old trouper, Helen Hobart, who has become the top movie gossip columnist, and introduces George as Dr. Lewis, the head of England's best voice culture school. In actuality, George is a somewhat dimwitted and naïve individual, who exasperates his partners by perpetually cracking Indian nuts as he quotes from the trade papers. The vain Miss Hobart is captivated when George quotes from her own column, and she suggests that together they open a school by approaching studio mogul Herman Glogauer, who, because he turned down the opportunity to obtain the Vitaphone, the system used to make The Jazz Singer , is now buying everything that comes before him. Also on the train is Susan Walker, a budding, but also dimwitted, ingenue, with whom George becomes infatuated. At the Glogauer studio in Hollywood, when George reminds Glogauer that he turned down the Vitaphone, something no one has dared mention to him, Glogauer, impressed by George's boldness, agrees to allow the three to teach his beautiful starlets, who cannot speak well. After a short period of time, however, the three are fired when the starlets fail to improve. George meets New York writer Lawrence Vail in the studio's waiting room and listens carefully to Vail's tirade against the studio for making hokum and for having hired him only to keep him unoccupied for months. When George repeats Vail's tirade to Glogauer, Glogauer again is impressed, and he makes George a supervisor in full charge of all productions. George hires Susan for the lead role in the next picture and arranges for May and Jerry to assist him. During the shooting, George keeps cracking his Indian nuts, oblivious to the sound he is creating, and one scene is taken in dim lighting because Jerry forgot to order the lights turned on. Impressed that the film is on schedule, Glogauer arrives for the shooting of the final scene to present George with a solid gold dinner set that has George's initials in diamonds on each piece. However, Glogauer discovers, to his horror, that George has mistakenly been shooting from a script for a 1910 Biograph film that starred Florence Lawrence and Maurice Costello, which, in Glogauer's opinion, was no good even in 1910. Glogauer initiates a new ruling that for every story produced, someone has to read the script and, after taking back the dinner set, fires George, May, Jerry and Susan. May, who has been in love with Jerry, but believes that he has lost interest in her, takes the train back east. She is astonished to read in the newspapers that George's film is highly praised as a "turning point in the industry." The constantly knocking on the soundtrack, from George's nutcracking, is thought to be the beat of hail on the roof, an inspired touch reminiscent of the beating of the tom-toms in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones . The dimly lit scene is thought to be lit superbly, and George is hailed as a new genius of films. When she receives a telegram from George, asking her to come back because Jerry has gone and he is all alone, May returns. George now has a picture of himself that lights up above his door. May learns that Jerry fought with Glogauer after she left and then felt that nothing else mattered but finding her. They reconcile, and when Glogauer learns that George has bought 2,000 airplanes in order to get one free, he at first is outraged, but then realizes that airplane pictures are the trend, and the other studios, in need of them, will pay double the price for the ones George purchased. The studio's silent stages are soon dynamited.
Frank La Rue
What did they have to go and make pictures talk for? Things were going along fine. You couldn't stop making money - even if you turned out a good picture you made money.- Herman Gloguaer
The film begins with the following title signed by Carl Laemmle, President of Universal Pictures: "When I bought the motion picture rights to Once in a Lifetime, the stage play which so mercilessly and so hilariously poked fun at Hollywood and its motion picture people, the critics said I would not dare make use of its best material on the screen. It was too funny, they said, and it would make the world laugh at us! I pity the man who cannot enjoy a laugh at his own expense. So I decided that if I could make the world laugh in times like these, it would be a great thing to do. I now leave it for you to judge whether I have spared the movies in translating the great stage success to the screen." New York Times remarked concerning the relation of the film to the stage production that "much of the caustic humor of the stage work has been retained, but here and there some of the sting in the original has been taken out....Many of the lines have been whittled down to the bone, but others are spoken virtually as they were in the play." Variety commented, "The play has been roughened and hoked up for the celluloid version. Some of the bits have been Sennettized and some of them toned down or deleted altogether." The play was the first of eight on which George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart collaborated. According to modern sources, Hart, who wrote the first draft of the play before teaming up with Kaufman, got the idea for it while he was watching a play that Kaufman co-wrote. Neither Kaufman nor Hart had been to Hollywood before they wrote the play. In the Broadway production, Kaufman, who had never acted professionally before, played the character "Lawrence Vail." In 1988, BBC-TV in association with WNET produced a television adaptation of the play, directed by Robin Midgley and starring Zoe Wanamaker, Niall Buggy and Kristoffer Tabori.