George S. Kaufman: Glorified Script Doctor

Today is the birthday of George S. Kaufman (1889-1961) I am going to shock and probably affront some of my readers by saying I really don’t dig him much at all.

I’ve had plenty of exposure to his work. I’ve read and/or seen most of his plays, including dozens more in addition to the ones I write about below. And I find his reputation for brilliance bewildering. Embracing him is to me a symptom of theatrical dilettentism. Kaufman’s reputed “wit” strikes me as a fallacy , compared to scores of people I can think of: Shaw, Wilde, most of his Algonquin cohorts, Woody Allen, on and on and on. That famous “quip” of his about the Marx Brothers (so famous that every amateur, newbie and yahoo on earth feels compelled to quote it) about how he “heard one of his original lines” during a performance of The Cocoanuts had strong justification. Your original lines, Mr. Kaufman, were hackwork. If there is a genius involved in The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera and A Day at The Races, it is Groucho, not you.

Kaufman’s strengths weren’t as a playwright but as a show doctor and director…natural extrapolations from his original position as critic for the New York Times. In and of himself, he is at best half a playwright, and only as good as his collaborators. I have found that I like some of the plays tolerably well, I suppose—usually the ones he wrote with Edna Ferber, which would indicate to me the contribution was mostly Ferber’s. She was a real writer. I tend to think the stronger voice in most of Kaufman’s plays is that of the collaborator. Kaufman’s contribution was as architect and editor—having been a theater critic for so long, he probably had a lot of impatience for the hackneyed. Most of the plays, to their credit, seem organic and original in large part, not relying on stock business. No doubt he also threw in some funny lines and some of the workaday dialogue. He still doesn’t impress me as much of a writer though, compared to the likes of Shaw, O’Neill, Odets: real writers. According to accounts, Kaufman was a very good director (He directed many important productions including some of his own, but also the original productions of The Front Page, Face the Music, Of Mice and Men). His talent seems not to be for words, but for creating characters and moving them through situations, which is only the most barebones part of the playwright’s job. Obviously, he was a Broadway phenomenon—he dominated the theater for decades. But it’s hard to say he made much of a contribution to the theater as an art form, and any influence he had has to be counted as unfortunate, in light of the possibilities the theater can offer us.

Having said that, I will now proceed to take it all back. Here are some random thoughts about some of his better known plays. When I go back and re-read them I find that most of the impressions seem to be positive. I call half a dozen of them my “favorites”! (But they’re not the ones you might expect).

The Royal Family (1927) (with Edna Ferber) One of my favorites of his. Characters loosely based on the Barrymores and the Drews. Ethel Barrymore was asked to play in it, but found it too close to home and actually considered suing. It’s about a family of hams (always funny), always making cracks about each other. Two of them briefly retire for love but of course come back to the fold. It ends, poignantly on the debut of an infant, and the passing of the matriarch. I find this a vastly more amusing “crazy family” than the one in You Can’t Take it With You.

June Moon (1929) (with Ring Lardner) Based on a Ring Lardner short story. Very funny and infectious though one can see—again—that it’s mostly Lardner, with Kaufman merely shaping the material. A small town hick moves to NYC to be a tin pan alley lyricist. On the way, he meets a small town girl, equally simple, and they really hit it off. They seem made for each other. In NYC, the songwriter collaborates with a songwriter who’s had one hit, and supplies him with words to a new song that becomes a hit. Along the way he gets taken advantage of by the partner’s predatory sister in law, who spends all his money, and they’re about to be married. In the end of course, she is exposed for the gold-digger she is, and the hero goes back with his true girl.

Once in a Lifetime (1930, with Moss Hart) An amusing satire about Hollywood and an interesting contemporary chronicle about the death of silent pictures and vaudeville, and the birth of talkies. A failing vaudeville trio goes to Hollywood  masquerading as vocal coaches. When the charm of the gambit fails (nothing is a hit in vaudeville for more than 5 minutes), the stupidest of the three has the good luck to tell the head of the studio off to his face (which the boss finds refreshing) and is made production supervisor. As supervisor, he does everything wrong, but all of his mistakes turn out to be the right decisions and he is a smash hit.

Of Thee I Sing (1931, with Morrie Ryskind) How on earth does this play deserve a reputation as a “satire”? above all, how does it rate a Pulitzer Prize? Do they give them out with boxes of Cracker Jacks? I concede that the plot is “satirical”: a presidential campaign based entirely on a candidate’s personal life, specifically romantic love. A beauty contest is held; the candidate is supposed to marry the winner. Instead, he goes with his heart and marries a girl he just happened to meet. The contest winner makes a scandal. The president (he won the election) is going to be impeached, but then his wife gives birth to twins, saving the day. The contest winner marries the vice president.

The moment-to-moment humor of the play is so weak, vague and inoffensive that it doesn’t qualify as honest-to-god political satire in any way, shape or form. They are the sort of jokes that a Republican Rotarian might make, chiefly at the expense of the vice presidency, or of the “these darn politicians don’t even know how to do their jobs” variety…the sort of noncommittal remarks strangers make to each other in the barber shop. Pedestrian and safe.

Dinner at Eight(1932, with Edna Ferber) This is probably my favorite play that has Kaufman’s name on it. The premise is comic – a dinner party in which every conceivable aspect goes wrong. But it takes it much farther…just about everything that goes wrong is tragic: a suicide, a man with only a few days to live, an old family business failing, a fist fight over a girl, bigamy, adultery, financial swindle, a young girl’s disillusionment and dissipation. In light of all this, all the main character is concerned about is her dinner party! It is melodramatic and implausible of course, but it still works on the level of art. I prefer such formalism to realism anyway. I also like this particular structure – the “leading up to some big event” structure. I saw the film version for the first time years ago in the BEST way possible. I happened to be at MOMA, and saw that it was about to start, and so dropped in. What a pleasant surprise!

Roman Scandals  (musical, 1933). George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood. Very funny and charming musical full of funny one-liners and funny songs for Eddie Cantor (this was his vehicle on both stage and screen), “Build a Little Home”, “Be Young and Beautiful” among them. Eddie is a shlub who works in a museum who dreams he goes back to ancient Rome and becomes a slave name Oedipus. Rome is depicted as a decadent, cruel and terrifying place…essentially a totalitarian state. This fuels the humor and also provides great dramatic tension. Oedipus is made royal food-taster to the emperor, whom of course the empress is trying to poison. While this show obviously draws from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it ended up being influential itself. It is literally the basis for the Roman section of Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One. The premise was also used by the Three Stooges for one of their late features—undoubtedly others have used it as well. (Think of the anachronistic jokes in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum)

Merrily We Roll Along (1934, with Moss Hart) I like this a lot better than a lot of his plays. It is full of funny lines and characters but has a quality of melancholy and irony that gives it greater depth and is more rewarding. It tells of the gradual corruption of a young playwright by fame and fortune, but it tells it backward, anticipating Pinter’s Betrayal by four decades. The title is ironic, obviously.

Stage Door(1936) (with Edna Ferber) Set in a boarding house for struggling actresses…almost a sorority feel, with about fifteen women running in and out, going to work and going on dates. Some despair that they never get work (one commits suicide). Some work. One becomes a famous Hollywood star. The heroine of course is the one who is spoken of as the best actress, and sticks to her guns in the theater. She turns down Hollywood’s siren call twice: once when she passes her screen test and a studio wants her to be a contract player, and a second time when her boyfriend, an Odets-like socialist playwright, gets a contract and invites her to go with him. She remains in the theater despite the struggle. In the end, she gets a great part in an important play. One admires the sentiment that one should stick to artistic ideals, of course. There are several things wrong with that notion as presented in this play, however.  Cinema as an art form is not inferior to theater, particularly the commercial theater, which happens to be the form in which Ferber and Kaufman are writing. This very play is as different from art theater as any Hollywood movie (which it also became). SUCCESS — not Hollywood — is the bugaboo that prevents one from doing one’s best work. One must fight against its temptations. When one is starving, one is balls to the walls to be as excellent as possible – and one has the freedom to do so with no interference from the numbskulls who spend all their time making money, which any fool can do. But, beyond that, one should do whatever makes one happy. I can’t think of anyone, ultimately, who wants to make art and not be a success. Does success kill art? Sometimes. But starvation kills YOU.

You Can’t Take it With You (1936, with Moss Hart) One of the best known, most produced plays in America. I played Grandpa in high school and loved it…but I have come to dislike it. Its chief virtue is a well thought-out three act structure…the acts rise and fall like beautiful, perfect waves. It also has a strong theme: dueling visions of America…eccentric idealists (cranks, artists, inventors, non-conformists) vs. success, money and status-mad materialists. This is really what accounts for the play’s popularity—it stirs powerful emotions. The characters are lovable, but two dimensional and there are perhaps a handful of funny lines. Why have I grown to hate it? It’s without wit, real profundity or poetry. The romantic scenes are unbelievably hackneyed.

Frank Capra changed the script substantially when he made a movie out of it a couple of years later. He turned it into an unmistakable Frank Capra vehicle. He turned the heat WAY up on the greed part. In the play it is more an issue of conformism vs. non-conformism…one almost seems invited to take the Kirby’s point of view. Capra creates a whole sub-plot where Kirby is a munitions manufacturer, poised to seize the monopoly. Not only that, but he needs to acquire several city blocks for the property, and the soul remaining hold-out is…Grandpa Vanderhof! Not only that but Tony is poised to be the company’s next President. Etc etc. He takes care to insert the faces of the hungry, as in Mr. Deeds. It is almost a different creature from the play in certain ways. I enjoy it,. But not completely.

A problem I have with BOTH versions is that I do not find the family eccentric enough. Sure, there are a lot of them, but the things they do and say are so CAUTIOUSLY conceived, as though written by a highly unimaginative mind. I can’t tell if it’s that I have been ruined by living among eccentrics for decades, or if the times also make those choices from 70 years ago seem mild…or if I’d been alive in 1936 I’d find it tame, too. If I had to solve this problem with the play as is, I would take great care to cast the strangest, weirdest people I could find and direct them to behave accordingly. An even better strategy: rewrite the whole story with a modern sensibility. It is a very strong plot and theme: by rewriting it from a modern perspective, one could have a hit!

The American Way (1939, with Moss Hart) Well…a very commendable and patriotic play…I’m a little surprised that these Broadway sophisticates actually produced such a thing. It’s downright corny. The tale of a poor German immigrant who immigrates to Ellis Island, becomes the top furniture manufacturer in the country, loses his son in the first world war (fighting against his own people), loses everything in the depression and then dies trying to break up a Nazi meeting his grandson is attending. All the while he staunchly defends this country and its freedoms. I adore the arc and the subject matter of this play – it’s right on the money. The execution is somewhat wanting. It partakes of that downright embarrassing technique of telegraphing us the time periods we are passing through by having anonymous characters breeze by having conversations like “Say, I hear those new Wright Brothers went up in an airplane!” But I wouldn’t be at all unhappy to have an assignment to ADAPT this play, say, for the screen, taking out all that crap and keeping the core story arc of the German immigrant.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939, with Moss Hart) I’ve always hated this play. The main character is so irritating and detestable that, if it were my house, the play would be over in five minutes. I’d kick the [expletive deleted] out and break the rest of his bones in the bargain. I don’t know why I have such a violent reaction to it. It has something to do with the injustice of a man’s house being taken over by a stronger and more powerful personality. Kauffman and Hart apparently identify only with the Hollywood and Broadway aristocrats who invade this house…they have no concern for the people who actually own the house. The latter are actually somewhat minor characters and presented, if anything, as sort of “bad guys” trying to cramp Whiteside’s style. They are normal and ordinary and therefore inconsequential. It’s actually the ultimate emblem of why the majority of Americans hate and detest NYC and Hollywood. If I were to do my take on this story, that’s what it would be about. I’ve always hated it thoroughly because ordinarily I don’t get past the first 15 minutes (of reading or watching the movie—in the theater, I have no choice). Actually, the Whiteside character becomes more sympathetic as the play goes on. He is kindest to the people at the bottom…the servants, and the kids. But ultimately the play is incestuous. These guys writing about their famous friends, and showing how funny their famous friends are, and the Broadway audience all laughing knowingly and approvingly of this gourmandizing, money-wasting waste of space. The play embodies all that is worst about America and the American theater.

George Washington Slept Here (1940, with Moss Hart) Maybe the funniest Kaufman play? It’s a prime example of a hackneyed genre, unfortunately —  the “darnedest house ever” genre – may god strike me dead if I ever write a play or screenplay with this plot. The whole plot: a family of city folk buy a broken down Revolutionary War era house and struggle with the resulting complications of roughing it. However, I think this play has by far the largest amount of funny lines of a Kaufman play, almost all of them out of the mouth of the guy’s wife. And it’s easy to see why. There is a very clear structure and relationship; an excellent “joke engine”. The husband has done something dumb and the wife makes jokes about it. Same thing that drives The Honeymooners. For the same reason, this play, especially early on, fills me with too much anxiety, though, and too much contempt for the hero. I can’t enjoy anything where the guy who’s supposed to be the hero is so incompetent. Instead of finding the foible amusing and sympathizing, I just want to look away. But it has some good twists, and some real danger that makes me suspect that Kaufman was beginning to miss writing for the Marx Brothers. There is a teenager who is so obnoxious that when he falls down a well, nobody helps him, and at another crucial moment, they konk him on the head! And the gleeful destruction at the finale calls to mind the anarchy at the heart of the Marx Brothers. So, despite certain criticisms, while this play is just as fluffy as their others, this one has the virtue of at least being funny (to me).

The film version is somewhat different. First of all, since it’s a Jack Benny vehicle, they flip it so it’s his wife (Ann Sheridan) who takes the house so that Benny can have all the funny lines. All things remaining the same, I think it’s a funnier play if the woman gets the snide lines. It’s too scary and boorish to have a man yelling all the time. But because Benny is so ineffectual and whiny it’s almost as funny.

The Solid Gold Cadillac(1953) (with Howard Teichmann) A small stockholder (a pretty female) is a thorn in the side of a crooked board of directors. They decide to divert her prying by hiring her to be a liaison to other small stockholders. Meantime, she and the former head of the company, an honest, decent man who now serves in a cabinet post in Washington, fall in love. In the end (an end similar to the one in Miracle on 34th Street) they get enough votes from small shareholders to throw out the board. A pleasant comedy with lots of funny lines. A much better satire of business than many of those that came in the sixties, because its is both specific and unsparing in its scorn for certain activities. The title refers to the businessman’s wedding present to the main character.

 

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7 comments

  1. This is a pretty good list for a “hack”. A number of these plays still get performed regularly and even on Broadway and I doubt it is because he’s got a good agent. While his collaborators certainly deserve accolades (about half) it’s funny that the only plays of his partners that are still performed are the ones they wrote with Kaufman. And the plays he directed, and certainly had a hand in crafting include THE FRONT PAGE, GUYS AND DOLLS, OF MICE AND MEN, as well as many of his own plays. He even acted in ONCE IN A LIFETIME.

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