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The kings of comedy
George S. Kaufman and his pals
BY STEVE VINEBERG

The great dramas of the American stage tend to be the work of artists flying solo, but most of the best homegrown comedies are collaborations. The felicitous Library of America collection Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies is a tribute not only to George S. Kaufman, Algonquin Table wit and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient ó who juggled a phenomenally successful playwriting career with an equally impressive one as a director ó but also to the four most gifted in a long line of co-writers. Moss Hart is the most celebrated; their partnership is represented in this anthology by their three best collaborations: the brilliant satirical comedy Once in a Lifetime (set in Hollywood during the chaotic era of the advent of talkies), You Canít Take It with You, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Morrie Ryskind worked with Kaufman on the two musicals included here, the blissfully loopy Animal Crackers (written as a vehicle for the Marx Brothers) and the political satire Of Thee I Sing, which contained a score by the Gershwins. The journalist and fiction writer Ring Lardner was co-author of June Moon, a spoof of Tin Pan Alley. The novelist Edna Ferber came on board for The Royal Family, Dinner at Eight, and Stage Door, hybrids of comedy and melodrama.

Kaufman was an expert in virtually every mode the comic temperament can inhabit. The Royal Family and Dinner at Eight are high comedy, though the aristocrats in Dinner at Eight are thrown into relief by the low-down, acquisitive, squabbling Packards. Dan Packard nearly takes down the shipping-line owner whose wife is hosting the dinner party of the title, while Kitty Packardís social climbing winds up saving the poor bastardís hide. (Sheís furious at her husband for wrecking her social chances by plotting the hostís financial ruin.) The Royal Family is, among its other genre affiliations, a theatrical parody built around the antics of the Barrymores; according to the extremely entertaining notes provided by the volumeís editor, Laurence Maslon, Ethel Barrymore was offered the role of Julia Cavendish, her counterpart in the play, and replied by initiating a lawsuit. (Her lawyer talked her into withdrawing it.) The Man Who Came to Dinner, with a protagonist based on Kaufmanís pal, the columnist Alexander Woollcott, and obvious send-ups of Harpo Marx and Noel Coward among its supporting characters, is another celebrity-based comedy of manners. Though you can spot Sam Goldwyn in Once in a Lifetime (where heís called Herman Glogauer), this is a hard-boiled comedy, as are June Moon and Stage Door. Iím not sure thereís a term for the kind of play represented by You Canít Take It with You, but its portrait of an eccentric expanded family furnished the prototype for many movies and TV sit-coms.

We donít get many hard-boiled comedies these days ó the musical Chicago is a rare and glorious recent example ó but they were one of the amoral pleasures of the American theater (and American film) in the í20s and í30s. (Chicago began life as a Broadway straight show in 1926.) Like high comedy, they center on an exclusive group, but not one of aristocrats. This is a club of the wised-up and the hard-edged, pragmatic professionals whose competence, survival instincts, and finely tuned bullshit meters see them through the challenges of a tough, corrupt world. The normative characters who maneuver their way through the Lewis CarrollĖlike looking-glass universe of Once in a Lifetime are two members of a vaudeville trio who figure out how to thrive on the terror and ineptitude of a studio besieged by the new public demand for sound films, and an Eastern playwright (played in the original production by Kaufman himself) who is both bemused and horrified by what he finds in Hollywood. (When one of the vaudevillians briefly forgets himself and begins to toady to Glogauer, the studio head, his partner looks at him disdainfully and pronounces the worst insult she can muster: "Youíve gone Hollywood.") The group in Stage Door consists of struggling actresses living through the Depression in a theatrical boarding house called the Footlights Club, where they daily make the rounds of producersí and agentsí offices and, on the coveted occasions when some Lothario shows up to buy one of them a decent steak dinner, dip into their collective cache of dress-up clothes.

One of the distinguishing qualities of a Kaufman hard-boiled comedy is that, though itís typically tough on the ones in power, it has some wayward affection for the innocent clucks who just donít get how the world works. (Maurine Watkinsís Chicago and Hecht-MacArthurís The Front Page ó which Kaufman directed on Broadway ó are merciless by comparison.) Once in a Lifetime pairs George, the bean-brained, literal-minded straight man in the vaudeville trio, with a talentless nitwit named Susan Walker who marches into Hollywood with her fervent mama in tow, determined to become a star. Kaufman and Hart see to it that she does, when George lands a producerís job by telling Glogauer what heís doing wrong. Heís only parroting the complaints he heard the playwright, Lawrence Vail, articulate, and it doesnít take courage, exactly ó George isnít bright enough to know heís not supposed to be reaming out the head man. But the play takes delight in the way this lucky dope rises to the top in a system thatís even dumber than he is. June Moon begins with a priceless exchange between Fred, the aspiring lyric writer, and a young woman named Edna in the parlor car of the train thatís taking him from Schenectady to New York ó and, heís sure, to fame and fortune:

EDNA: My brother ... says ... the men that ride in the day coach are the kind that try and make up to pretty girls ... I guess a brother always thinks their sister is good-looking.

FRED: I believe in a man sticking up for their sister, or any woman. I got no use for a man that donít respect womanís hood. Where would a man be if it wasnít for their mothers and sisters and wives?

EDNA: Some men havenít got wives.

FRED: I havenít got one myself ó yet. I ainít been lucky enough to meet a woman who would be a good pal as well as a sweetheart. I want my wife to be like mother used to be.

EDNA: I love to have a man love their mother.

Clearly these two are a match made in Broadway heaven. And of course Fred does strike it rich, when, inspired by his newfound romantic ardor for Edna, he strings together a bundle of platitudes and calls it "June Moon."

The three plays Kaufman wrote with Edna Ferber, where the conventions of high or hard-boiled comedy are rigged to sync up with the conventions of melodrama, are marvels of a different sort of craft. You wonít see anything like them on the stage now, though some of our best TV shows ó The West Wing, ER ó work the same way. The high-comic premise of Dinner at Eight ó the aristocratic hostess treats every disappointment that befalls her in the preparation of a dinner party as if it were a disaster, unaware of the real crises in the lives of the people around her ó allows for marvelous melodramatic episodes. The best is the demise of the alcoholic has-been star, Larry Renault, who turns on the gas when he touches bottom. All the plays in this volume made it to the screen except for June Moon and Of Thee I Sing, but none in a more superb translation than the George CukorĖdirected Dinner at Eight, where you can savor the scene in which Renault (a bitter and devastating performance by John Barrymore) is told off by his fed-up agent (Lee Tracy). Stage Door, however, will surprise those who know only the movie version with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, which Morrie Ryskind wrote. Itís a splendid picture, but it couldnít be more unlike the terrific original. (The quipster Kaufman called the movie Screen Door.) In the play, Terry Randall and her roommate, Jean Maitland, clash not because they were brought up in different classes, but because Jean gives up the struggle to act on the stage and goes out to Hollywood to trade on her looks. In the end, she returns to New York to do a play bankrolled by her studio, but she isnít good enough to carry it; Terry winds up with the part. Too bad the fictional Terry canít play other roles, because Kaufman & Co. is the best anthology of American plays that anyoneís put out in years.


Issue Date: September 24 - 30, 2004
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