Once in a Lifetime (1932) Review

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The Particulars of the Picture

OnceInALifetime Cast 2 Jack Oakie OnceInALifetime Cast 1 Aline MacMahon OnceInALifetime Cast 6
George Lewis …
Jack Oakie
May Daniels …
Aline MacMahon
Jerry Hyland …
Russell Hopton
OnceInALifetime Cast 3 OnceInALifetime Cast 4 OnceInALifetime Cast 5
Lawrence Vail …
Onslow Stevens
Herman Glogauer …
Gregory Ratoff
Susan Walker …
Sidney Fox

Once in a Lifetime: Making It Big

“You don’t know anything about anything, George, and if what they say in the movies is true, you’ll go far!”

Once in a Lifetime opens with an unusual scrawl from the film’s producer, Carl Laemmle. Noting that there had been some concern about bringing the original stage play to the screen, Laemmle notes, “I pity the man who cannot enjoy a laugh at his own expense.”

The stage play’s original story, about a man making it in the motion picture industry, is a pretty nasty satire by 1931’s standards. Our heroes begin in a crummy vaudeville act and by the end are hailed as the saviors of Hollywood, only succeeding because the objects of their creation are so inept they’re hailed as artistically genius. Yes, it’s The Producers of 1932.

The trio begins though in a sparsely attended vaudeville theater. Realizing talking pictures are going to put them out of work, wise guy Jerry decides it’s time for them to head to Hollywood. Smart aleck May comes up with a great scam to pretend the group are all elocution experts, and dumb guy George can’t even catch up with the plan but eagerly agrees to play along.

"We're going to make it! ... eventually!"
“We’re going to make it! … eventually!”

George Lewis is one of those cinematic staples: an idiot who can only fail his way upwards. These characters are usually employed in satires of Hollywood or Washington, which is a shame. We never get the idiot who fails his way into something a little more crazy, like brain surgeon or architect. I’m just saying there are plots there.

May has a thing for Jerry, but Jerry doesn’t seem to have enough of a personality to notice. On the train, George meets aspiring actress Susan, a petite young thing who can barely remember a few lines of dialogue but has big sweet eyes. This sets George heart aflutter, and soon he’s not only trying to remember what ‘elocution’ means, but to also aid Susan in her quest to get some.

Once in Hollywood, their speech therapy is a modest success. They come to find the studio is ruled over by a Jewish German man with a thick accent, Glogauer, who lords over a Kafka-esque world of misspent funds and oversized egos. One playwright, Lawrence Vail, had been brought out to Hollywood six months ago, and still waits in Glogauer’s office for an assignment. Or, hell, even an appointment.

The speech therapists are introduced to these two, spitting images of Theda Bara and Mary Pickford. Bara here has a think New York accent, while Pickford squeaks mercilessly.
The speech therapists are introduced to these two, spitting images of Theda Bara and Mary Pickford. Bara here has a think New York accent, while Pickford squeaks mercilessly.

Barbs are thrown around about the motion picture business left and right. Glogauer moans about the pre-talike era, “You couldn’t stop making money. Even if you turned out a good picture, it would still make money!”

George’s ability to repeat the smarter things others have said soon get him the job of producer. Things look disastrous when his first film not only is plagued by difficulties (he kept forgetting to have the lights turned on and munched on loud nuts during the entire recording), but it looks bad once it’s revealed that he accidentally filmed the wrong script.

When Jerry joins the crowd willing to throw George under the bus for the mishap, May protests and is fired. On her way back East, she runs into Vail again, who was just recently released from a sanitarium for screenwriters. “They have a room of full sized portraits of all the studio executives,” he explains. “And they let you just yell whatever you want at them!”

May tells Jerry what it is.
May tells Jerry what it is.

She heads back to Hollywood when the film somehow receives more than one rave review (“I don’t suppose the whole thing could be a typological error.”), and George is suddenly flush with success. This is a victory for both, but the film insists on taking us back to Hollywood for an extended epilogue with George and Jerry.

To be honest, it’s kind of a letdown when Jerry shows up again. Aline MacMahon plays May with a wonderful mix of charm and weariness. Her enthusiasm is thin, but runs deep for the lovably dumb George. Trying to figure out why her affections go anywhere near the personality-free Jerry is a mystery for the ages.

Oakie’s George is luckily also quite bearable, and the movie zips whenever MacMahon and Oakie play off each other. The rest of the cast isn’t so capable with the exception of Onslow Stevens as the eccentric Vail, who I would have much rather spent the film following.

You're so stupid, it's perfect!
You’re so stupid, it’s perfect!

The movie probably seemed fresh 80 years ago, but nowadays it lives in the shadow of films like Hal Ashby’s Being There and Robert Altman’s The Player. Hollywood’s tendency towards self immolation gets wearying after a while too; too much self hatred seems pathetic rather than funny. While you can see a lot of seeds of showbiz satire in Once in a Lifetime, the jokes are too ‘stop and go’ for the film to build up any momentum. You could have a snappy 60 minute film in Once in a Lifetime, but it unfortunately clocks in at a glacially paced 90.

It’s too bad, because there’s some good chemistry and observations, capturing and poking fun at Hollywood’s transition to sound only a few years after it had actually occurred. It’s just a shame that Once in a Lifetime seems to stumble just as bad as the film industry did during the time it’s depicting.

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Several references to places where people can shove things.
  • Also, this:
Checking to make sure she's still breathing. Looks like it to me!
Checking to make sure she’s still breathing. Looks like it to me!

Trivia & Links

  • Encyclopedia.com has an extremely thorough article about the original stage play.
  • This film is Aline MacMahon’s first major studio role. TCM’s Movie Morlocks runs down Aline’s life story. MacMahon’s next film would be as the much put upon secretary in Five Star Final.
  • Sidney Fox is profiled in depth by Classic Images. Most of the article is about how botched up Murders in the Rue Morgue ended up being, but quite a bit is spent on Fox and how her potential was undercut by her high profile dalliances with Universal executives.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is apparently tangled up in some legal rights, but, luckily for all of us it’s available on YouTube. (If that link doesn’t work, then your guess is as good as mine!)

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Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

6 thoughts on “Once in a Lifetime (1932) Review

    1. Unfortunately, no. I discovered it via a Lou Lumineck piece about movies stuck in grey market hell. There’s a rights issues with it, so YouTube may be the only option for a while.

  1. Lawrence Vail says, “You meet queer people out here.” after the actress Zasu Pitts runs off stage. Shortly after, he said, “Are you one of the chosen people?”

  2. I know this is a bit dated, but so is everything we watch, so here goes: the movie is up at You Tube and a lot of fun to watch. I stream it from iPhone to television, via apple air something or another. It works.
    Now if only “The Naughty Flirt”, my favorite pre-code, bugs-bunny-like movie were to be uploaded!

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