Posts Tagged ‘Moss Hart’

“You can’t learn bull riding, except by getting on the bull.”
—David Mamet

Several years ago I wrote a post titled Can Screenwriting Be Taught? and I used parts of that for the introduction to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.

Some say writing is a natural gift like a bird taking flight, and others say it’s a craft that—like plumbing or playing the violin—takes time to become proficient. The title of this post comes from screenwriter/playwright David Mamet giving a thumbnail-sized version of Aristotle’s Poetics; Start at the beginning and when you get to the end—stop.

That’s on par with advice that William Faulkner gave when people came to hear him give a talk about writing. He reportedly asked that if they wanted to be writers what they were doing there instead of home writing.

When Emmy-winning writer Hugh Wilson was asked about the writing process he said, “I think there’s a whole lot of spooky-dust involved in this.” Yes, there is a mysterious process to writing and you need talent. But is there something more tangible? Helpful? Well, you definitely don’t need a formal education as many have proven, but at some point you do need to learn dramatic principles.

In the introduction to my book I chose to highlight Moss Hart specifically because he grew up in poverty, never went to college, and launched his career during The Great Depression. Nor was he the kind of writer who just flapped his wings and flew to instant success.

“It is one thing to have a flair for play-writing or even a ready wit with dialogue. It is quite another to apply these gifts in the strict and demanding terms of a fully articulated play so that they emerge with explicitness, precision and form. All of this and a great deal more I learned from George Kaufman.”
—Moss Hart
Act One:  An Autobiography

But before Hart learned from Kaufman, he spent time summers in the Catskills Mountains (then known as the Borsch Belt) where he directed several plays each week over the summer at popular resorts. (At one point he was the entertainment director in charge of 70 people.) And he only got that job because he had a passion for theater in New York City where he sometimes directed plays after work.

He worked in a fur warehouse for over two years until he got an office job with a theater manager. One of the perks of the job was he was able to get free tickets to see Broadway plays nightly. This was in an era before television when there where over 70 theaters on during peak season in New York City. Moss said he learned from bad plays as well as the good ones.

“I simply read the plays themselves, I read the published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new more powerful microscope.”
—Moss Hart
Act One

All of those experiences led to Hart’s first Broadway hit (Once in a Lifetime) at age 26. A decade later Kaufman and Hart won the Pulitzer Prize for their depression era play You Can’t Take it with You. As a screenwriter, Hart earned two Oscar nominations and wrote the 1934 version of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland.

Scott W. Smith

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“The farm was a stage set; the tractor drivers and nurserymen were stagehands.”
Steven Bach

“When I order a tree at nine a.m., I want to be sitting in its shade by five p.m.”
Moss Hart

In 1937 Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It with You) was a rich and successful Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He had a Pulitzer Prize and a little cash to spend. So he purchased a more than 200 year old farmhouse house on 87 acres—called Fairview Farm— in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (About an hour and a half from New York City.)

Back in August, I wrote a post about Bucks County because that’s where a young playwright named Neil Simon took one of his first plays that was struggling to find an audience. He called the the three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania a ”last ditch for his play.”

Playwright George S. Kaufman also had a farm in the area, which is probably originally drew Hart to the area. Plays that Kaufman & Hart wrote together would be performed at the Playhouse, sometimes with Kaufman or Hart also directing or acting.

When Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle in 1947 the two spent their honeymoon performing the Kaufman and Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner, at The Bucks County Playhouse.

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Moss & Kitty Hart on their Fairview Farm in Bucks County where they started a family and entertained famous guests.

The Playhouse helped attract many people to the area including John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith (perhaps now best known as Rocky Balboa’s original trainer), Lillian Hellman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harpo Marx. Many who found a way to spend time with Hart on his farm.

Hart also did much of his writing on the farm including a story based on his own property—George Washington Slept Here. He also spent a good deal of money on the farm—including expanding the farmhouse, adding a pool and tennis courts, and thousands of trees and shrubs— which had an positive economic impact in the area during the 1930s.

“Landscaping, decorating, and remodeling would continue as his Broadway and Hollywood earnings helped end the Depression in Bucks County, bringing delight to friends and contractors, not to mention well-diggers.”
Steven Bach
Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Hart “bought the farm” in the other sense when he was only 57 years old after three heart attacks.

P.S. When I started this blog in 2008 I knew that I could probably gather enough notes to write a year of posts. I never thought I’d be doing to a decade later. Now I realize I could do a year of posts on just Moss Hart (1946-1961), but this will be a last post on him for a while. But in a few days I’ll begin a string of posts on early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion who had a connection with Hart. In the 1930s he rented her famed estate overlooking Beverly Hills.

Scott W. Smith

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“Borscht — beet soup usually served cold with sour cream and the waiter’s thumb — is a metaphor for Jewishness. . . . Thus the Catskills, which catered almost exclusively to Jewish vacationers for two generations, might have been called Pastrami Paradise, Derma Road or the Bagel Circuit. But Abel Green, the editor of Variety, reputedly coined the term Borscht Belt — and so it remains.”
Stanley Karnow
The Washington Post, “Goodbye to the Borscht Belt”

Some day I’ll do a run of posts on Yiddish theatre and why screenwriter/playwright David Mamet says parts of Hollywood were built by Ashkenazi Jews with Eastern European roots. Consider this a primer on how some Jewish entertainers in the early and mid-20th century got stage time experience at summer camps and resorts in upstate New York.

Before Moss Hart became an established Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter he decided that he could not rely on working a regular job and have energy to write at night. (He did that once with limited success.) He wanted instead to write in the daytime while his mind was fresh. So what he did was take low paying theatre directing jobs and earn a chunk of money working as a social director at various summer camps and resorts.

In his autobiography, Act One, Hart both relished and abhorred his six seasons working the camps. The social director was in charge of the nightly activities. Here’s a snapshot of Hart’s week in his first summer season—one that was repeated each week from June to September.

Monday night: Campfire night that would include a Shakespearean recitation, usually out of Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.” Hart was a skilled singer and guitar player.
Tuesday night: Costume or dress-up night. This would be something like “A Night in Old Japan” where the staff presented a Yiddish version of The Mikado.
Wednesday night: Game night. One-legged races, peanut relay races, and dancing.
Thursday night: Free time to play basketball or rehearse play for the weekend. (Some rehearsals were all night affairs that didn’t end until 7 AM the next morning.)
Friday night: Drama night. (Dress rehearsals began at 4 PM.)
Saturday night: Musical comedy night.
Sunday: Farewell to guests. Movies were shown at night for the new guests allowing the staff to get some sleep before beginning another week of activities.

This meant Hart and his staff of 10-12 people would be performing new plays every week. Lines had to me memorized, props gathered, sets built and painted.  Hart says these were amateurish productions but “elaborate and difficult in terms of light cues, props and quick changes of costume and scenery.”

Hart may have never spent a day in college, but one could argue that he got more than an equivalent of an MFA by directing and acting (and sometimes writing) two plays a week. Not only that but a ton of experience in managing people, problem solving on limited resources, and learning what works and doesn’t work in entertaining a crowd.  And along the way, Hart made a name for himself.

”In time, Hart’s status as social director changed markedly for the better. By 1929 he was, as he said, ‘the most highly paid [$200 per week], the most sought-after social director of the Borscht Circuit,’ as the string of hotels catering primarily to Jewish customers in the Catskills was known. At the Flagler Hotel he had a personal staff of twenty-six people, a substantial budget to work with, and he was able to provide much more polished entertainments than he had presented in earlier years.”
Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
Jared Brown

Here is a program for the 1929 summer season when Hart presented recent Broadway successes that regularly filled a 1,500 seat theatre. That was Hart’s last year working the Borscht Circuit as his own play Once in a Lifetime  (written with George S. Kaufman) became a hit on Broadway.

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Many other well known entertainers honed their craft on the Borscht Circuit on their way to Broadway and Hollywood. Perhaps none better than Danny Kaye. (Who would eventually work with Hart on Broadway.)

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In the Catskills; A Century of the Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’
Edited by Phil Brown
Page 228

The heyday for summer camps appears to be between the 1920s to some point in the 1960s. From when automotive travel became more common until the days when air travel became common place. Hart’s autobiography was published in 1959 and even then he said the summer camps that still existed were greatly different from the ones were he worked.

The film Dirty Dancing (while shot in North Carolina) depicts that era in the Catskills.

And to prove what’s old is new again, the second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (2018) takes a trip to the Catskills. (Episode 4: We’re Going to the Catskills!)

Related Books:
A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt by Stefan Kanfer

The Ghosts Hotels of the Catskills (Sad photos of the remnants of abandoned theaters.)

Scott W. Smith

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“After his first Broadway smash, Hart’s life morphed from the grim black-and-white of poverty to Technicolor.”
Meryl Gordon

I don’t recall the stock market crash of 1929 getting get mentioned in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One.. Perhaps because in 1929 he was in his 20s and had never had money in the first place. That was also the year when he was working on a play with established playwright George S. Kaufman in the daytime and directing small theatre plays at night.

Even though he and Kaufman’s play Once in a Lifetime debuted on Broadway in 1930, the Great Depression didn’t seem to have an effect on ticket sales of that show. Other shows didn’t fair as well and ticket prices drop to stay running.

As the Depression deepened, there were other ‘angels from within’ who fought to ease some of the suffering of the ailing system. Playwright Rachel Crothers helped to organize the Stage Relief Fund to assist actors in paying for food, rent, medical necessities and utilities. Dramatic actress Selena Royle helped to initiate and run the Actor’s Dinner Club, where hot meals were served nightly at $1.00 each to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. It is reported that during the leanest season of Broadway, over 120,000 free meals were served.”
Robert Rusie
Broadway 101

The Great Depression lasted until 1939. But for Hart the ’30s were incredibly productive and profitable.  Hart and Kaufman wrote the Broadway hits You Can’t Take It with You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).  In 1937 Hart and Kaufman were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for You Can’t Take it With You, and the following year the movie version based on their play won an Best Picture Oscar and and Frank Capra won the Best Director Oscar.

In the ’40s Hart also wrote screenplays including Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which he earned an Oscar nomination. In the ’50s he worked on the screenplay for A Star is Born (1954). There were many other plays and movies he worked on (including musicals with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) but his last big production was directing My Fair Lady for which he won a Tony Award.

His autobiography was published in 1959 and since it’s titled Act One and only went up to 1930, you sense that he eventually planed to write the books Act Two, and Act Three down the road. But he died in 1961 at age 57 of a heart attack.

Something else he doesn’t mention in his book is is struggle with depression.

“He had terrible depressions. But I find that most creative people have creative depressions. . . . And he would go into these declines and it would sometimes be two weeks before he’d come out. But he never imposed that sort of thing on other people.”
Kitty Carlisle, Moss Hart’s wife
YouTube video 

Hart’s letter are keep in the Wisconsin Historic Society in Madison. There were off limit many years after his death. But according to a Vanity Fair article he does talk more openly about his depression and bouts of writer’s block.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Can success change the human mechanism so completely between one dawn and another? Can it make one feel taller, more alive, handsomer, uncommonly gifted and indomitably secure with the certainty that this is the way life will be? It can and does.”
Moss Hart

My favorite scene in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One is the day after he knew he had co-written a Broadway hit. It centered around what happened the next morning when he returned home to his family.

The day before had started with Hart not knowing what his future would be if the play failed. When the final curtain closed that night it appeared the play was going to be a hit. He stayed up all night with a friend and waited for the reviews to be printed before dawn. The reviews of three papers were read to him.

“The notices of Once in a Lifetime as I listened to them were a blaze of glory—each word incrusted with a special luster of its own. . . . When the last notice had been read, I took that second drink, for I knew now that my life was indeed changed forever—and I drank a silent toast to the new one.”
Moss Hart

If Hart’s life were a movie you could end with that scene. A close-up of Hart’s face totally content knowing that he’d achieved his goal of being a successful Broadway playwright. (There was actually a movie done in 1963 based on Act One, but I don’t know how it ended.)

But I wouldn’t end it there. There is a more satisfying ending. After having the reviews read to him Hart decided as the sun began to rise to take his”first ride to Brooklyn above ground”—meaning he had money now for a taxi to go from Manhattan to Brooklyn rather than taking the subway.

He arrived at the one bedroom apartment in the slums where he lived with his mother, father, and brother. They were all still asleep when he arrive so he made himself a cup of coffee, looked at the frayed carpet, and came up with a plan. He woke up his family and as they read the reviews he declared, “We’re moving into New York [meaning Manhattan] today—as soon as you have a cup of coffee—and we’re not taking anything with us . . . not even a toothbrush, a bathrobe, pajamas or nightgown. We buy it all in New York. We’re walking out of here and starting fresh.”

He was greeted with stunned silence. When they asked how that was possible, he told them that he was going to be making a percentage of the box office that he estimated at $1,000 a week. And astronomical amount in 1930. They loaded family photos and some mementos into one suitcase in less than half an hour later they left poverty behind.

And here’s how I’d end the movie (WordPress won’t let me use screenwriting format).  .  .


All four members of the Hart family are crammed Tom Joad-style into the back of a yellow cab. Moss looks out the window as his brother Bernie reads a newspaper review.

…judging from the audience response last night, it looks
like veteran playwright George S. Kaufman and newcomer
Moss Hart have this year’s hardest ticket to buy. They might as
well call the Music Box Theatre the Cash Box Theatre.

As the taxicab begins crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, the early morning sun hits the dazzling skyline of Manhattan. For a moment this talkative Jewish family is speechless.  The only movement is Moss Hart’s mother fumbling for a handkerchief and wiping her eyes.

They were not, I suspect, tears of joy for my success. They were
not tears for the beginning of something, but for the end of
something none of us could name.


Aerial shot of the Hart taxicab in the distance as it blends in with the other westbound cars and completes the transition from Brooklyn to Manhattan.


Sure those last two lines of VO are a little maudlin, but those are actually Hart’s words in the book–and I think he’s earned that ending.

I don’t know if producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran ever met screenwriter/playwright Moss Hart—she was only a child when he died in 1961. But there’s a chance that her father D.A. Doran crossed paths with Hart when he was producing plays on Broadway in the 1930s at the same time Hart had plays on Broadway. Or later when they both worked in Hollywood.

But Lindsay did a TED Talk in 2012 where she talked about some of the top inspirational films (Rocky, The King’s Speech, Dirty Dancing, The Karate Kid) and how they really aren’t about the goal the protagonists are chasing (a goal they often fall short of achieving), but how those movies end with the main characters sharing their experience with ones they love.

“Positive relationships trump positive accomplishments.”
Lindsay Doran

“If there’s no positive accomplishments at the end of those movies, and no victory to be celebrated afterwards, then what makes these movies so inspirational? Why are people still jumping up and down on the Rocky steps 36 years later if Rocky lost the fight? And I think the answer is what’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is something else. And it’s not as enormous as saving the world, and it’s not quite as simple as kissing the girl. What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other. It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

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Here’s her entire talk for you to enjoy and contemplate.

Scott W. Smith



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“Very few plays are without faults of one kind or another, but few plays succeed with a bad last act. The best kind of fault for a play to have is first-act trouble, and the worst kind last-act trouble. An audience will forgive a slow or even weak first act, if the second act grows progressively better; and a third act that sends the audience up the aisles and out the theatre with the impression of a fully rounded evening, can sometimes make that hair’s-breath difference between failure and success. A bad third act or even a poor last fifteen minutes of a play can be ruinous. It can somehow wipe the slate clean of all that has gone before and completely negate the two acts preceding it, and if a playwright is not in control of his last act in the final week of the tryout, it is unlikely he ever will.”
Playwright/ screenwriter Moss Hart (You Can’t Take it With You)
Act One,
page 389 (of the original 1959 publication)

And to follow that bit of advice from a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, here’s Oscar winning writer Michael Arndt unpacking what he believes makes for a good ending. (Just click on the “Watch on Vimeo” button, or click here.)

Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great from Pandemonium on Vimeo.

P.S. Here’s a related quote that seems to belong here:

“I think all good stories have one thing in common. And that is they have an ending that— I don’t want to say satisfying, because some great stories have unsatisfying endings, which is why they’re great stories—but have an ending that transports you somewhere. You have to be at a different place at the ending than you were at the beginning. And if all the story has done is taken you right back to the very place you were when you read the first sentence, then it was a waste of your time. “
Malcom Gladwell
MasterClass/Selecting the Story

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2) 
Happy, Sad, Ironic & Ambiguous Endings 

Scott W. Smith 

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When Moss Hart was an office boy in New York City before becoming a Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright, one of the perks of his job was free tickets to Broadway plays. This was in the early 1920s when there were 70 theatres “going full blast” at peak season. By pulling a few favors, and because new plays were opening all the time,  Hart was able to go to a different play every night. And because the tickets were free, much of what he saw were the bad plays.

“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time—the thought never crossed my mind— I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must have somehow seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season almost seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I’d forgotten what they were even about.”
Playwright and screenwriter Moss Hart (A Star is Born)
Act One, page 48

Scott W. Smith



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