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Laugh loudly and carry a big shtick:
Alan King as Mr. Goldwyn
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In the new play Mr. Goldwyn at the Promenade Theatre, Alan King makes no attempt to transform himself into the legendary movie producer. Instead, he transforms Goldwyn into a vehicle for his own brand of clever one-liners. The funny thing is, Samuel Goldwyn would very likely have approved of this; after all, he understood the art of entertainment better than most. It's not for nothin' that he still holds the record for the longest career as an independent producer in Hollywood. The issue for Goldwyn would have been: Is it good? Is it funny? Will people pay money to see it? We say yes to all three questions.

The show begins with Goldwyn at a dangerous point in his career; it's 1952 and he hasn't had a hit in five years. Television, it appears, is on the verge of destroying the motion picture business. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood was that the movies had to offer something TV could not: sex or expensive epics, for example. Goldwyn, always a maverick, decides to gamble everything on a family movie, Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye. As he maneuvers the flick toward its opening date (the play takes place over four months), King/Goldwyn regales us with his life story, a great American rags-to-riches tale.

Born Shmuel Gelbfisz in Poland, Goldwyn arrived in America at 13, learned the glove-making trade, and changed his name to "Goldfish." At 28, he got married and joined his brother-in-law and Cecil B. DeMille to form the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company; their first venture was The Squaw Man (1913), a big hit that in many ways marked the birth of Hollywood. Their company would later become Paramount Pictures, but Goldfish was forced out as early as 1916 and joined Edgar Selwyn to found The Goldwyn Company, a combination of their two names. (King as Goldwyn cleverly points out that they wisely didn't combine their names as "Selfish.") Our hero so much liked the Goldwyn moniker that he legally adopted it as his own in 1918--which, as is noted here, Selwyn did not much appreciate. But Goldwyn was forced out, and though Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (M-G-M) would become the colossus of Hollywood, Goldwyn was never a part of it.

Instead, Samuel Goldwyn became an independent producer, and he never regretted it. His famous musical comedies were first built around Eddie Cantor (Whoopie!, 1930) and, later, Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947). William Wyler directed most of Goldwyn's best, more serious films, although he is barely mentioned in the play. Goldwyn loved to bring either great works of literature and prize-winning plays to the screen and give them lavish treatment: Among his prestige pictures were Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Little Foxes (1941), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Mr. Goldwyn focuses on the last of these, which brought Goldwyn a Best Picture Oscar and was the greatest hit of his career.

Then there were the famous "Goldwynisms." Mr. G's colorful mangling of the English language was legendary, and Alan King has great fun with this. We won't give away the malapropisms used in the play, but some other memorable quotes attributed to Goldwyn include "Let's bring it up to date with some snappy, 19th-century dialogue" and "I had a great idea this morning, but I didn't like it."

Gene Saks directs Mr. Goldwyn with a loving hand. This venerable comedy director really knows how to milk laughs from a scene, and there's plenty of milk here, so drink up--it's good for you. Writers Marsha Lebby and John Lollos have constructed an entertaining show around the facts of this colorful life. They do bend history for effect; for example, they have Goldwyn's nemesis Louis B. Mayer getting fired from M-G-M during the play's time period when, in fact, he was forced out a year earlier. Still, the essential arc of Goldwyn's career is fairly and honestly presented.

The mogul himself was no Alan King when it came to telling stories--but then, Danny Kaye probably had it all over Hans Christian Andersen as an actor/singer/comedian. Lauren Klein plays Goldwyn's secretary Helen with a crisp authority and a wonderful sense of period. And speaking of period: David Gallo's floor-to-towering-ceiling office set, complete with a view of L.A. through gargantuan windows, captures a bygone era of Hollywood grandeur.

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