Obituary: Garson Kanin

GARSON KANIN wrote and directed one of Broadway's classic comedies, Born Yesterday, which made a star of Judy Holliday, and with his wife Ruth Gordon he wrote for the screenplays of two of Holliday's subsequent screen vehicles, The Marrying Kind and It Should Happen To You.

Kanin also wrote two of the most successful films teaming Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike. On stage he directed the hit play The Diary of Anne Frank and earlier in Hollywood he made films with Ginger Rogers, John Barrymore, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard. He also wrote novels, biographies and an opera libretto. "I become physically ill if I don't work for three days," he said.

Born Gershon Labe in 1912 in Rochester, New York, he dropped out of high school with the Wall Street crash of 1929. His ambition was to "become a whiz on the saxophone" and, after working as a telegram messenger and sales clerk he formed a group, Garson Kay and his Red Peppers. "The only thing that stood in the way was that I just wasn't a very good saxophone player. In order to hang on to my job, I had to get up and do funny numbers or songs. That led to playing in vaudeville, and I then became more aware of the theatre and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts."

Kanin made his Broadway debut in Li'l Old Boy (1933). "I was very lucky," he recalled, "hardly ever unemployed. Those were also in the early days of radio so you could supplement your income during the day by running around to different networks doing radio programmes." A turning point in his career came when he auditioned for a George Abbott play. "An actor turned up," wrote Abbott in his memoirs, "who was so bright and imaginative that I took to him immediately. His name was Garson Kanin and he was to be my right-hand man for years."

Kanin later confessed, "I insinuated myself on him. I knew he was an ace and I knew I had everything to learn from him." Kanin was put in charge of casting and directing road companies of Abbott productions. "I learned about directing from Abbott. A standard of excellence, precision. When I directed road companies, I was imitating his method - his ideas of pace, his ideas of cutting out the boredom, of keeping it moving and keeping it alive."

The playwright Thornton Wilder was another influence on the young man. "When I confessed to Wilder that I hadn't even finished high school he almost fainted dead away. He took me in hand and for the next 40 years looked after me. He was the one who told me I could write. That had never occurred to me."

Kanin's work for Abbott led to the offer of a Hollywood contract from Sam Goldwyn and Kanin spent a year as his assistant, learning all he could about film making. "I wanted to be a director, and I particularly idolised Frank Capra. I'd rather be Capra than God - if there is a Capra." Kanin left Goldwyn to accept an offer from RKO to direct a modest drama about a small-town doctor, A Man to Remember (1934).

Made in only two weeks, it was a success and Kanin made six more films for the studio, including the John Barrymore vehicle The Great Man Votes (1939); the delightful comedy Bachelor Mother (1939), the film credited with convincing the studio that Ginger Rogers could carry a film without Fred Astaire; My Favourite Wife (1940), a screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant; They Knew What They Wanted (1940), a drama with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton; and another hit Ginger Rogers comedy, Tom, Dick or Harry (1941).

Kanin was then drafted into the army, serving in the Signal Corps and then the Office of Strategic Services, for whom he produced and directed documentary shorts including Night Stripes and Fellow Americans. In 1945 he co-directed with Carol Reed a feature-length documentary about preparations for D- Day, The True Glory, which won an Academy Award.

After the war, Kanin returned to Broadway rather than Hollywood, and immediately had his greatest triumph with Born Yesterday (1946), which in fact was the only successful play he wrote. It had started out as a drama:

I wrote this serious expose of Washington, based on experiences I'd had when stationed there. I hadn't thought of writing a comedy. But, if I could define what is for me the ideal accomplishment, it is to treat a serious subject lightly. I feel I succeeded with Born Yesterday. It's a serious play - and it's funny. I've tried to do that again and again, and I've never succeeded as well as I did that time.

In 1942 Kanin had married the actress/writer Ruth Gordon, and the pair collaborated for the first time on the screenplay for A Double Life (1947), which starred Ronald Colman, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of an actor who becomes murderous when portraying Othello. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and Colman called the role "the most satisfying I ever had. It tested my total range, and all my resources." The film was directed by George Cukor, who also directed the screen version of Born Yesterday (1950) and the Kanin-Gordon collaborations Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952) and The Marrying Kind (1952) plus the Kanin-scripted It Should Happen To You (1954).

Though Kanin and Gordon had a happy personal relationship (their marriage lasted until Gordon's death in 1985), when collaborating they quarrelled a lot ("Our battles at work were horrendous") and after The Marrying Kind they decided not to work together any more. Kanin's plays after Born Yesterday included The Rat Race (1949), filmed with moderate success in 1959, and A Gift of Time (1962), which starred Henry Fonda and Olivia De Havilland.

He also wrote the libretto for a 1950 Metropolitan Opera production of Die Fledermaus, which he directed, and the book for the musical Do Re Mi (1969), a satire of the juke-box business starring Phil Silvers. In 1955 he had a notable success directing The Diary of Anne Frank; other shows he directed were A Hole in the Head (1957), later filmed by his idol Frank Capra, Norman Krasna's hit comedy Sunday in New York (1961) and his wife's play A Very Rich Woman (1964). He received directorial credit for the Barbra Streisand musical Funny Girl (1964), though he was replaced before the opening by Jerome Robbins.

Thornton Wilder had told him when they first met that he should start a journal and record all the conversations that he heard. The practice was to result in several books of reminiscences, notably Remembering Mr Maugham (1966), which told of his long friendship with Somerset Maugham, and Tracy and Hepburn (1966), an account of his long relationship with the couple which did not please Hepburn, who regarded it as a betrayal of confidence.

In 1990 Kanin married the actress Marian Seldes, 16 years his junior, who survives him. An advocate for the elderly, he wrote a book, It Takes a Long Time to Become Young (1978), in which he stated that no one should ever retire. He added that the pattern of a creative life is "To find a self, to express that self and to take the consequences".

Tom Vallance

Gershon Labe (Garson Kanin), playwright, scriptwriter, theatre and film director: born Rochester, New York 24 November 1912; married 1942 Ruth Gordon (died 1985), 1990 Marian Seldes; died New York 13 March 1999.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Chosen to lead the women's wing of the ruling Zanu-PF, the wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding the 90-year old
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model of a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution