Obituary: Garson Kanin
Thursday 27 May 1999
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".
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.
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