Edmund Hartmann

Erudite screenwriter for Bob Hope
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Edmund L. Hartmann, writer and producer: born St Louis, Missouri 24 September 1911; twice married (one daughter); died Santa Fe, New Mexico 28 November 2003.

Bob Hope, drifting along in a gondola with a Venetian beauty, dabbles his hand in the water, then raises it to his nostrils ecstatically and sighs, "Canal Number Five!" This is a moment from Casanova's Big Night, one of the seven Hope films written or co-written by Edmund Hartmann, a soft-spoken, erudite southerner who, in a career spanning more than 60 years, also provided comedy for Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, the Ritz brothers and Lucille Ball.

The St Louis-born Hartmann's first ambition was to become a songwriter and, soon after graduating from Washington University, St Louis, in the early 1930s, he headed for New York to hawk his musical wares. After scant success with Broadway producers, he moved to Hollywood, where he began writing original screen stories. One of them, "The Big Noise", about a retired wool manufacturer who single-handedly brings a gang of protection racketeers to justice, was sold to Warner Bros in 1936.

That year he was signed by RKO, who put him to work writing such forgotten films as the aerial melodrama Without Orders (1936), the medical drama The Man Who Found Himself (1937), the shipboard mystery China Passage (1937), the news-hawk romp Behind the Headlines (1937), the gangster thriller Law of the Underworld(1938) and the love- triangle potboiler Beauty for the Asking (1939).

When his RKO contract lapsed, Hartmann signed a seven-year deal with Universal Pictures. "At Universal, I wrote for three great teams," he told an interviewer, "Abbott and Costello, Olsen and Johnson, and Holmes and Watson." His Universal assignments included Abbott and Costello's Keep 'Em Flying (1941), Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), In Society (1944), Here Come the Co-eds (1945) and The Naughty Nineties (1945), Olsen and Johnson's The Ghost Catchers (1944) and See My Lawyer (1945), and Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce's Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943), Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) and The Scarlet Claw (1944).

Not only did Hartmann toil on Hi'Ya, Chum (1943), producing laughs for the Ritz brothers, but on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) and Sudan (1945), preposterous Maria Montez "eastern westerns" that tended to produce laughter that was less intentional. In 1941, on loan-out to Columbia Pictures, he worked on two minor musicals: Ruby Keeler's last starring film, Sweetheart of the Campus, and the Ann Miller vehicle Time Out for Rhythm, described by Bosley Crowther in The New York Times as "one of the dullest diversions in months".

Although he was also briefly employed by MGM and United Artists, Hartmann was proudest of his 14 years at Paramount. His first assignment there was fashioning, with Robert Walsh and Frank Tashlin, the screenplay for the all-star Variety Girl (1947). Next, he and Tashlin wrote The Paleface (1948), Bob Hope's biggest-ever box-office hit. As Painless Potter, a cowardly correspondence-school dentist from the east pretending to be a tough hombre from the west, ("Gimme four fingers of rye," he growls at a saloon barkeeper, "and gimme the thumb too!"), the comedian went to the summit of the popularity charts.

Hartmann helped him write another comic western, Fancy Pants (1951), co-starring Lucille Ball, as well as a brace of Hope forays into the world of Damon Runyon: Sorrowful Jones (1949) and The Lemon Drop Kid (1951). After collaborating with Jack Sher on the Hope/Hedy Lamarr espionage spoof My Favorite Spy (1951), Hartmann and Danny Arnold scripted The Caddy (1953), a feeble Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle best remembered, if at all, for the song "That's Amore". Again for Hope, he and Hal Kanter wrote Here Come the Girls (1953) and Casanova's Big Night (1954).

At this point, Hartmann abandoned films to write and produce for television. His work for the small screen included The Eve Arden Show, the Henry Fonda series The Smith Family, and the long-running Fred MacMurray sitcom My Three Sons. In the 1960s he became National Chairman of the Writers Guild of America. In 1988 he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where in 1999 the Santa Fe Critics Circle presented him with the Golden Chili Lifetime Achievement Award.

Discussing comedy-writing in a New Mexico newspaper, Hartmann said, "You can either do it or you can't. It can't be taught."

Dick Vosburgh