Maurice Rapf

Screenwriter whose career ended when he was named as a Communist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Maurice Harry Rapf, writer; born New York 19 May 1914; married 1939 Louise Seidel (died 1995; one son, two daughters); died Hanover, New Hampshire 15 April 2003.

The screenwriter Maurice Rapf's career was flowering when the notorious Hollywood blacklist suddenly nipped it in the bud. Walt Disney, who admired his work on Song of the South, was busily lining up future projects for him, but, thanks to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Rapf's name on the credits of Disney's animated Cinderella (1950) and on the British-made Alec Guinness vehicle Father Brown (1952) was conspicuous by its absence.

Maurice Harry Rapf was the son of the veteran film producer Harry Rapf, who began producing movies in 1915, the year after his son was born, and was soon employing him as an actor. "My father always had children in his films," Maurice told the writer Patrick McGilligan for his 1997 book Tender Comrades: the backstory of the Hollywood blacklist, "and I was free."

One of the MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer's chief lieutenants from the birth of the studio, Harry Rapf wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but Maurice intended to write films, not produce them. In 1931 he wrote a screen treatment inspired by the near-divorce of his parents over his father's affair with his discovery, the young and ambitious Joan Crawford. With a screenplay by Delmer Daves, the story became Divorce in the Family (1932), a weepy vehicle for MGM's child star Jackie Cooper.

After studying at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Maurice returned to Hollywood, where he worked hard to help establish the Screen Writers Guild. For MGM he co-scripted such films as We Went to College (1936), the Spencer Tracy drama They Gave Him a Gun (1937) and the Wallace Beery western The Bad Man of Brimstone (1938). At this point, he left MGM. "I just felt I'd never get anywhere there," he told McGilligan, "because I was a producer's son."

He worked on several films for the B-features unit at 20th Century-Fox, which was run by Sol M. Wurtzel. "From Bad to Wurtzel" was a common phrase around Tinseltown, and that producer's low-budget Sharpshooters (1938), for which Rapf co-wrote a story about a newsreel cameraman, certainly qualified.

In his book Moving Pictures: memories of a Hollywood prince (1981) the screenwriter Budd Schulberg referred to "my Siamese twin Maurice". Like Rapf, he was the son of a moviemaker, B.P. Schulberg, general manager of Paramount Pictures. Friends from an early age, the two princes played together on studio back lots, co-edited their high-school newspaper, and attended Dartmouth together.

With other students of the college, they spent the summer of 1934 in Russia, a visit that attracted them both to Communism. In 1939, along with the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and the producer Walter Wanger, the "Siamese Twins" were involved in Winter Carnival, a legendary fiasco. The alcoholic Fitzgerald's fall from the wagon while researching the film was the basis for Schulberg's 1950 novel The Disenchanted.

Newly married, Rapf bobbed from studio to studio in search of work - hard to find after the release of Winter Carnival, which figured prominently on The New York Times's "10 Worst Movies of the Year" list. He worked briefly for Columbia, Fox and Paramount, and was finally reduced to writing westerns at Republic when Walt Disney invited him to co-write Song of the South (1946).

Despite his dissatisfaction with the completed film, which he felt was more Uncle Tom than Uncle Remus, Rapf admired Disney more than any producer he had ever worked for. The success of Song of the South led to his being assigned another Disney vehicle, the nostalgic So Dear to My Heart (1949).

He was working on Cinderella when the nothing-if-not-co-operative screenwriter Martin Berkeley named him (and 160 others) as a Communist before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The blacklisted Rapf soon left Hollywood for New York, where he worked uncredited on screenplays and television shows, and used his Disney experience to write and produce sponsored animation films.

In 1951, Budd Schulberg testified before the Committee as a friendly witness. Although the 15 names he gave them did not include Rapf's, their long friendship ended then and there, and they avoided one another for 13 years. Yet the estrangement seemed fated to end: "My youngest son and one of Schulberg's sons were both admitted to Dartmouth in 1964," he told McGilligan. "We acted as if nothing had ever happened."

Dick Vosburgh

Comments