OBITUARY : Howard Koch
Saturday 19 August 1995
Casablanca opened in November 1942 and was well received and popular. However, it was not reviewed by America's best critic, James Agee, till February 1943, in a round-up of films he had missed: "Apparently Casablanca, which I must say I liked, is working up a rather serious reputation as a fine melodrama. Why? It is obviously an improvement on one of the world's worst plays; but it is not such an improvement that that is not obvious." In March it won the Oscar for Best Picture but, looking back on the year's films in December Agee wrote: "Casablanca is still reverently spoken of as (1) fun, (2) a 'real movie'. I still think it is the year's clearest measure of how willingly, faute de mieux, people will deceive themselves."
Agee was not alone in this. By the end of the Second World War Casablanca was completely forgotten; the only American films of the war years that anyone remembered were Gone with the Wind, enshrined in public myth, and Mrs Miniver. It was not till the mid-Fifties that Casablanca began to be revived, if only spottily - otherwise how could Jack Warner have included it in that job-lot of old Warner movies sold to television in 1956 for $21m? By the time the film had achieved mythic status there was some dissension among its various creators. The play, by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, had "little in the way of a story adaptable to the screen," wrote Koch in New York magazine in 1973. An enraged Burnett sued Koch and the magazine for $6,500,000 each, the first of several lawsuits, all of which he lost.
Koch summed it up in 1989, "I've got a mystical feeling about Casablanca. That it made itself somehow. That it needed to be made and that we were all conveyors on the belt, taking it there . . . It's just a movie, but it's more than that. It's become something that people can't find in values today. And they go back to Casablanca as they go back to church, political church, to find something that is gone from our values today."
It is not Koch's only claim for posterity's attention. He was a successful lawyer in 1929 when his play Great Scott!, aka He Went to College, was produced in Springfield and transferred to Broadway for a short run. In 1937 the Federal Theatre in Chicago put on another of his plays, The Lonely Man, starring John Huston, then known, if at all, as the son of the actor Walter Huston. But Koch recognised that he was the only possible casting for Abraham Lincoln reincarnated in modern Chicago.
In 1938 Koch joined the radio company run by Orson Welles and John Houseman, Mercury Theater of the Air. One of Koch's first assignments was an adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, about which he had grave doubts after a few days work: "It's all too silly!" But of course the play panicked America. Koch was working on an adaptation of Shakespeare's historical plays for Welles, Five Kings, when John Huston persuaded Warner Bros - to whom he was himself under contract as a writer - to sign up Koch.
His work for Warners included two pictures for Bette Davis - and two in which she gave two of her most potent and subtle studies of female duplicity: The Letter (1940), adapted from Somerset Maugham and directed by William Wyler, and In This Our Life (1942), directed by John Huston. Casablanca enhanced even further Koch's standing at the studio, as did his work (with John Huston) on Sergeant York (1941), the story of the most-decorated hero of the First World War, played by Gary Cooper and directed by Howard Hawks.
Mission to Moscow (1943) was made at the instigation of the War Office of Information, admittedly without enthusiasm by the Warner brothers themselves - but flattered that their studio should be chosen by Washington for a "semi-official" picture. It was based on the autobiographical account by Joseph E. Davies of his time in the Soviet Union, from his appointment as ambassador in 1936 to its alliance with the United States against Germany. Michael Curtiz directed Walter Huston as Davies and Manart Kippen as a benign Stalin. In the fervour of friendship the film positively doted on everything Soviet - but its manifold errors and omissions went generally overlooked. In the New York Herald Tribune Otis L. Guernsey Jnr called it "one of the most memorable documents of our time" though he did note "a simplification of history" and "a decided Americanisation of Slavic personality and sense of values".
Koch's later work at Warners included a biography of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue (1945) and a wry thriller written with John Huston, Three Strangers (1946). Questions were being asked about Mission for Moscow by the Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee while Koch was working on Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) for Universal. Its Washington connections were ignored; the pro-Soviet propa- ganda and Koch's circle of friends were of much more concern. Koch wrote Margaret Sullavan's last film, No Sad Songs for Me (1950), for Columbia, but later in the year Columbia removed his name from the credits of a Joan Crawford vehicle, Harriet Craig. He scripted The Thirteenth Letter (1951), Otto Preminger's ill-advised remake of Le Corbeau, and although his name was on the credits it was, ironically, much rewritten by Preminger.
Along with other blacklisted Hollywood writers who had been summoned to appear at the McCarthy hearings, Koch came to Britain, where he wrote The Intimate Stranger (1956) under the pseudonym Peter Howard. The director was Joseph Losey, using the pseudonym Joseph Walton, and the star - playing an American film producer up to his neck in mysteries in Britain - was Richard Basehart, never as forcibly identified with left-wing causes as Koch or Losey but who nevertheless chose to compromise his star status by working in Europe during most of the 1950s. Koch's name did not appear on a film again until 1961, when he adapted Rummer Godden's novel The Greengage Summer for the director Lewis Gilbert, with Susannah York as a schoolgirl puzzled by a fellow Brit, Kenneth More, stranded like herself in the champagne country of France.
Hollywood welcomed him back with two films made in Britain - The War Lover (1962) and 633 Squadron (1963). The latter was written in collaboration, as was The Fox (1967), based on the D.H. Lawrence tale of a lesbian love affair disturbed by the advent of a heterosexual male; Mark Rydell directed and Koch was one of the co-producers of this British picture.
Koch published an account of Welles, The Panic Broadcast, and As Time Goes By: Memoirs of a Writer in Hollywood, New York and Europe. Nothing else in the last is quite as poignant as his account of making Letter from an Unknown Woman: of his friendship with the German Director Max Ophuls, whose work he did not then know (and who could not get any in Hollywood); of John Houseman's request that he, Koch, dramatise the Stefan Zweig story, and his agreement - knowing Ophuls's exquisite Liebelei - that Ophuls was the best possible choice as director; and of their horror on discovering that Universal's executives had cut from the final print everything that was delicate and enchanting about old Vienna and one girl's heartbreaking love for a man who forgets her. She was played by Joan Fontaine, who with her husband William Dozier, co-producing, supported Ophuls, Koch and Houseman.
The result, as restored, confounded Universal's sales people, who threw it on the market without enthusiasm; and then in Britain Universal sold it to Eros, who handled only reissues and films other distributors did not want. A couple of British critics, remembering Liebelei, sought it out - and since then, Koch noted happily, "it has become one of the standard revivals at Britain's National Film Theatre". Many moviegoers love Ophuls's Imperial Vienna as much as Curtiz's Casablanca, as well as their common romantic themes, the heartache of romantic memories and a love that went wrong somewhere along the way.
Howard Koch, screenwriter: born New York City 12 December 1902; married (one son, one daughter); died Kingston, New York 17 August 1995.
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