OBITUARY : Albert Hackett

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The Independent Online
Probably no two writers served MGM better than Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, the husband-and-wife team who were there throughout the golden age, from the "boy genius" Irving Thalberg to Dore Schary, appointed in 1948 by the Front Office because it thought that Louis B. Mayer, one of the studio's founders, did not understand post-war audiences.

``A pompous studio run by a pompous man,'' Barbara Stanwyck said once, referring to Mayer, but it was precisely because amidst its grandeur it could accommodate such irreverent spirits as the Hacketts that MGM was the industry leader. They were able to pen the racy dialogue of the "Thin Man" pictures, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, and at the other end of the scale the arch exchanges required by the Jeanette Macdonald- Nelson Eddy operettas.

The first of these latter was Naughty Marietta (1935), in which the celebrated duo warbled "Ah Sweet Mystery of Life!" at each other. Filing out of the preview to fill in one of the response cards the Hacketts pseudonymously informed MGM that they had loved it because "Mother and I had seen the original show when courting, but the film was spoilt for us because of the scene in which Frank Morgan's flies were undone." The studio examined the existing prints without finding the offending scene; and although the story is not particularly funny it entered Hollywood lore - and was used by Harold Pinter in his screenplay for The Last Tycoon.

Born into a theatrical family, Hackett had been an actor from the age of six, spending three years with one of the pioneer movie companies, Lubin. He met Goodrich - then married to the popular historian Hendrick Willem Van Loon - when he and she were Broadway players of small but solid reputations. They collaborated on a play, Up Pops the Devil (1930), in which he appeared; Paramount filmed it the following year and after two less successful plays the Hacketts, now married, accepted an MGM contract.

Their first screenplays demonstrate cynicism and an ability to write the sort of romantic tosh then favoured by the studios: The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933), with Irene Dunne, a remake of a mother-love tale, The Lady, with the courtroom climax of MGM's recently popular The Sin of Madelon Claudet grafted on, almost intact; and Fugitive Lovers (1934), with Robert Montgomery and Madge Evans, one of the myriad cross-country bus tales, in this case combining elements of Les Misrables and a splendid Warner Bros 1932 melodrama, One-Way Passage.

Penthouse (1933), a fable about a crooked lawyer, was hardly an improvement, especially as the role was played by Warner Baxter, never at ease as a debonair man-about-town; but the supporting cast was headed by Myrna Loy as the sort of girl who wasn't fussy about those with whom she drank or slept. The director was W.S. Van Dyke, who joined up again with the Hacketts for an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett`s The Thin Man (1934), in which Loy and William Powell so perfectly embodied the wealthy, witty and hard- drinking private eye and his wife, Nick and Nora Charles. The Hacketts and Van Dyke worked on the first two of the five sequels, which were equally enjoyable, but their absence was increasingly felt. Loy described the last of them (Song of the Thin Man, 1947) as "a lacklustre finish to a great series. I hated it. The characters had lost their sparkle for Bill and me, and the people who knew what it was all about were no longer involved."

By this time the Hacketts had been poached by Paramount, for The Hitler Gang (1944) and Mitchell Leisen's extravagant version of the Moss Hart- Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark, with Ginger Rogers. In 1946, in Frank Capra's words, "RKO spent a fortune on three complete scripts by three great writers", Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connolly and Clifford Odets, to work up a story he had found on a Christmas card; but Capra liked none of them and invited the Hacketts, "perceptive, human writers", to participate: the result, It's a Wonderful Life, with James Stewart, is now considered Capra's most popular film - but at the time was both too downbeat and too folksy for wide appeal.

The Hacketts returned to MGM for The Pirate (1948), adapting S.N. Behrman's Theatre Guild play for Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Cole Porter's songs. Their 1935 screenplay for Ah! Wilderness, based on Eugene O'Neill's play, required few changes when it was adapted by other hands for a musical, Summer Holiday, and they themselves sensibly made few changes when adapting The Shop Around the Corner (1940) for Garland and some old songs, In the Good Old Summertime (1949); also for Garland - and in this instance Fred Astaire and a Berlin score - they wrote Easter Parade.

The first of this quartet was directed by Vincente Minnelli, who also handled the Hacketts' beautifully constructed script for Father of the Bride (1950), based on Edward Streeter's comic novel, with Spencer Tracy in the title-role. Except for some slapstick by Steve Martin, the 1991 remake faltered whenever it strayed from the original, while at the time the sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), was only a pale shadow of the first film. Another original screenplay, again for Minnelli, The Long Long Trailer (1954), expertly capitalised on the television popularity of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Another musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, might have ended their association with MGM on a high note, but they stayed on to write Gaby (1956) for Leslie Caron, a remake of Waterloo Bridge with none of the felicities of the 1931 and 1940 versions.

Returning to Broadway, they adapted The Diary of Anne Frank, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the Best Play achievement by the Drama Critics' Circle. George Stevens directed their screenplay for the 1959 film version with care and integrity, but the miscasting of the central role - Millie Perkins as Anne - made the result a disappointment to cinemagoers, not to mention the millions who had been moved by the book. Nor, unhappily, was there much praise for the Hacketts' last collaboration, Five Finger Exercise (1962), based on the play by Peter Shaffer.

Hackett was a bon viveur, an enthusiastic traveller and a courtly man; and his learning sat easily on one born in the proverbial trunk. He only once returned to the stage after settling in Hollywood, in Mr and Mrs North (1941), a thriller which MGM turned into a Gracie Allen vehicle.

Albert Hackett, screenwriter, playwright, actor: born New York City 16 February 1900; twice married; died New York City 16 March 1995.