Obituary: Henry Ephron

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The Independent Online
Henry Ephron, playwright, screenwriter, film producer, born New York City 26 May 1912, married Phoebe Wolkind (died 1972; one daughter), 1978 June Levant (nee Gale), died Woodland Hills California 6 September 1992.

HENRY EPHRON and his wife Phoebe wrote together for both stage and screen for over 20 years, specialising in light romantic comedies and musicals. They had two big stage-hits, separated by 18 years, while much of their screen work involved felicitously adapting other writers' stage-works to suit the cinema screen. Henry's greatest distinction however came as a film producer. His impressive track record including two of the finest musicals of the Fifties, a distinguished thriller and a sparkling Tracy/Hepburn comedy.

Born in New York in 1912 and educated at Cornell University, Ephron entered the theatre in 1934 as stage manager for the production company of Sam H. Harris and Max Gordon, a position he held for seven years. He married Phoebe Wolkind, a publisher's editor in 1934 (their daughter Nora is now a distinguished writer) and they soon started a writing collaboration, though it was 1943 before their first stage- hit Three's A Family. A frantically paced farce about the wartime housing shortage, it was filmed the following year without the Ephrons' involvement, though by then they were in Hollywood updating Norman Krasna's 1934 comedy The Richest Girl in the World as Bride By Mistake, for RKO.

Signed by Warners to write light comedies, their first assignment, an original called Always Together, was a strained affair about a girl who fantasises her real-life situations in movie terms, allowing a bunch of Warner stars to make guest appearances, but Wallflower, from Reginald Denham and Mary Orr's play was an acute and popular piece of small-town Americana.

John Loves Mary was an equally successful piece of light-hearted romantic escapism from Norman Krasna's play, and with the theatre historian Marian Spitzer they fashioned a workmanlike script for Look for the Silver Lining, based on the life of Broadway legend Marilyn Miller.

Their finest work was to come, when Darryl F. Zanuck signed them to join his strong writing team at 20th Century-Fox in 1950. A comedy about a radio-contest winner, based on a New Yorker article by John McNulty, The Jackpot was well received and they did a fine job adapting (with Valentine Davies) a studio warhorse for Danny Kaye. A story of the complications which ensue when an entertainer impersonates a look-alike diplomat, filmed previously as Moulin Rouge and That Night in Rio, it was retitled On the Riviera (1951) and became one of Kaye's better vehicles, while Belles on their Toes (1952) was a charming evocation of Twenties nostalgia with a gently feminist slant.

The Ephrons were happy when assigned to adapt the Maxwell Anderson / Laurence Stallings play What Price Glory as a musical for James Cagney, but when the director John Ford was signed for the film he vetoed the idea of a musical and threw out some already-shot numbers. The result pleased no one. A full-scale musical followed, There's No Business Like Showbusiness (1954), but their script strained in an effort to merge the disparate talents of Ethel Merman, Marilyn Monroe and Johnny Ray.

The writers had better luck with an update of the Jean Webster perennial Daddy Long Legs (1955), fashioned for Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The producer Frederick Brisson and his wife Rosalind Russell borrowed the Ephrons to conceive a film musical in which Russell could follow up her enormous Broadway success in Wonderful Town. The result, The Girl Rush (1955), was so nondescript that in her autobiography Russell ignores its existence.

Meanwhile Zanuck, who had already let many of his writers, including George Seaton, Philip Dunne and Nunnally Johnson, assume producing and/or directing chores, agreed to let Ephron make the transition to producer with the magnificent Carousel (1956), scripted by Phoebe and himself from Rodgers and Hammerstein's adaptation of the Molnar play Liliom. The writers found a perfect balance between fidelity to the original and reconceiving in filmic terms, while Ephron gave the film fine production values. A biography of the composers De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, The Best Things in Life are Free, vigorously directed by Michael Curtiz, had a witty script by Phoebe with William Bowers from a story by John O'Hara, a fine cast, superior choreography by Rod Alexander and remains one of the most undervalued musicals of the decade.

Twenty-three Paces to Baker Street (1956), scripted by Nigel Balchin, was an intriguing thriller with a blind hero whose acute hearing puts him on the trail of a kidnapper. The Ephrons then adapted the Broadway hit The Desk Set (1957) as an enjoyable starring vehicle for Hepburn and Tracy.

For his one venture as a director Ephron chose a modest vehicle for the pop star Tommy Sands, Sing Boy Sing (1958), based on a television play. In 1961 the team returned to Broadway with a hit comedy about a father trying to cope with a daughter during the beatnik era, Take Her, She's Mine, though when Fox filmed it the following year it was scripted by Nunnally Johnson.

In 1964 their screenplay (with Richard L. Breen) for Captain Newman MD (from Leo Rosten's novel) won them an Oscar nomination, though they lost to John Osborne (for Tom Jones).

Phoebe died in 1971 and seven years later Henry married Oscar Levant's widow June Gale. In 1977 he wrote a book about his collaboration with Phoebe, We Thought We Could Do Anything.

(Photograph omitted)