Obituary: Michael Kanin

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Michael Kanin, playwright and screenwriter: born Rochester, New York, 1 February 1910; married Fay Mitchell (one son); died Los Angeles 12 March 1993.

THERE'S no question that Michael Kanin's favourite movie star was Katharine Hepburn. In 1942 she received a 30,000-word script treatment from Kanin and Ring Lardner Jnr, both young and unknown. Called Woman of the Year, it was a comedy about the stormy marriage of a political columnist and a sports writer. Recognising it as an ideal vehicle for herself and Spencer Tracy, an actor with whom she longed to work, Hepburn persuaded MGM to buy the script without knowing who had written it. Believing it to be the work of the high-priced Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (who were not above secretly selling a script to one studio while under contract to another), MGM forked out what was then the highest fee ever paid for an original screenplay.

Michael Kanin and his younger brother Garson were born to be writers. When their father gave them the multi-volumed Book of Knowledge, the siblings sat down and spent six months reading it straight through.

Michael was 29 when, after working as a commercial artist and musician, he wrote his first screenplays for RKO. The titles say it all: They Made Her a Spy, Panama Lady, Anne of Windy Poplars - each designed for the nether side of the double bill. The most pleasant aspect of those RKO days was a reader in the studio's story department. Her name was Fay Mitchell, but she soon became Fay Kanin.

It was at this point that Michael and Ring Jnr started their collaboration. Soon after Woman of the Year (which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1942), Michael began writing with Fay. He also turned out scripts on his own, including Centennial Summer (1946), a film with two claims to fame: it was Jerome Kern's last score, and it starred the greatest number of non-singers ever to make a musical.

When Garson Kanin and his wife Ruth Gordon wrote the stylish Ronald Colman thriller A Double Life (1948), they chose Michael to produce the film. Three years later Michael wrote and directed the charming When I Grow Up, of which the Saturday Review of Literature said: 'Middle-class American family life has rarely been so faithfully portrayed on the screen.'

There was not only a secret blacklist in the 1950s, there was also a secret 'greylist'. This was composed of people who had not yet been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but were none the less viewed with suspicion. After two lean years on this list, Michael and Fay Kanin were finally asked by the director Charles Vidor to write MGM's Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Rhapsody (1954). When the studio refused, Vidor told them: 'Give me the Kanins or I'll tell the world about the Greylist]' MGM gave in. Now hireable again, Michael and Fay moved to Paramount for the Doris Day / Clark Gable Teacher's Pet (1958), their script winning them an Oscar nomination.

By now Michael was disenchanted with the way studios tampered with his work. ('Isn't it curious,' he said, 'that hardly anyone can write, but everyone can rewrite?') In 1959 he and Fay wrote Rashomon, a successful Broadway play based on Kurosawa's classic film. Five years later Michael adapted their adaptation to the screen as The Outrage, changing the setting from Japan in the 12th century to the American South-west in the 19th. It was not successful.

Nor was The Gay Life, a Broadway musical based on Schnitzler's The Affair of Anatol. The Kanins wrote the book and Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz the songs. In his autobiography, Dietz blames the show's Anatol, the Italian comedian Walter Chiari, whom, he maintained, 'couldn't act, dance, sing or speak English, which was a handicap'.

Twenty years later Michael Kanin finally had a hit musical on Broadway. In 1981 Lauren Bacall starred in Kander and Ebb's Woman of the Year - but neither Lardner nor Kanin made a penny out of it; as their screenplay hadn't been commissioned by MGM, all the money for the story rights went to the studio.

(Photograph omitted)