OBITUARY: John Patrick

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The Independent Online
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Teahouse of the August Moon, a world-wide success which was later filmed, John Patrick was a prolific writer for both stage and screen, and a volatile personality. His other plays included The Hasty Heart, which was also later filmed; while his scenarios included such box office hits as Three Coins in the Fountain, High Society and Love is a Many Splendored Thing. The bursts of temperament that accompanied rehearsals of his work were legendary, but his suicide last month shocked and surprised his friends.

Born John Patrick Goggan in Louisville, Kentucky, he attended Harvard and Columbia Universities before starting his writing career in radio as a script writer for NBC. His first play, Hell Freezes Over (1935), Joshua Logan's first directorial assignment on Broadway, was a gloomy tale of seven survivors of a dirigible crash in the South Pole who meet their fates through gangrene, suicide, exposure and murder. The curtain fell as the last survivor waited to die of starvation. It ran for 25 performances and prompted the critic George Jean Nathan to suggest that the author be "tossed into the Hollywood ashcan".

Patrick did go to Hollywood, where he co-wrote 24 scripts in two and a half years - most of them "B" movies for 20th Century Fox including vehicles for Jane Withers (The Holy Terror, 1937), Dolores Del Rio (International Settlement, 1938), the Dionne Quintuplets (Five of a Kind, 1939) and Peter Lorre (Mr Moto Takes a Chance, 1939). Convinced that he had now learnt his craft, he moved to Boston and wrote two more plays, one of which, The Willow and I, had a brief Broadway run in 1942. In the same year he joined the American Field Service, serving as an ambulance driver with the British in North Africa, Syria, India and Burma.

He wrote The Hasty Heart in 12 days while en route to the United States from Burma, and when produced on Broadway in 1946 it brought him his first success. Set in a military hospital camp, its tale of a fiercely proud and independent Scot who discovers he is dying and finally is able to make friends with other inmates was told with compassion, humour and sensitivity. The film version (scripted by Ronald MacDougal) was made in England in 1949, starred Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal and brought fame to Richard Todd as the testy Scot.

Patrick himself was already getting a reputation for his temperament. With the profits from The Hasty Heart he bought a farm in Suffern, New York, and installed every modern convenience. When he applied to the local authorities for an extra power line to be supplied, their interminable unfulfilled promises to comply so angered him that he armed himself with a chainsaw and threatened to cut down an elm tree on the president of the power company's lawn. Such anger extended to rehearsals of his work, where Patrick referred to his outbursts as "anger that I have to generate and use as a whip to drive myself".

His next two plays, one of which starred Dorothy Gish (The Story of Mary Seurat, 1947), were flops, but in 1953 came the biggest success of his career. The actor-producer Maurice Evans had long owned the rights to Vern Sneider's novel The Teahouse of the August Moon, which amusingly told of the relationship between the occupying American Japan and the outwardly unsophisticated people of Okinawa, with the "simple" islanders ultimately proving that they know more about how to live well than the figures of authority.

Evans himself planned to play the central character of the wily interpreter Sakini and, on the basis of Patrick's handling of the military background in The Hasty Heart, asked him to do the stage adaptation. The two men were soon battling over the show's conception, however, and when Evans insisted that a major character omitted from the adaptation be reinstated, communication between the two of them broke down and a co-producer, George Schaefer, was brought in as a means of liaison. (Evans later partly blamed himself, "I obviously lacked finesse in winning my point - it is one thing to have a conviction, but quite another to convey it to a sensitive writer.") Since public feuding between himself and the playwright would endanger possible backing, Evans forsook his ambition to play Sakini, and David Wayne was cast in the part of the lovable rogue who is constantly confiding with the "lovely ladies, kind gentlemen" of the audience, with John Forsythe as the American captain.

Patrick next feuded with the director, Robert Lewis, who wanted to change some dialogue, and hostilities did not end with the show's triumphant opening. When Evans arrived for the first-night party, he found a glass of champagne hurtling through the air to shatter the wall behind him. "Fortunately," he said later, "the attacker was not armed with a chainsaw." The play won not only the Pulitzer Prize, but the Tony Award and the New York Critics Circle Award. Eli Wallach played Sakini in the London production (where George Schaefer had to place guards at the stage door to deny Patrick admittance), and Burgess Meredith played the role for the long and successful tour. The film version, written by Patrick and starring Marlon Brando, lacked the play's lightness and cartoon-like simplicity (Peter Larkin's original sets had made Okinawa an Oriental wonderland) but was successful.

In 1953 Patrick returned to Fox. Hollywood had nominated Patrick for an Oscar in 1946 for his original story The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was made into a superior film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck, and he wrote the story for Framed (1947), a typical 1940s thriller of a rover (Glenn Ford) duped by a beautiful blonde (Janis Carter). For Sam Goldwyn, he scripted Enchantment, a love story of two generations narrated, probably uniquely, by a house. This time he was working on big-budget movies: The President's Lady (1953), with Charlton Heston as Andrew Jackson and Susan Hayward as his wife, and two gigantic Cinemascope hits, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), telling of three American office girls finding romance in Rome, and Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), from Han Suyin's autobiographical novel of a Eurasian girl's ill-fated affair with an American war correspondent. Both films benefited from enormously popular theme songs.

At MGM he adapted Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story into a musical, High Society (1956), which due largely to its high-powered cast - Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly - was another big success, and Les Girls (1957), which wittily used a Rashomon-like construction, as three showgirls tell a jury their own version of past events and their relationship with their male partner, played by Gene Kelly in his last screen musical. Chosen for the Royal Film Performance, the film was more successful in Europe (Truffaut was one of its champions in France) than in America, and won Patrick the Screen Guild Award.

He was less successful trying to gain cohesion from James Jones's sprawling novel Some Came Running (1958), or adapting Paul Osborne's synthetic play The World of Suzie Wong (1961). His final film credits were Gigot (1962) with Jackie Gleason as a deaf mute, The Main Attraction (1963), a musical drama produced by Patrick in England, and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), a lengthy and poorly received version of Morris L. West's novel about a Russian pope (played by Anthony Quinn).

He wrote over a dozen more plays (and an ill-fated musical version of Teahouse of the August Moon, entitled Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen) but none successful, though some are popular with repertory companies, particularly Everybody Loves Opal (1962), a favourite of middle-aged actresses. In later years he often directed his own work in provincial theatres, and in 1972 was made an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts at Baldwin-Wallace College.

He had, more recently, for some years been living with a long-time companion at his farm, which he proclaimed maintained his sense of values. "If things go well, I go to work at the typewriter," he once said. "If not, I get out the tractor."

Tom Vallance

John Patrick Goggan (John Patrick), playwright and screenwriter: born Louisville, Kentucky 17 May 1905; died 7 November 1995.