Obituary: Frank Tarloff

Dick Vosburgh
Tuesday 28 September 1999 23:02

"IS THERE no end to the procession of funny movies from England?" asked the critic Hollis Alpert in America's Saturday Review. The film that prompted Alpert's praise was School for Scoundrels (1960), starring the very British Alastair Sim and Ian Carmichael, adapted from Stephen Potter's very British "Lifemanship" books - and with a screenplay by an American called Frank Tarloff. However, the blacklisted Tarloff's name didn't appear on the credits. Indeed, it was four years before he received a screen credit, and that was for a film that won him an Oscar.

Frank Tarloff's parents were Polish immigrants, and he grew up in New York, where he attended Lincoln High School and Brooklyn College. He owed his writing career to the novelist Irwin Shaw's signing a Hollywood contract: "Irwin's brother David, who's my best friend, went out to visit him and I went along," Tarloff recalled. While in California, he and David Shaw began collaborating on material for various comedians. After writing They Should Have Stood in Bed (1942), a play which lasted only two weeks on Broadway, they wrote for radio until Shaw went into the service. On his own, Tarloff scripted such radio series as The Baby Snooks Show, Junior Miss, The Hardy Family and The Aldrich Family.

His first major screen credit was in 1951 on Behave Yourself in which, after being followed home by a dog who had been trained as a gangsters' go-between, a young married couple (Shelley Winters and Farley Granger) found themselves involved in murder.

In March 1953, Tarloff, who had joined the Communist Party in the 1940s, was named by two witnesses to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At the time, he was working on the television sitcom I Married Joan. "I was immediately fired," he recalled. "Not only by the show, but also by my agents, the William Morris Office, which was a bit strange because the fact was I was employing them."

Luckily, Sheldon Leonard, who had played one of the comic gangsters in Behave Yourself and admired Tarloff's work, was now one of television's leading director-producers. Leonard wrote in his autobiography:

Whenever I got a memo indicating that one of the names I had submitted was "not acceptable", my blood pressure shot up. It was hard enough to maintain a steady stream of scripts for two shows without this obstacle. If they wouldn't clear a writer under his real name, there were any number of innocuous names in the phone book that they might like.

Under "David Adler" and other phonebook pseudonyms, Tarloff wrote for Leonard's Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke shows. Yet he longed to return to screenwriting. "No matter what anyone tells you, there is a hierarchy among writers," he maintained. "It isn't the money. The prestige of being a film writer is greater." He achieved his aim by moving to Britain and writing, for pounds 1,000, School for Scoundrels. Tarloff was a passionate tennis player, and it's not surprising that the film's high point is the scene in which Ian Carmichael, humiliated by Terry-Thomas on the courts, uses "Gamesmanship" to win every point and drive his opponent to gibbering rage.

The screenplay of School for Scoundrels was credited to its producer, Hal E. Chester, who next bought an unfinished film containing many Tyrolean snow scenes. He hired Tarloff to write a film around them; the result was the Yul Brynner spy thriller The Double Man (1964). Chester also bought a story, "A Place of Dragons", which became Father Goose (1964), the Cary Grant/Leslie Caron film for which Tarloff and Peter Stone shared an Academy Award. The moment they went up to accept their Oscars was the first time they had ever met - in true Tinseltown fashion, they had worked separately on the screenplay.

After the star-studded sex comedy A Guide for the Married Man (1966), which he wrote on his own, Tarloff was again paired with Peter Stone for The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968), a comedy about an incorrigible soldier who, because he's escaped from every American army prison is sent on a mission to free five captured Allied generals. The Sunday Telegraph's Margaret Hinxman found the film a "good-humoured joke about war, which is currently frowned upon - instead of a sardonic and bitter joke about war, which is currently okay". This bad timing, as well as an uncertain comedy performance from Paul Newman, resulted in disappointing box-office returns.

After Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969), a pointless remake of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Tarloff returned to television and such top series as Maude and The Jeffersons. He was nominated by the Writers' Guild of America for both Father Goose and A Guide for the Married Man, and was a dedicated member of a committee belatedly set up by the guild to supplement the pensions of members who had suffered financially during the blacklist era.

One of Tarloff's favourite anecdotes concerned the day he warned his landlord that he'd soon be called before HUAC: "I'll be refusing to give the names of Communists," he told him. "So if you don't approve of that, I'll understand if you ask us to leave." The landlord was a member of the Los Angeles underworld, and, although not a political animal, had no sympathy with squealers. "Don't worry," he told Tarloff. "As long as you don't rat on nobody you're welcome here."Frank Tarloff, writer: born New York 1916: married 1943 Lee Barrie (one son, one daughter); died Beverly Hills, California 25 June 1999.

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