Obituary: Ivan Goff

Tom Vallance
Monday 27 September 1999 23:02
comments

"MADE IT, Ma. Top of the world!", the words cried out by James Cagney in the final moments of the gangster classic White Heat (1949), form one of the most famous phrases in the history of cinema.

The men who wrote the line were Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, whose partnership lasted for over 40 years, in which they turned out countless scripts for both films and television. For the latter medium they created Charlie's Angels, one of television's biggest hits and at the time of its conception one of the most controversial. White Heat was their only truly outstanding film, but its star James Cagney thought highly of their talents and they were to write three more of his films, for one of which they won an Oscar nomination. Other stars for whom they constructed screenplays included Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Doris Day and Gregory Peck.

The Australian-born Goff worked as a reporter in Perth before moving to England; in 1933 he published No Longer Innocent: recollections of a voyage from Australia to London about his journey. He pursued several occupations, including that of a bookie, while trying to establish a foothold in journalism. He eventually found work with the Daily Mirror, and in the mid-Thirties was sent to California as the paper's Hollywood correspondent. He decided to settle there, and became a staff writer at Republic Studios, where his work included uncredited contributions to several of the westerns in the "Three Mesquiteers" series featuring John Wayne, and a Gene Autry western Sunset Over Wyoming (1940).

Ben Roberts, then in a writing partnership with Sidney Sheldon, was also at the studio writing "B" movies, but the two men did not get to know one another until the onset of the Second World War, when they were drafted into the Army Signal Corps and found themselves working together at the former Astoria Studios in Long Island on an assignment to make wartime propaganda shorts.

Having lunch one day, Roberts told Goff of an idea he had for a short story that lacked an ending. Goff came up with an ending and suggested that they turn it into a play rather than a short story. Working at night over a period of 13 months, they completed the play, which they called Portrait in Black. It eventually had a moderate run on Broadway in 1947 and much later was turned into a film starring Lana Turner.

At the end of the war, Roberts having split amicably with Sheldon, he and Goff decided to remain as a team and wrote a screenplay based on a Ben Hecht story, The Shadow. Though optioned several times, it has never been filmed, but reaction was favourable enough for Warners to offer them a contract and a request to rewrite a script, Backfire, which was causing problems. The director Vincent Sherman said:

I was asked to do a film that was later titled Backfire. I had read the original story when the studio first bought it, but I found it confused and pointless. The producer agreed that work on it was necessary and told me he was putting two bright writers, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, on the screenplay. That weekend I invited Goff and Roberts to my house to see if we could simplify the story and make something out of it. They were intelligent and talented, but after several hours of discussion I concluded that it was an impossible task and that I would have to withdraw from it. I advised them to do the same. Their answer was that they were just getting started, needed the job, and would have to do the best they could with it.

Sherman eventually agreed to direct Backfire, after being promised that in return he could direct The Hasty Heart. Though the writers managed to sort out some of the plot's convolutions ("Goff and Roberts did a noble job with the screenplay," stated Sherman) and its cast - Virginia Mayo, Gordon McRae, Edmond O'Brien, Viveca Lindfors and Dane Clark - took the film out of the "B" bracket, Backfire emerged as an agreeable, but distinctly minor, thriller. Fortunately for the writers, the studio held up its release until after their subsequent project, White Heat, had been shown.

Apart from its stature as a terrific gangster movie, White Heat was a landmark in several ways. For the previous eight years, since his Academy Award-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941) which was followed by a row with his studio, Warners, James Cagney had been seen in only four films, three produced by his own company and none of them big successes. White Heat was to restore him as a major star. It also reverted him to the tough-guy image in which he had achieved fame, but with fewer redeeming qualities and a savagery that mirrored the changing times.

The project started as a non-Cagney vehicle, based on a story idea submitted to the studio by Virginia Kellogg. Inspired by the real-life Denver Mint robbery, Kellogg's draft told of a post office robbery and focused on the investigation by the Secret Service. Her heroes were two federal agents - one old, one young - and the villain of the piece, the gangster Blackie Flynn, did not appear until half-way through the story. Roberts recalled,

We said, "We don't want to do this. It's simply a bank robbery, it's ordinary, conventional, banal." They said, "What would you like to do?" We said, "We'd like to do Ma Barker and have the gangster with a mother complex and play it against Freudian implications that she's driving him to do these things and he's driving himself to self-destruction. Play it like a Greek tragedy." They said, "Fellas . . .?" We said, "Believe us, this will work. And there's only one man who can play this and make the rafters rock. That is Jimmy Cagney."

According to Goff, their casting suggestion was met with horror, since Cagney had sworn when he left the studio that he would never return and Jack Warner had vowed never to take him back. But the commercial prospects of a "tough guy" comeback were too great for both Cagney and Warner to ignore, and Cagney signed. The writers recalled that Cagney came to their office shortly afterwards, lay down on the couch ("like he always did") and asked them what they were going to do. After they described in some detail their plans for the character of Cody Jarrett, Cagney said, "Whatever you say, fellas!" "Jimmy was marvellous that way," said Roberts. "It was always like that with him on the pictures we did with him. He would say, `What are you going to do, fellas?' Then, `Whatever you say, fellas!' "

Goff and Roberts described themselves as slow, methodical craftsmen, and their first draft for White Heat took six months to write. They would plot in complete detail before even beginning to write, then write their dialogue together, line by line. If pressed, they would suggest that Roberts was the better constructionist, with Goff having a flair for detail and dialogue, but stated that they worked together so closely that it was difficult to separate their individual contributions. "Our contention," said Roberts, "and I think it's borne out by the scripts we've done, is that the style of the script is neither my style nor Ivan's, but a third person's."

Cagney himself was to suggest one memorable bit of business in White Heat, when Jarrett actually sits in his mother's lap. Goff said, "The audiences were startled but they knew they were looking at something awfully personal. And it was a great moment because of that." One of the most powerful scenes written by Goff and Roberts, when Jarrett learns in the prison mess hall that his mother has been betrayed and killed, the news sending him uncontrollably berserk, was almost taken out of the script for budgetary reasons.

Jack Warner complained that the cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant, and he suggested they reset it in the chapel. The writers pointed out that, apart from the fact that Jarrett would be unlikely to be in the chapel in the first place, the point of the scene was to have a lot of noise, with rattling knives and forks and chatter, that suddenly goes completely silent when Jarrett first screams. Warner agreed only when Walsh promised to shoot the scene in three hours, so that the extras were through by lunchtime.

The Goff and Roberts screenplay abounds in memorable moments, from the opening train robbery that establishes Cody's ruthlessness with his cold- blooded killing of an engineer ("You got a good memory for names"). As the engineer falls, he hits a lever which releases steam from the side of the train - the first appearance of the motif of white heat. (The title, along with the motif, was the idea of Goff and Roberts.)

The screenplay rapidly establishes Jarrett's dangerous mental state, his agonising headaches ("like having a red-hot buzz-saw inside my head"), his bursts of violence, his obsessive devotion to his mother. It also vividly depicts his vicious mother, his bored, sluttish wife and his scheming henchman. When Jarrett, trapped on top of an oil tank, finally cries out his famous last line as he blows himself up by firing bullets into it, the Treasury agent pronounces his epitaph: "Cody Jarrett. He finally made it to the top of the world. And it blew up in his face."

Screenwriters are rarely wholly satisfied with the rendering of their work on screen, but Goff and Roberts were proud of White Heat, which they felt was "as true as possible to the authors' design". Their only regret is that when Virginia Kellogg was given story credit on the screen they saw no reason to cavil. When Kellogg received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story (the film's only nomination, due to the controversy its violence had caused), Goff reflected in retrospect, "That credit was costly for us."

Goff and Roberts worked with the director Vincent Sherman again on a transcription of Fay Kanin's Broadway play Goodbye My Fancy (1951), a comedy with serious undertones regarding academic freedom, in which a liberal congresswoman is invited back to speak at the college from which she was once expelled, and where the man she once loved is now president. Goff and Roberts were asked by the studio to considerably modify the more radical political elements, weakening the property, and its star Joan Crawford was not ideally cast, but it remains an under-rated film which Sherman regards as "well-acted, well-written and well-directed, with some fine scenes and genuine emotion".

The team adapted C.S. Forester's swashbuckling tale Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), starring Gregory Peck in a role planned for (and better suited to) Errol Flynn, then worked again with Cagney on Come Fill the Cup (1951), adapting Harlan Ware's novel about a newspaperman's fight against alcoholism and the local underworld. In total the pair wrote 25 feature films, including King of the Khyber Rifles (1953), Green Fire (1954), Serenade (1956) and Band of Angels (1957), an epic saga of the Old South with Clark Gable starring and Raoul Walsh as director. They were reunited with Cagney once more for Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), the life story of the silent film star Lon Chaney, and their screenplay won an Oscar nomination.

The team's final film with Cagney was Shake Hands With the Devil (1959), with the star as an obsessive underground fighter with the IRA in 1921. The film's title was taken from an old Irish proverb, "Those who shake hands with the devil often have trouble getting their hands back." In 1960 Goff and Roberts wrote two glossy thrillers for the producer Ross Hunter. They adapted their own play Portrait in Black, starring Lana Turner, and adapted Janet Green's play Matilda Shouted Fire as Midnight Lace starring Doris Day.

Though neither film was lauded critically (Variety said of Portrait in Black, "It's psychological character interplay is more psycho than logical"), they were both box-office hits. With the Hollywood they knew disappearing, Goff and Roberts moved into television, writing The Rogues (1964-65) for the production company formed by Dick Powell, David Niven and Charles Boyer, and producing Mannix, a detective series starring Mike Connors which had an eight-year run (1967-75).

In 1976 they created the pilot show for Charlie's Angels, in which three glamorous police-trained detectives worked for an unseen boss named Charlie who relayed assignments by telephone. In its first season the show was denounced by sections of the press as "massage parlour television" and "voyeurism", which brought huge viewing figures, and the show had a successful five-year run, making stars of Farrah Fawcett-Majors (who was virtually a cult figure for a while), Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd (who replaced Fawcett-Majors when she walked out on the series).

Goff, who lived in Malibu, was at one time president of the screen council of the Screen Writers Guild.

Ivan Goff, screenwriter: born 1910; died Santa Monica, California 23 September 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments