Jerome Chodorov

Blacklisted co-author of 'My Sister Eileen'

Saturday 18 September 2004 00:00 BST

Jerome Chodorov, playwright: born New York 10 August 1911; married (one daughter); died Nyack, New York 12 September 2004.

The writer Jerome Chodorov was the co-author with Joseph Fields of the hit stage comedy My Sister Eileen (1940), which later became the classic musical Wonderful Town.

Jerome Chodorov, playwright: born New York 10 August 1911; married (one daughter); died Nyack, New York 12 September 2004.

The writer Jerome Chodorov was the co-author with Joseph Fields of the hit stage comedy My Sister Eileen (1940), which later became the classic musical Wonderful Town.

In 1942 the pair had two hit plays on Broadway, My Sister Eileen and Junior Miss, and in 1954 they had two plays and a musical running concurrently. Chodorov was also a prolific screenwriter, and managed to survive being blacklisted in the witch hunts of the early Fifties. He wrote more than a dozen stage plays and musicals, but My Sister Eileen was to prove particularly important. Not only a hit play, it was made into two films, became an acclaimed Broadway musical, and was the inspiration for a television series. A revival is currently having a successful run on Broadway.

Adapted from autobiographical stories by Ruth McKenney that originally appeared in The New Yorker, My Sister Eileen told of two sisters who arrive in Greenwich Village from Columbus, Ohio. Pretty Eileen has ambitions to be an actress, while her older sister, Ruth, is an aspiring writer. The play depicted their adventures in the city, and the colourful friends they make in the Bohemian quarter of New York in the late Thirties.

The play's opening night on 26 December 1940 almost did not take place as scheduled, though, since the real-life Eileen was killed, with her husband, the writer Nathanael West, in a car crash a week before. It was decided that the best thing for the depressed company was to open on time, and the result was a smash hit, with critics calling it "side-splitting", "heart-warming and uproarious" and "brilliantly integrated".

The contribution of the director George S. Kaufman was considered a major factor, and Shirley Booth as Ruth was hailed for her "superlative skill" as the sister whose charms are overshadowed by her sister's beauty. "Gee," she tells Eileen, "Since I've been in New York, I only met one man, and he said, 'Why the hell don't you look where you're going?' "

My Sister Eileen ran for 866 performances and in 1942 it was filmed by Columbia, with Rosalind Russell gaining an Oscar nomination for her expertly timed portrayal of Ruth. It was a generally faithful transcription, with a little opening-out, and the deletion of a few lines to placate the Hollywood censors.

When the play was turned into a musical in 1953, Russell was the star. Fields and Chodorov wrote a sparkling libretto, with Leonard Bernstein writing the second of the four superlative scores he was to compose for the musical theatre (the others On the Town, West Side Story and Candide). Betty Comden and Adolph Green provided witty and appealing lyrics, and the show, entitled Wonderful Town, was hailed by New York critics. It won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, belying its troubled production history.

Originally, Leroy Anderson had been commissioned to write the score, and, when his work was jettisoned, Bernstein was brought in with a tight time schedule. The director George Abbott later described Wonderful Town as having "more hysterical debate, more acrimony, more tension and more screaming than any other show I was ever involved with". A London production starred Pat Kirkwood, who gave a piquant, if less dynamic, performance than Russell as Ruth. It was respectably received, but critics failed to appreciate Bernstein's score as much as New York's had.

Columbia Pictures, which still owned the rights to the play, were going to film Wonderful Town, but, when negotiations regarding the score broke down, they asked Blake Edwards and Richard Quine to make an adaptation of Fields and Chodorov's original script and commissioned Jule Styne and Leo Robin to write a new score. With Betty Garrett and Janet Leigh as Ruth and Eileen, and Jack Lemmon and Bob Fosse also cast, it was an engaging musical, if lacking the bite of Wonderful Town.

Chodorov was himself a native New Yorker, born in 1911, who worked as a runner on Wall Street (he was doing so at the time of the 1929 crash), and as a reporter for the New York World, before moving to California. He started his career in fiction by writing scripts for "B" movies, including The Devil's Playground (1937), a submarine drama starring Richard Dix and Dolores Del Rio, and Reported Missing (1937), described by the "B" movie expert Don Miller as "a satisfactory aerial mystery complete with masked villain".

Conspiracy (1939), reflecting Chodorov's political views, was an anti-Fascist thriller set in a mythical Central American country ruled by a totalitarian dictator and seething with secret police. He then formed a writing partnership with Joseph A. Fields (brother of the lyricist Dorothy Fields), and the pair fashioned a Broadway play, Schoolhouse on the Lot (1938), a satire on Hollywood's child stars, which ran for only seven weeks.

The team's screenplays included Rich Man, Poor Girl (1938), an early Lana Turner movie, Two Girls on Broadway (1940), also with Turner, and Dulcy (1940), starring Ann Sothern in an adaptation of the stage comedy by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. One of their major films was an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Louisiana Purchase (1941) which starred Bob Hope. Although it dropped most of Irving Berlin's score, it was lavishly filmed in gorgeous colour and was a great hit.

Chodorov and Fields had been praised for the shape and structure they had given to My Sister Eileen (McKenney had earlier tried without success to adapt her stories for the stage), and they had a similar triumph with their next play, Junior Miss (1941), adapted from a series of New Yorker short stories by Sally Benson. A delightful comedy detailing the misadventures of an over-imaginative 13-year-old who plays "Miss Fix-it" to the adults around her, it was a fine piece of escapism that became one of Broadway's biggest hits of the war years.

George Seaton directed a superlative film version in 1945, faithful to Chodorov and Fields, with Peggy Ann Garner as the self-dramatising heroine, Judy. "You've got to stop worrying about your family so much," her girlfriend Fluffy tells her, "or you'll have a mental collapse like Bette Davis." "Which picture was that?" Judy asks. "Any Bette Davis picture," replies Fluffy. "She always has mental collapses."

In 1942 Fields wrote a play on his own, The Doughgirls, but he paid homage to his erstwhile partner by giving one of the characters, a Russian sniper, the name Chodorov. Chodorov and Fields re-teamed in 1945 to write a comedy set in occupied Paris, The French Touch. Though directed by René Clair, it was criticised as forced and lacking in French atmosphere, and its run was brief.

Chodorov returned to Hollywood, where his film scripts included a successful drama, Those Endearing Young Charms (1945). Film work dried up in the early Fifties, however, when he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee after being named by colleagues as a Communist. One of those who named him was the choreographer Jerome Robbins, who, after helping stage Wonderful Town, went to the committee to denounce his former colleagues, including Jerome Chodorov and his writer brother Edward Chodorov.

In 1954 Chodorov and Fields had another Broadway hit, a comedy satirising television, Happy Anniversary, filmed in 1959 with David Niven and Mitzi Gaynor. The team also wrote the libretto for another musical, The Girl in Pink Tights (1954), basing their book on the actual events that resulted in the creation of The Black Crook (1866), regarded as America's first musical comedy. Neither book nor score was considered inspired.

Chodorov and Fields had a hit again the next season with the comedy The Ponder Heart (1956), which won a Tony Award for its star, Una Merkel. During this period, the blacklisted writer also did uncredited work on films, and worked with Alexander Korda in London. One of his credits, for the comedy Tunnel of Love (1958), starring Doris Day and Richard Widmark, was restored by the Writers' Guild 40 years later.

In 1958 Chodorov directed a popular comedy, The Gazebo, but an ambitious musical he directed, Christine (1960), failed despite the beguiling performance of its star, Maureen O'Hara. Chodorov's later career in the theatre was generally disappointing. The musical I Had a Ball (1964) and the play Three Bags Full (1966) were Broadway flops, and several shows failed to reach New York.

His final Broadway play was a mystery melodrama written with Norman Panama, A Talent for Murder (1981). Though it opened with a large advance sale, primarily on the strength of its star, Claudette Colbert, it was mercilessly panned by critics and ran for only two months. With both eyesight and hearing failing, Chodorov wrote little in the last few years, but maintained an enthusiastic interest in the theatre. Last autumn, he attended the opening of the current triumphant revival of Wonderful Town.

Tom Vallance

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