Philip Yordan

Oscar-winning screenwriter

Sunday 12 January 2014 04:42

Philip Yordan, screenwriter: born Chicago 1 April 1914; four times married (five children); died La Jolla, California 24 March 2003

One of Hollywood's most colourful and prolific screenwriters, Philip Yordan crafted such varied and distinctive fare as Dillinger, Johnny Guitar, The Man from Laramie, The Big Combo and King of Kings.

He won an Oscar for the story of Broken Lance and acted as a front for blacklisted writers during the McCarthy era – of the famed Hollywood Ten who were jailed for their refusal to testify, eight were writers. During the height of the blacklist, Yordan lived in Paris, where he employed a stable of political émigrés who worked from the basement of his home. One of them, Bernard Gordon, said that though some might have felt exploited, Yordan was well liked. "He had a way of not putting himself above the writer and of being not so much friendly as equal and decent and regular with people."

Born in 1914 to Polish immigrants, Yordan was raised in what he later described as a "middle-class Jewish neighbourhood in Chicago". "Life was hard for many during the Depression," he said, "but it didn't affect us, because my dad got into the beauty supply business and that was excellent, because any girl that could raise 75 cents would, to get her hair set." He earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois and a law degree at Kent College of Law in Chicago, but joined the local Goodman Theatre as an actor and writer. He told Pat McGilligan, author of the 1991 book Backstory 2,

I enjoyed reading, and thought that I would write because I hated the idea of a job, of having to go down to an office. The magazine Esquire rejected some short stories with the comment, "Your prose is stilted, but your dialogue is excellent. What don't you try writing plays?"

In 1941 Yordan's first play, Any Day Now, was staged at a small off-Broadway theatre. The director William Dieterle saw the play, and asked Yordan to join him in Hollywood, where he was preparing a film on the history of jazz. Yordan did some uncredited work on Dieterle's All That Money Can Buy (1941) prior to co-writing the jazz film Syncopation (1942). "It was quite dreadful. Dieterle had one of these intellectual concepts that combined the rise of modern architecture with the rise of jazz. It made absolutely no sense."

Moving to the minor studio Monogram, Yordan began to establish a reputation with a series of tightly constructed B movies including the suspense tale The Unknown Guest (1943), an amusing farce, Johnny Doesn't Live Here Any More (1944), starring the French actress Simone Simon ("I lived with her for about a year and a half"), and an impressive early example of film noir, When Strangers Marry (1944). Described by the historian Don Miller as "the finest B film ever made", When Strangers Marry was an early example of Yordan's habit of finding "surrogates" to write a first-draft script. He gave his outline of a murder plot to a bookstore clerk and aspiring novelist, Dennis Miller, who wrote a draft that Yordan revised, the two men sharing screen credit.

In 1944 Yordan had a hit on Broadway with his play Anna Lucasta, a work strongly influenced by Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie. Originally conceived by Yordan as the story of a Polish-American family living in Pennsylvania, it was initially rejected by Broadway producers and Yordan allowed his agent to show it to the Negro Theatre of Harlem, where the playwright- director Harry Wagstaff Gribble helped rewrite it for black actors. The result was a hit that ran on Broadway for nearly three years and was filmed twice, in 1949 starring Paulette Goddard, and in 1958 with an all-black cast including Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis Jnr.

Yordan won an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay for Dillinger (1945), a fanciful account of the gangster's life. The following year he wrote the film that had the biggest budget of any Monogram production, Suspense, and the film which gave Ava Gardner her first major screen role, Whistle Stop.

House of Strangers (1949) was one of Yordan's contentious credits. The story of a ruthless Italian- American financier (Edward G. Robinson) and his four sons, the script was originally fashioned by Yordan, but the writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz later claimed that he "scrapped all of Yordan's dialogue". When the Screen Writers Guild decreed a shared credit, Mankiewicz refused, so Yordan received sole credit. When the film was remade as a western, Broken Lance, in 1954, Yordan received an Academy Award for best screen story.

One of Yordan's personal favourites was William Wyler's Detective Story (1951), adapted from the play by Sidney Kingsley. At Wyler's instruction, he confined virtually all the action to one set, a police precinct. On stage, three areas of the setting had been used with frequent blackouts as the action shifted, and Yordan skilfully maintained fluidity on screen, "one of the most difficult tasks I ever had in my life". His screenplay won an Oscar nomination.

Yordan first worked with the director Nicholas Ray when he scripted the cult western Johnny Guitar (1954), based on a book by Roy Chanslor. Chanslor and the writer Ben Maddow reputedly worked on early scripts, but Yordan is generally considered the sole writer of the finished work. With its Freudian excesses, and its possible interpretation as a McCarthy era allegory, Johnny Guitar is one of the key films in Yordan's filmography, and a cornerstone of his reputation with French directors. François Truffaut called him "one of the most gifted writers in Hollywood", Jean-Luc Godard dedicated his 1960 film A bout de souffle (Breathless) to Monogram Pictures and Yordan was admiringly interviewed by Bertrand Tavernier for Cahiers du Cinéma in 1962. Yordan, who later described himself as totally non-political and unaware of any such overtones in Johnny Guitar while he was writing it, spoke knowingly of the McCarthy allusions to Tavernier, who commented years later, "Yordan fooled me. He understood very quickly what I wanted to hear, and he said it."

The respect of such directors with whom he worked such as William Wyler, Nicholas Ray and Anthony Mann, plus such stars as Crawford, Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston, cannot be discounted however. For Ray, he wrote uncredited scenes for Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the script for King of Kings (1961). "Christ was a loner," he said. "He's not much different than my usual character, the western character. It's the same character. The man alone." Another Ray film, 55 Days at Peking (1962), was one of several films on which the blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon had a pseudonymous credit. He described Yordan as "not a great writer, but he knew how to put the kind of showmanship material into films that made them financially successful and popular".

Yordan's long association with Anthony Mann started with the western The Last Frontier (1955) and included the admired western The Man from Laramie (1955), the gritty Men in War (1957) and the epics El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Other notable credits include Joseph H. Lewis's gripping film noir The Big Combo (1955) and Ken Annakin's The Battle of the Bulge (1964), on which he was also co-producer.

Yordan, who counted Ava Gardner among his early sweethearts, married four times. Self-described as "not interested in social content", Yordan admitted that it is found in most of his films:

In all my pictures there is the theme of the loneliness of the common man. But he has an inner resource that allows him to survive in society. He doesn't cry, he doesn't beg, he doesn't ask favours. He lives and dies in dignity.

Tom Vallance

Join our new commenting forum

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

View comments