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Frances Goodrich, along with her husband Albert Hackett, wrote prolifically for the Hollywood screen and created wildly popular comedies, successful musicals, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Diary of Anne Frank. Goodrich and Hackett’s wide range of talent, combined with their tireless work ethic, made them one of Hollywood’s most successful and sought-after husband-and-wife writing team ever. Their screenplays easily translated into films that were more often than not met with wide popular appeal. Their success spanned three decades, and the films based on their screenplays are still watched today and are the subjects of modern remakes.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Privileged Life
Frances Goodrich was born in 1890 in Belleville, New Jersey, a small bucolic town surrounded by woods and wildflowers. Goodrich was born into a family with social status and wealth. Her father, Henry Goodrich, was a New York City lawyer. Her mother, Madeleine Christy Lloyd, came from a family of intellectuals, artists, and writers. Goodrich’s uncle Henry Lloyd, her mother’s brother, was a lawyer, journalist, editor, and author. As a child Goodrich visited her Uncle Henry, whom she held in high regard, at his forty-bedroom home. Henry often entertained his friends, who included writers Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous Scottish author of Treasure Island, and the prominent African American writer Booker T. Washington. Goodrich was exposed to alternative ideas and progressive thinking in her privileged early years.
Goodrich attended Vassar College for women, one of the nation’s most prestigious all-female schools. At Vassar she was bitten by the theater bug and spent much of her time directing plays. David L. Goodrich, in his biography of Goodrich and Hackett, The Real Nick and Nora (2001), states that in Goodrich’s Vassar yearbook her personal quotation read ”Silence there, please! We’re rehearsing.” Goodrich graduated from Vassar in 1912 and went to New York City to study social work at her father’s request. She soon found her way into acting and in 1916 made her Broadway debut in the production Come Out of the Kitchen.
The Third Time is the Charm for Romance
Goodrich was moderately successful on the stage, finding steady acting work but never given major roles. However, she wasn’t as fortunate in her romantic life. While working on the show Come Out of the Kitchen Goodrich met and fell in love with the actor Robert Ames. They married in 1917, and although it was rocky from the start because of his drinking, they remained married for six years. In 1927 Goodrich, now divorced from Ames, married the Newbery Award-winning author Hendrik Willem Van Loom, but their marriage was brief. In fact, it was in the same year of her marriage to Van Loom that Goodrich met Albert Hackett, a young actor nine years her junior, who would later become her partner for life, in work and in love. Goodrich and Hackett married in 1931 and stayed together until she died in 1984.
Hollywood’s Golden Years
Both Goodrich and Hackett wanted to get out of the acting business. They put their heads together and began writing the comedy play Up Pops the Devil. After a short run on the stage, Up Pops the Devil was adapted for film, and in 1931 the writing duo headed for Hollywood. In the thirties, Hollywood confronted the ugliness of the Great Depression with glamour and glitz. Alluring actresses like Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow flooded the silver screen in long, jeweled gowns. And although there were fewer moviegoers, 60 to 75 million people continued to seek escape from the grim reality of poverty and unemployment, through a few hours of glamour and humor on the big screen. The film industry was rapidly evolving from black-and-white silent films to talking films, and in 1932 the era of Technicolor began.
Five major studios, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, and RKO, dominated Hollywood during this time. Goodrich and Hackett wrote under contract for MGM from 1933 to 1939, and in this period they wrote thirteen films, the most famous being The Thin Man series. In 1954 the team moved to RKO studios to collaborate on a new film that would prove to be a departure from their previous comedy. Working with director Frank Capra, Goodrich and Hackett wrote the screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life a movie about a man who considers his life a failure. He contemplates suicide, but his guardian angel appears and shows him he is wrong. The film was considered a screenplay triumph by critics, but it did not receive box-office success. However, it seems to have touched a sentimental streak among movie audiences. This has led to its sustained popularity over the decades; it is one of today’s winter-holiday classics.
A More Serious Project
After completing It’s a Wonderful Life MGM contracted Goodrich and Hackett to adapt to the silver screen the recently published Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the story of a Jewish girl and her family forced to hide for two years in an attic during the Nazi occupation of Holland. The project, however, was later cancelled by the studio. The topic was deemed too somber and sad to have wide public appeal. Unable to set the project aside, Goodrich and Hackett continued to write the screenplay themselves. They worked for two years on the adaptation and went to great lengths to capture the truth and feelings revealed in the diary. Goodrich and Hackett met with Otto Frank, Anne’s father. They even traveled to the Netherlands and visited the attic where the Franks were concealed. This research helped them capture the claustrophobic atmosphere and convey the tension of the Franks’ life in hiding. The Diary of Anne Frank opened on stage in 1955 and became the apex of the writing duo’s career. It won them a Pulitzer Prize for drama, a Tony Award, as well as critical acclaim, international popular success, and recognition from their peers.
Going Back Home
Goodrich and Hackett wrote their final film, Five Finger Exercise, in 1962. It proved to be unsuccessful. Seventy-two years old and ready to retire, Goodrich gave up her writing and left California to return to the East Coast with her husband. The successful couple lived a lavish life in New York City until Goodrich died of cancer in 1984. Partners in the fullest sense of the word, the couple had been together for fifty-three years. Their screenplays continue to attract large audiences; they have also become popular subjects for remakes, including the 1991 version of Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin.
Works in Literary Context
Goodrich’s screenplays run the gamut from mysteries, comedies, musicals, to serious drama. Her works contribute to the advancement of American film and literature during the Golden Age of Hollywood with artful dialogue and dramatic timing. While many of the films coming out of Hollywood relied on big name stars and glamour to attract audiences, America flocked to Goodrich’s films for the entertaining exchanges between the well-rendered characters and to glimpse the depths of humanity.
Sophisticated dialogues are what best characterize Goodrich’s films. Although many of her characters exude style and glamour, it is through their witty conversations and quips that the essence of their relationships are revealed. With her film The Thin Man Goodrich uses subtle humor to skillfully portray the intimate and comedic relationship between the husband and wife detective team. The plots of the The Thin Man series were often superficial and almost impossible to follow, but the sophistication of the dialogue was fresh and original. Goodrich’s ability to communicate delicate matters was finely honed, to avoid violation of the Hays Production Code, which was a set of morality guidelines that began to be enforced in 1934.
Adapting Literature to Film
Most of Goodrich’s work was based on previously published works. Adapting literature to film is complicated, and in some film and literary circles, not advisable. Her first great success, The Thin Man series, was based on Dashiell Hammett’s popular detective books. Goodrich and Hackett developed Nick and Nora Charles, the main characters, beyond the descriptions given in the novel, and although the Charleses were conceived by Hammett, the details—the camaraderie and equality within the marriage, the playful gestures that give the marriage its sense of fun—were fleshed out by Goodrich and Hackett. Goodrich’s adaptations constructed wonderfully dramatic and yet funny scenes. Still, the highpoint of Goodrich’s career was her subsequent adaptation of Anne Frank: The Diary of Young Gir/, in which she was able to reinterpret the material with a theatrical theme and develop moving stage characters.
Works in Critical Context
Goodrich’s work was widely praised both during her career and later as her screenplays continued to provide material for fresh versions. Some critics claimed that her earlier comedic work lacked depth, and that they could not be considered serious works. However, Goodrich provided great emotional depth in her later works It’s a Wonderful Life and The Diary of Anne Frank, showing that she did not lack depth in her writing ability.
The Thin Man
In the comedic murder mystery The Thin Man plot and action take the backseat to character and dialogue. Goodrich’s lyrical dialogue and comedic flashes were considered bold and brilliant for her time. Although the screenplay does provide clues to the murder mystery, it is more like an elegant dance of dialogue. Roger Ebert says of the film, ”It is about personal style. About living life as a kind of artwork.”
The Diary of Anne Frank
After a long and respected career in Hollywood and on Broadway, the Goodrich-Hackett writing team finally received special public recognition for a project that was one of their last efforts. The Diary of Anne Frank, which opened on Broadway in 1955, was the high point of their careers. The play received the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony Award, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Adapted from the diary that Anne Frank kept while she and her family hid from the Nazis, the play occupied most of Goodrich and Hackett’s time and attention from 1953 to 1955. The subject was a departure for them, and they researched the material scrupulously. As a result, they produced a play the critics praised for its fidelity to the spirit of the girl’s diary. Film critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times in 1955 ”From any practical point of view the job of making a play out of the diary of Anne Frank is impossible. Perhaps that is why Mr. and Mrs. Hackett have succeeded so well. They have not contrived anything; they have left the tool-kit outside the door of their workroom. They have absorbed the story out of the diary and related it simply.
- Ehrlich, Evelyn. ”Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacket.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 26: American Screenwriters, Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.
- Goodrich, David L. The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Writers of Stage and Screen Classics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
- Atkinson, Brooks. ”Theatre: The Diary of Anne Frank.”New York Times (October 6, 1955)
- Evans, Greg. ”The Diary of Anne Frank.”Variety (December 1997): vol. 369, no. 5.
- Anne Frank. Retrieved November 19, 2008, from http://www.annefrank.com.
- Film History of the 1930s. Retrieved November 19, 2008 from http://www.filmsite.org/30sintro.html.
- Frances Goodrich Biography (1890-1984). Retrieved November 19, 2008 from http://www.filmreference.com/film/93/Frances-Goodrich.html,
- The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930. Retrieved November 19, 2008 from http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hayscode.html.
- Publicity About Anne Frank and Her Diary. Retrieved November 19, 2008 from http://www.annefrank. org/content.asp?PID=406&LID=2.
- Roger Ebert Reviews The Thin Man. Retrieved November 19, 2008 from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20021222/REVIEWS08/40802010/1023.
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