Garson Kanin 1912–
American playwright, novelist, nonfiction writer, screenwriter, and director.
During his early career, Kanin was best known for his play Born Yesterday. Later, as a Hollywood "insider," he chronicled the glamor and the scandal of the private lives of many elusive show-business personalities.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, and Authors in the News, Vol. 1.)
Whatever else "Born Yesterday" may have to offer above the general level of prefabricated comedy (and I am one who thinks it hasn't very much), Garson Kanin's play contains a wonderfully engaging study of a young woman in the throes of a belated literary and political education. The pattern of her development—from a cheerful moral vacuum like the one in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" to a state that almost seems to prophesy another congresswoman from Connecticut—is not quite new to art…. [The heroine here], however, undergoes an even more astounding change than any of her predecessors and she is drawn in fascinating detail.
In the beginning, Mr. Kanin's girl … is shown with her protector, one Harry Brock, in a hotel in Washington, where he has come to buy enough senators to set up a cartel in scrap metal…. The lines and the philosophy provided for her by the author are … handsomely in character. Her benefactor isn't terribly polite, generally referring to her, in fact, as a damn, dumb broad, and his physical demands are often fairly exasperating, but she is established in a suite that costs two hundred and thirty-five dollars a day and her wardrobe more than matches it. "Gee," she says, when asked about her dreams, "I got everything I want. Two mink coats. Everything."
Her rebirth is brought about by a writer for the New Republic, a cultivated muckraker of rather more professional integrity than...
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[Born Yesterday] provided New York with what it craved in the field of pure divertissement: a new farce-comedy guaranteed to rock the rafters…. [It] rockets along through three joyous acts taking potshots at our legislators, at racketeers, time-servers and tarts. This is the Broadway formula hammered down tight: a wisecrack in every sentence, a smashing curtain line for each act, tough talk and plenty of action—and behind it all a vigorous satiric intent: in this case an attack on gangster techniques in business and venality in high places. (p. 200)
Rosamond Gilder, "From Far to Near: Broadway in Review," in Theatre Arts (© 1946 by Theatre Publications, Inc.; copyright renewed © 1974 by Jovanna Ceccarelli), Vol. XXX, No. 4, April, 1946, pp. 196-204.∗
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[It] is almost possible to look on the bright side of Mr. Kanin's "The Live Wire." Almost possible, but not quite. Despite the skill and the gaiety that have gone into it, "The Live Wire" is too random and unsubstantial for complete enjoyment. After the final curtain has fallen, there is a feeling of unfulfillment in terms of the entertainment Mr. Kanin has striven for….
Possibly Mr. Kanin is tired of hearing about "Born Yesterday" now, for it first joggled the town's funny bone in 1946. But it remains his master work. The point of view of "The Live Wire" has the same sardonic relish of roguery (witness the overpowering charlatanism of the actors' agent); but "Born Yesterday" had a pithier theme and the humor was a good deal more accumulative.
"The Live Wire" is the harum-scarum yarn of some indigent actors who are living together in a quonset hut on a vacant lot in Manhattan…. The general amity of their association is poisoned by the intrusion of a sinister young actor who racketeers his way to a Hollywood contract by stepping on the face of everyone he can use. He is the perfect heel, and he succeeds sensationally. After he has made his exit in a burst of venomous triumph, the quonset hut colony settles down to the bizarre humdrum of its penniless existence, glad to have the poison out of its system.
As a plot, this one is good enough to hold the play together and to reveal some of the minor...
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The basic idea of "Do Re Mi" contains rich promise for a musical. Mr. Kanin's book takes a look at the juke-box racket, the music and record business and such forums of popular entertainment as the night club, supper club and beatnik joint. But it is written largely to formula and often resembles a dull imitation of "Guys and Dolls."…
There is neither space nor need to set forth every credit and debit in a comprehensive balance sheet. "Do Re Mi" has speed, color and some fun. It is also mechanical, uninventive and noisy. In a poor season for musicals it looks good. But to acclaim it as great is a disservice to the public and the theatre.
Howard Taubman, "Soft on Musicals," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1961, p. 1.∗
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In "A Gift of Time" death is the inescapable enemy. In the opening scene it is clear that Charles Wertenbaker, a writer of 53, attractive, urbane and mature, is doomed. Consulting with physicians in St. Jean-de-Luz, he is told that he must undergo immediate surgery for the removal of an intestinal obstruction. He and his wife, Lael, may think there is hope, but the audience is told by one of the doctors that he is lost….
Mr. Kanin never means to have the outcome in doubt.
The aim of the play is to reveal how Charles and Lael carry out their delicately expressed agreement to make the most precious use of whatever gift of time is left to him. Charles has no desire for religious comfort, and though as a Time-Life luminary he once wrote about the affairs of the world, issues of politics, economics, diplomacy and the other so-called large events of men's concerns scarcely are mentioned.
The emphasis is on the love that has fulfilled Charles and Lael's life together, on their devoted appreciation of their young son and daughter, on the need to seize every remaining moment and make it large with awareness. The burden of most of the play is Charles' effort to communicate the importance of the simple and profound values of living as he struggles against physical agonies.
Since these are good people, our hearts go out to them in their time of trial. They have emotion but no sentimentality....
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How does one prepare oneself for imminent death in this American age of leisure, faithlessness, and futile striving for identity? "A Gift of Time," Garson Kanin's adaptation of Lael Wertenbaker's biographical account of her husband's final cancer-ridden months ("Death of a Man"), presents such a case….
Unfortunately his decision to live each day "an hour a minute" until the moment when he will have to become bed-ridden, and then to cut his wrists, is never very thoroughly examined or challenged by the doctors, by his friends, or by his wife.
Thus the play becomes merely a demonstration of a sensible process agreed upon from the start. And there is an inevitable unsatisfactoriness to an endless parade of scenes in which courage must be represented as small talk in the face of gravity. In the last act the pattern changes somewhat as Charles keeps summing up his life and counting his blessings, but, as he himself points out, "I had better die pretty soon. I'm running out of last words."…
An interesting though not fully explored part of "A Gift of Time" is the picture it paints of today's deterioration of human dignity. The smallness of our lives is reflected in the surgeon's helplessness against a mestastasized malignancy, the routine necessity of treating people as if they were incapable of taking bad news straight, the inhumanity of laws and official procedures which act against permitting mature...
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Garson Kanin's Tracy and Hepburn has a few pictures, no index at all and is strictly for those diehards who lap up 'affectionate memoirs'. Mr Kanin conducts his saccharine account of a working and playing relationship largely in terms of conversations in which he and his wife, Ruth Gordon, also take part. This enables us to eavesdrop on a lot of trivia and to hear a different version of a story about Miss Hepburn's socially committed family from the one in [Frank] Capra's book [The Name above the Title]. 'Spencer was a true intellectual', who used to sit up most of the night reading detective stories, an instinctive actor, a reformed alcoholic and naturally religious. Miss Hepburn takes many showers a day, fought off John Barrymore in his dressing room, and has been 'a house person' all her life. She is given to fainting in restaurants and imparting vast, confident amounts of information on everything. By diligent use of a sieve, the reader may come up with a handful of facts about this remarkable couple's careers…. The problems of finding a foothold in this marshy memorial are increased by the book's constant leaping around in time and by a level of writing far below the witty Mr Kanin's best. (p. 231)
John Coleman, "Life Sentences," in New Statesman (© 1972 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 84, No. 2161, August 18, 1972, pp. 231-32.∗
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[A Thousand Summers] is a love story, told in reverie, by Freeman Osborn, a solitary Yankee, owner of the Edgartown Pharmacy on Martha's Vineyard…. Freeman's horizon was bounded by the Vineyard until that day in 1927 when an attractive woman entered his shop to have a cinder removed from her eye. He performed the operation deftly and with fateful consequence to them both.
Sheila is the wife of Thomas Van Anda, a stuffed shirt high up in the Foreign Service. She and Freeman discover a mutual attraction for Japan, where she had been stationed for three years and whose history and art he has absorbed at long range…. Their talk is bland, their snatched-at happiness undetected, and, to me, rather implausible.
When Freeman patents a successful insect repellent he can afford to leave the Vineyard on his pursuit of a future with Sheila. But by now his wife is fighting a divorce and Van Anda, who also stands in his way, is successful in his bid for the Senate. With the skill of a dramatist Mr. Kanin plots his urbane story to its sudden climax and poignant aftermath. (pp. 127-28)
EdwardWeeks, "The Peripatetic Reviewer: 'A Thousand Summers'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1973, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 232, No. 5, November, 1973, pp. 127-28.
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"Hollywood," to my mind, has a couple of flaws: one minor, the other major. Kanin introduces a great number of characters in his memoirs. The reflective reader, wanting to refer to some of them who have stuck in his mind, is bound to find the lack of an index a nuisance. Second, a much more serious flaw, I think, is Kanin's apparent compulsion neurosis to write on and on and on about Samuel Goldwyn, who brought him, aged 24, to California to learn the business; i.e., to become, after proper training, an associate producer. But Kanin kept pestering Goldwyn to let him direct a picture, a screen test, anything; Goldwyn kept telling him not to be silly. These controversies sparked a series of shouting matches that went on for about a year. Kanin finally obtained a release from his seven-year contract, got a directing assignment from R.K.O. and proceeded to make good there fast. He never worked for Goldwyn again and went on to triumphs at other studios. So far so good, but in the book he just can't let Goldwyn alone and keeps hauling him back for more interminable conversation. If it would have brought out anything new about Goldwyn, that would be different; what he presents, however, is little more than the usual catalogue of malapropisms and eccentricities. Alva Johnston wrapped this sort of stuff up for the ages back in 1937.
On the other hand, when Kanin writes about the pictures he did direct and how the actors involved in them...
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[One Hell of an Actor] is an engaging example of the value of ingenious construction. If Mr. Kanin had begun with the overture and followed his theatrical hero to the final curtain, he would probably have produced a piece of no-business-like-show-business sentimentality. Far too clever for any such banality, he has converted the tale into his own supposed research into the career of the late John J. Tumulty, sprinkled it with references to real players and productions, and brought off a neat surprise ending. Fun, as it was intended to be.
Phoebe-Lou Adams, "PLA: 'One Hell of an Actor'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 239, No. 4, April, 1977, p. 92.
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[With "One Hell of an Actor,"] Mr. Kanin has written a chatty, intentionally gossipy novel (using real names of the famous interspersed with the fictional characters), which somehow fails to take off. Perhaps that is because the Kanin-persona narrator begins his story with a fascination for the life and times of a turn-of-the-century San Francisco actor named John J. Tumulty and a desire to reconstruct the feeling of the man and the era. This is an exciting idea, but it becomes lost in an across-the-years detective story, told in a series of interviews, letters and diaries. The story reveals more about the descendants who inherit the grand-old-man's stubbornly thespian blood than about the man himself or about what it was like to be an actor in his particular time and place. What might have been rich drama trails off into thin sleuthing.
Dan Wakefield, "Firepersons and Other Characters," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 1, 1977, p. 10.
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If youth is wasted on the young, old age has not been wasted on Garson Kanin. At 66 (hardly old, except for the thesis of his book), he is determined to declare war "on the mindless youth cult that has our time in its grip." The result is ["It Takes a Long Time to Become Young,"] a slight, indignant and often entertaining defense of his belief that should stimulate his contemporaries to take up arms with him against all the societal wrongs done to older persons….
Mr. Kanin fills his battle plan with vignettes of still-active and productive persons in their 70's and 80's, and parallels them with tales of persons who slowly declined after they were forced to retire….
Mr. Kanin scorns a culture that so worships the young that it loses respect for the old. His own family serves as exemplum for his beliefs. He devotes a chapter to his remarkable wife, actress-writer Ruth Gordon, whose long career reached its height when she was over 70. His portrait of her work-jammed existence will shame any lethargic 20-year-old. His own chatty little book is proof of his youthfulness, proof as well of Somerset Maugham's saying: "Old age is ready to undertake tasks that youth shirked because they would take too long."
Doris Grumbach, "Nonfiction in Brief: 'It Takes a Long Time to Become Young," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by...
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Garson Kanin's novel, "Moviola," reads like an uncut version of a 1940's "spectacular." Here's the movie industry from Thomas Edison to Warren Beatty. Everybody makes a cameo appearance: It's a cast of thousands, each one a star. Reading "Moviola" is a bit like having the sky fall on you.
The basic story, which is hardly more than a parking lot for the digressions, concerns B. J. Farber, a 92-year-old movie pioneer and studio head who is thinking of selling his "dream factory" to a New York-based conglomerate….
As a preliminary to the negotiations, Farber tells … his life story, for the studio is his life and the story is an inventory of its assets. Before he will sell, Farber must satisfy himself that the conglomerate has a soul.
Farber's life story seems to be made up of scraps of everybody else's. Thomas Edison is stately, D. W. Griffith pontifical, Mack Sennett raucous, and so on. Chaplin comes across as dull. (p. 595)
After Farber dies, the 42-year-old Guy [sent by the conglomerate to arrange the deal,] will propose to the 73-year-old [widow], as an inadvertent metaphor for the emotional power of the film industry. What happens to the studio is a surprise too heart-warming to give away here.
There are grim stories about novelists who went to Hollywood and were ruined by it. Mr. Kanin is not one of this tragic fraternity, for his talent is of a sort that...
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[Moviola] is less a novel about Hollywood than a misty-eyed recounting of a favourite dream.
Garson Kanin wrote the scripts of the sharpest Hepburn-Tracy comedies. More recently he has been described as the "Boswell of Hollywood"; and in this celebration of a lifetime in the cinema he endeavours to live up to the name. His subject is Benjamin J. Farber, last of the Hollywood moguls and a fictional composite of several of that ilk…. At ninety-two, he is forgetful about most things—but not about the history of Hollywood, of which he has total recall…. Mr Kanin's narrative problem is to accommodate Ben within what amounts to a series of potted biographies. But the facts intrude into the fiction, and Ben is frequently and inevitably relegated to the role of spectator, conveniently on hand at many of the key Hollywood events.
Large sections of the novel are consequently unpersuasive as fiction, since the reader is required to accept what he knows to be untrue: that Ben was there when Chaplin invented his tramp persona, did produce the classic Keaton films, was a friend and father confessor to Marilyn Monroe…. In Moviola, the reality is too familiar to admit of such imaginative licence: the story is usurped. Every Hollywood party which Ben attends, for instance—and there are many of them—is here accompanied by a long recital of the guest list, with a cameo line or three about...
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Garson Kanin has been marinating in the theater since before most of us were ever in an audience…. [In his eighth] novel, "Smash"—the story of the development, from auditions to opening, of a fictitious Broadway musical ("Shine On, Harvest Moon")—he relates his theatrical tale with the facility of a master, someone who has seen it all and can still smile with affection at this world of magic and mania.
Mr. Kanin puts the narration into the mouth of novice production secretary Midge Maghakian, whose Journal and Company Bulletins chronicle the dizzying interactions among an evil producer ("The Barracuda"), vulnerable director, tortured composer, blindingly narcissistic star, heroic and lovable writer (who captures Midge's heart), and other members of the company. It's hard to say which is more complex, the painstaking construction of that many-dimensioned art form, the musical show, or the network of intrigue and emotional games played by these high-strung and talented people…. We marvel that the job ever gets done until we are reminded again that theater people put the show first, and everything else—love, sex, personal values, even money—far down the list of priorities. It's enough to make anyone but the wise Mr. Kanin cynical.
This is a grand, entertaining story. If there's a loose end or two, it is more than made up for by the author's skill as a storyteller, his kindliness of vision, and his persuasive...
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[Smash is] an "insider's" novel, one whose appeal lies in its promise to "tell all" or "take the lid off." It is also, inevitably, something of a roman à clef, with a teasingly anonymous "Star" of Streisand-like difficulty and background, as well as a famous and familiar-sounding over-sexed composer….
Smash focuses on what might be called the creative, as opposed to financial, aspects of its story—what happens in audition, rehearsal, and performance—its ring is familiar…. Less familiar is the novel's account of backstage manoeuvering, of struggles for power and influence…. The best bits, accordingly, focus on the producer's machinations (particularly his attempts to fire the director); when the director himself takes centre stage in the earlier sections—to talk about acting, committment, show biz—the novel drags.
In the end, petty jealousies and backbiting come close to wrecking the musical. But suffering and messiness … are seen as necessary and inevitable in creative work, like labour pains. "I remind myself", the narrator muses, "that birth is not altogether beautiful." Still, in this case, things are so messy and painful, so much goes wrong, that it's hard to believe in the show's ultimate survival. The calamities, though individually plausible, form a sort of anthology.
A similiarly implausible air hangs about the novel's narrator and heroine, Midge...
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