Garson Kanin Essay - Critical Essays

Kanin, Garson


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.)

Wolcott Gibbs

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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Rosamond Gilder

[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.∗

Brooks Atkinson

[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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Howard Taubman

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.∗

Howard Taubman

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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Henry Hewes

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...

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John Coleman

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...

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Edward Weeks

[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,...

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Joel Sayre

"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...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

[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,...

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Dan Wakefield

[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...

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Doris Grumbach

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...

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Anatole Broyard

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...

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David Wilson

[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...

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Nora Johnson

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...

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Zachary Leader

[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...

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