Garson Kanin, who died in March at age 86, was, as a young man, an instantly successful New York actor, and the powerful right hand assistant of Broadway impresario George Abbott. He adored the thespian life, so being offered a chance by Sam Goldwyn to Go West and direct films wasn't a big deal. "The theater is my love and my life. .. and the movies are a mistress," Kanin declared, jumping ship from Goldwyn to RKO. Between 1938-41, he fashioned there half-a-dozen enjoyable, glamorous screwball comedies, including The Great Man Votes, Bachelor Mother, and My Favorite Wife, all featuring top-hat stars such as Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, and Cary Grant.
But the really splendid stuff came after, when, reversing the usual order, Kanin suddenly stopped directing films and instead started writing them, in collaboration with his actress wife, Ruth Gordon. They worked exclusively for their director friend, George Cukor, and we're talking about some of the most brilliant romantic comedies in the history of movies, and the most genuinely egalitarian. The battle of the sexes always ends in a buoyant draw, in a declaration of gender equality, in the amazingly prescient consciousness-raising comedies of Kanin-Gordon-Cukor, such as the Hepburn-Tracy classics, Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike, and (it's time to revive them), the Judy Holliday trilogy, The Marrying Kind, Born Yesterday, and It Should Happen To You.
"Life as a rule is created by a team in passionate action," Kanin wrote in the introduction to his book, Together Again!" "Men and women reach the apex of existence when coupled." He and Gordon were married for 43 years, though only half a dozen of these saw them writing as a combo. The great collaboration shut down. They realized that they never quarreled in real life, but bitterly when they shared a project. From the mid-50s onward, for thirty years (Gordon died in 1985), they each wrote alone.
But the amour endured. I can testify to that, recalling a day in the early 1980s when I interviewed Kanin on Boston radio. I witnessed an endearing site: Garson and Ruth, lovebirds, devotedly holding hands, as they walked along a Boston sidewalk.
It was Kanin's day to plug a new book, and he and I talked a long time on the air, with the urbane writer holding forth on many show-business subjects. Meanwhile, Gordon, the diminutive cult star of Harold and Maude, sat hunched on a couch, a large pocketbook on her tiny lap, intently listening in. At the end of the interview, the moment the microphone shut down, Gordon looked up proudly at her husband, and her voice boomed:
"MAHVELOUS!!!" she said.
Indeed. Kanin's extra-simple secret of his success? "I just think I'm a cheerful, funny guy," he explained in an interview. "I don't take life that seriously. I can see the funny side of almost anything, and I enjoy making other people laugh."
(Boston Phoenix, March 14, 1999)