Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Samuel Goodman Hoffenstein in Lithuania, 8 October 1890; emigrated to the United States with his parents, 1894. Education: Attended Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, Ph.B. 1911. Family: Married Edith Morgan, 1927. Career: 1911–12—staff writer, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Pennsylvania, then reporter, 1912, special writer, 1913, and drama critic, 1914–15, New York Sun; 1916—first of several volumes of light verse; 1916–27—press agent for the theater producer Al Woods; 1923–25—columnist ("The Dome"), New York Tribune; 1931—first film as writer, An American Tragedy; 1932—coauthor of the play Gay Divorcee.Died: Of a heart attack, 6 October 1947.
Films as Cowriter:
An American Tragedy (von Sternberg); Once a Lady (McClintic)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian); Love Me Tonight(Mamoulian); Sinners in the Sun (Hall)
Song of Songs (Mamoulian); White Woman (Walker)
All Men Are Enemies (Fitzmaurice); Change of Heart(Blystone); The Fountain (Cromwell); Wharf Angel (Menziesand Somnes); Marie Galante (H. King); The Gay Divorcee(Sandrich)
Enchanted April (Beaumont); Paris in Spring (Milestone)
Desire (Borzage); Voice of Bugle Ann (Thorpe); PiccadillyJim (Leonard)
The Great Waltz (Duvivier)
Bridal Suite (Thiele)
The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (Lachman); Tales of Manhattan(Duvivier)
Flesh and Fantasy (Duvivier); His Butler's Sister (Borzage);The Phantom of the Opera (Lubin)
Cluny Brown (Lubitsch); Sentimental Journey (W. Lang)
Carnival in Costa Rica (Ratoff)
Give My Regards to Broadway (Bacon)
By HOFFENSTEIN: books—
Life Sings a Song (verse), New York, 1916.
(Editor), The Broadway Anthology, New York, 1917.
Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing, New York, 1928.
Year In, You're Out (verse), New York, 1930.
Pencil in the Air (verse), New York, 1947.
With Percy Heath, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (screenplay), edited by Richard Anobile, New York, 1976.
On HOFFENSTEIN: articles—
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), February 1976.
Wermuth, Paul C., in American Humorists 1900–1950, edited by Stanley Trachtenberg, Detroit, Michigan, 1982.
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The poet Samuel Hoffenstein took to screenwriting during the last 14 years of his life. His musical ability and sublime gift for working ethereal elements into a story line meshed well with the lavish film productions on which he worked during the 1930s and 1940s.
Hoffenstein and the director Rouben Mamoulian began an exemplary working relationship in the highly successful Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which starred Fredric March. Regarded as the best screen version of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, in which a doctor creates a potion that reflects the lower elements of his soul, this early talkie explored the use of sound effects and music to heighten tension. The musical background of both writer and director, and Mamoulian's insistence on cinematic expression, resulted in a florid masterpiece.
Love Me Tonight incorporates the best of Hoffenstein's talents in music, song, and storytelling. Mamoulian got Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart to create the songs first, and built them around a story idea he got from Leopold Marchand. After this stage, the screenwriters were engaged to bridge these musical sequences in a smooth, uninterrupted narrative flow. "Isn't It Romantic?" introduces the tailor (Maurice Chevalier), the Count, the Viscount and all the main characters as each, by design, picks up a thread of the song until it reaches a chateau where it is given the crowning trill by a princess (Jeanette MacDonald). It gives the effect of a love song consummated by two people who are destined to meet.
Hoffenstein and Kenneth Webb did the musical adaptation to The Gay Divorcee, the first picture to star Astaire and Rogers. They did a number of variations on "The Continental," changing the tempo to Latin, waltz time, and jazz. It was the first song to win an Academy Award.
The Phantom of the Opera, written with Erich Taylor, tried to recreate the success of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and brought it off in some stretches. A stubborn attention to its singing star (Nelson Eddy) detracted from a splendid array of catacombs and a stylish, masterful performance by Claude Rains as the tortured Phantom.
With His Butler's Sister, a Deanna Durbin vehicle, Hoffenstein began working with Betty Reinhardt and they established themselves as a writing team thereafter. Laura is an elegant film noir, based on the novel and play by Vera Caspary. The drama managed to encompass the darkest sides of its players in a sophisticated setting as a hired detective (Dana Andrews) comes on the scene to investigate a young woman's murder. Laura (Gene Tierney), believed to be the victim, reappears and becomes a suspect. Laura was relegated to the B-picture unit at Fox, where the producer Otto Preminger and the writer Jay Dratler worked on the script. Preminger got supervisor Bryan Foy's permission to hire Hoffenstein and Reinhardt to work on it. The revised script moved the picture up to A status, and Zanuck took over the supervision. The new treatment told the story from two viewpoints. Hoffenstein practically created the character of Waldo Lydecker, the acid-tongued columnist whose narration guides the first half of the picture. The second half was told from the viewpoint of the detective, who falls in love with Laura's portrait, a haunting image of her mystery. The scene in which the detective dozes in a chair and suddenly the woman in the portrait appears before him is one of the most poetic images in movie history. Laura was to be directed by Rouben Mamoulian, but Preminger took over the shooting. One of the most enduring accomplishments of this film is the brittle wit and almost detached romance injected throughout, in an atmosphere where, as Vincent Price puts it, "I can afford a blemish on my character, but not on my clothes."
Leslie Halliwell describes Sentimental Journey as "Hollywood's most incredible three-handkerchief picture; nicely made, but who'd dare write it?" It was Hoffenstein and Reinhardt who adapted the Nelia Gardner White story about an orphan adopted by a dying actress. The actress dies of a heart condition, leaving the child to look after the widowed husband. In one scene, the child makes an otherworldly contact with the actress to soothe the grieving husband. "It's the weeper of all weepers," declared Variety. Sentimental Journey was made into hash by critics, but pictures like this defy criticism. It was a phenomenal success at the box office.
Ernst Lubitsch supervised the production of the Marlene Dietrich-Gary Cooper comedy Desire, for which Hoffenstein provided material. The film Cluny Brown was a slight but very enjoyable tale about a stuffy English family who play host to a dreamy-souled plumber's niece. The family prides itself on being better than others and is a bit too particular about speech and manners. Hoffenstein and Reinhardt fashion them as a close-knit and ultimately endearing lot, though not the kind of folks you'd want your niece to marry. Lubitsch, in the last film he completed as director got the best out of this largely British ensemble.