Writer. Nationality: American. Born: near Moscow, Russia, 25 December 1888; emigrated to the United States with her parents when she was a child. Education: Attended New York University, law degree. Family: Married the writer Carl Hovey, 1917; two children. Career: Practiced law briefly; 1916–20—staff member, Woman's Journal and Metropolitan magazines; 1919—first film writing credit, Who Will Marry Me?; 1929–41—writer for 20th Century-Fox, and for MGM, 1941–56. Award: Academy Award for Interrupted Melody, 1955. Died: Of cancer, in Hollywood, California, 19 March 1960.
Films as Writer:
Who Will Marry Me? (Powell)
Cheated Love (Baggot); First Love (Campbell)
The Top of New York (Taylor); Pink Gods (Stanlaws)
The Snow Bride (Kolker); The Exciters (Campbell)
Salome of the Tenements (Olcott)
The Love Toy (Kenton); Christine of the Big Tops (Mayo)
The Princess from Hoboken (Dale); The Heart Thief (Chrisander); A Harp in Hock (Hoffman)
A Ship Comes In (Howard); The Power of the Press (Capra); Behind That Curtain (Cummings); The Younger Generation (Capra); Trial Marriage (Kenton); Lucky Star (Borzage); They Had to See Paris (Borzage); South Sea Rose (Dwan); Frozen Justice (Dwan)
Song o' My Heart (Borzage); So This Is London (Blystone); The Brat (Ford); Surrender (Howard)
She Wanted a Millionaire (Blystone); After Tomorrow (Borzage)
State Fair (H. King); Warrior's Husband (W. Lang); Berkeley Square (Lloyd); Mr. Skitch (Cruze)
Change of Heart (Blystone); The White Parade (Cummings)
Here's to Romance (Green); Navy Wife (Dwan)
The Country Doctor (H. King); Reunion (Taurog)
In Old Chicago (H. King); Kidnapped (Werker); Four Men and a Prayer (Ford)
Drums Along the Mohawk (Ford); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Dieterle)
Ziegfeld Girl (Leonard)
The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (Manning); Rhapsody in Blue (Rapper); State Fair (W. Lang)
The Green Years (Saville); The Valley of Decision (Garnett); Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli)
Cass Timberlane (Sidney)
Three Darling Daughters (Wilcox)
The Great Caruso (Thorpe)
The Merry Widow (Bernhardt)
The Student Prince (Thorpe)
Hit the Deck (Rowland); Interrupted Melody (Bernhardt); Oklahoma! (Zinnemann); Bhowani Junction (Cukor)
Jeanne Eagels (Sidney)
Films as Cowriter with S. N. Behrman:
Lightnin' (H. King); Liliom (Borzage)
Delicious (Butler); Daddy Long Legs (Santell)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (Santell); Tess of the Storm Country (Santell)
As Husbands Go (MacFadden)
Anna Karenina (Brown)
The Cowboy and the Lady (Potter)
Quo Vadis (LeRoy)
On LEVIEN: book—
Ceplair, Larry, A Great Lady: A Life of the Screenwriter Sonya Levien, Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 1996.
On LEVIEN: articles—
Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.
Hurwitz, Edith, in American Screenwriters, 2nd series, edited by Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1986.
Rosenbloom, Nancy J., "In Defense of the Moving Pictures: the People's Institute, the National Board of Censorship and the Problem of Leisure in Urban America," in American Studies, Fall 1992.
McCreadie, Marsha, "Pioneers (Part Two)," in Films in Review (New York), January-February 1995.
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Throughout the golden era of the Hollywood studio system, Sonya Levien wrote enough screenplays (sometimes as many as five per year) to qualify her as a guaranteed professional name, but on most of her films she shared the writing credit, so that identifying her personal trademarks becomes difficult. However, despite a minimum of biographical knowledge and no opportunity to examine the evolution of any single screenplay she worked on, it is still possible to assume three primary characteristics to her career: a strong tendency toward coauthorship, a talent for adaptation, and a flair for creating women characters who are intelligent, noble, and independent, but who are also searching to define their particular roles in life.
When Levien was paired with an established male author, it seems possible to assume she was hired to represent the feminine point of view, and to enhance the female characters. For instance, she was paired more than once with such different writers as S. N. Behrman, Lamar Trotti, and William Ludwig. As might be expected, the Behrman films are sophisticated comedies, the Trotti are prestige productions of an epic scale, and the Ludwig are musical adaptations. Since in all three cases she is working with an established writer with a personal style, her contribution is an enrichment of the leading female roles. The best example is probably the Trotti-Levien adaptation of Drums along the Mohawk, in which the central role of Lana, played by Claudette Colbert, is a classic example of the pioneer wife, feminine and attractive, but strong enough to survive the dangers and hardships presented in the story line.
Levien's association with what were termed "quality" projects led her to work on many adaptations of novels, plays, and musicals. One of her most successful solo efforts was her adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's Cass Timberlane, in which the plot was restructured to reflect the postwar era in which it was released by including a character who sold faulty war materials for profit. Her skill at updating projects is also reflected in the three versions of State Fair she worked on, as well as in her refurbishing of such older musicals as The Merry Widow and The Student Prince. In all cases, she maintains the essential characters and overall ambience of the original, while removing outdated attitudes, particularly toward women and sex.
Given the number of collaborations Levien was involved in, it is difficult to identify exactly what she might have contributed to a specific characterization. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the assignments she was given—and took—are frequently stories about women. It must have been assumed that her name and her talent enhanced a project that would feature a leading actress. Thus, her work for Greer Garson in The Valley of Decision, and Eleanor Parker in Interrupted Melody, created strong roles for which both actresses were nominated for Oscars. In addition, such sex symbols as Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and Kim Novak found parts which stretched their reputations and abilities in Cass Timberlane and Ziegfeld Follies, Bhowani Junction and Jeanne Eagels, respectively. The difficulty of untangling "who is responsible for what" in Sonya Levien's prolific and successful career points to the problems of historical research, and illustrates how much is yet to be learned about many of Hollywood's most influential writers.