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Stewart, Donald Ogden

STEWART, Donald Ogden

Writer. Nationality: American. Born: Columbus, Ohio, 30 November 1894. Education: Attended Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, B.A. 1916. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy during World War I. Family: Married 1) Beatrice Ames, 1926 (divorced 1938); children: one daughter and one son; 2) Ella Winter, 1939. Career: 1919–20—clerk for AT&T, Minneapolis; then a freelance writer: first book published in 1921, regular contributor to Vanity Fair; 1926—first film as writer, Brown of Harvard; 1930—his play Rebound produced; 1949—investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and eventually blacklisted: moved to London, and did occasional film writing. Award: Academy Award for The Philadelphia Story, 1940. Died: In London, 2 August 1980.

Films as Writer:


Brown of Harvard (Conway)


Laughter (D'Arrast)


Tarnished Lady (Cukor)


Smilin' Through (Franklin)


The White Sister (Fleming); Another Language (E. Griffith); Going Hollywood (Walsh); Dinner at Eight (Cukor)


The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Franklin)


No More Ladies (E. Griffith)


The Prisoner of Zenda (Cromwell)


Holiday (Cukor); Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke)


Love Affair (McCarey); Night of Nights (Milestone)


The Philadelphia Story (Cukor); Kitty Foyle (Wood)


That Uncertain Feeling (Lubitsch); A Woman's Face (Cukor); Smilin' Through (Borzage)


Tales of Manhattan (Duvivier); Keeper of the Flame (Cukor)


Forever and a Day (Clair and others)


Without Love (Bucquet)


Life with Father (Curtiz); Cass Timberlane (Sidney)


Edward, My Son (Cukor)


Melba (Milestone)


Europa 51 (The Greatest Love) (Rossellini) (English dialogue)


Escapade (Leacock) (as Gilbert Holland)


Malaga (Moment of Danger) (Benedek) (co)

Films as Actor:


Not So Dumb (K. Vidor)


Devotion (Milton)


Cynara (K. Vidor)


By STEWART: books—

A Parody Outline of History, New York, 1921.

Perfect Behavior, New York, 1922.

Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind, New York, 1923.

Mr. and Mrs. Haddock Abroad, New York, 1924.

The Crazy Fool, New York, 1925.

Mr. and Mrs. Haddock in Paris, France, New York, 1926.

Father William, New York, 1929.

Rebound, New York, 1931.

(Editor), Fighting Words, New York, 1940.

By a Stroke of Luck! (autobiography), New York, 1975.

By STEWART: articles—

Photoplay (New York), February 1930.

"Writing for the Movies," in Focus on Film (London), Winter 1970.

Time Out (London), 24–30 May 1974.

In Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age, edited by Pat McGilligan, Berkeley, California, 1986.

On STEWART: articles—

Carey, Gary, in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970–71.

National Film Theatre booklet (London), April-June 1976.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 6 August 1980.

Obituary in Cinematographe, October 1980.

The Annual Obituary 1980, New York, 1981.

American Film (Washington, DC), July-August 1982. Byrge, Duane, in American Screenwriters, edited by Robert E. Morsberger, Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark, Detroit, Michigan, 1984.

Wide Angle (Baltimore, Maryland), vol. 12, no. 3, July 1990.

* * *

Screenwriters who specialize in adapting for the screen the work of others are somewhat difficult to pigeonhole as creative forces. Donald Ogden Stewart, one of the most prominent of such screenwriters, is probably best described as one of the supreme play doctors of the 1930s and 1940s. For the most part, his career rests on the seven films he worked on for the director George Cukor, the best of these being Holiday and The Philadelphia Story (for which he received the Academy Award). While remaining true to playwright Philip Barry's original plays for these two films, Stewart was expert at tightening up loose ends and at knowing precisely what was cinematic about an original piece, and his satirical wit is very much evident in these two fast-moving, sparkling comedies.

Born in Columbus, Ohio, and educated at Yale, Stewart moved to New York in the early 1920s and began writing satiric novels, then very much in fashion. Philip Barry based the character of Nick Potter in Holiday on Stewart, and the producer Arthur Hopkins cast Stewart in the role on Broadway in 1928. The experience inspired him to write his own light comedy, Rebound, the main character of which was an extension of Barry's Nick Potter. After a second play, Fine andDandy, Stewart migrated to Hollywood, and although he acted in three films—Not So Dumb, Devotion, Cynara—his purpose in going west was to write for the movies.

His second job, Laughter, remains one of his best. Stewart supplied the sassy dialogue for Harry D'Arrast's script (about a chorus girl who marries a millionaire) and earned an Oscar nomination. His original story for Tarnished Lady, starring Tallulah Bankhead, was a flop, but initiated his seven-picture association with George Cukor. Stewart's collaboration with that director was as important to Cukor in the 1930s and 1940s as his later collaborative efforts with Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin would be in the 1940s and 1950s. Stewart's second effort with Cukor, Dinner at Eight, was outstanding, and remains one of the best comedies of the era. The original granted script was by two sharp professionals—Herman J. Mankiewicz and Frances Marion—with Stewart called in to "doctor" the dialogue. Holiday, directed by Cukor from Barry's play, is definitely a Stewart script; Cukor took great pains to state that Stewart was the sole author, though studio politics added Sidney Buchman's name as co-author. Holiday was also Stewart's first effort to insert his political beliefs into his work. In this film he adds to Barry's play a discernible dislike for the rich. As well as these assignments for Cukor, Stewart worked on The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Marie Antoinette, and Kitty Foyle, then on Katharine Hepburn's favorite vehicle, The Philadelphia Story, again from a Barry play directed by Cukor. He worked again with Cukor on A Woman's Face, Keeper of the Flame—which he accepted because "he felt it could be a contribution to this war against Hitler"—and Edward, My Son a much underrated Spencer Tracy vehicle.

Stewart's involvement with the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League resulted in MGM's demanding he "answer questions" before the HUAC. Stewart refused and he was blacklisted. With the help of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin he tried out his play The Kidder in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1951, but found no Broadway takers. The following year he moved to London with his wife, Ella Winter, the politically committed widow of Lincoln Steffens. In 1955, he wrote the script to Escapade, starring John Mills and Alastair Sim under the pseudonym Gilbert Holland, and in 1960 co-authored the script for Malaga, but he was never able to revive his screenwriting career. He published his autobiography, By a Stroke of Luck!, in 1975. The book carried an opening note from his friend and colleague, Katharine Hepburn, in which she described him as a "man who is willing to pay the price of his own passionate beliefs," "one of the great wits of the late 20s, 30s and 40s," and "my friend."

—Ronald Bowers

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