Deutsch, Helen (1906–1992)

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Deutsch, Helen (1906–1992)

American screenwriter of such superhits as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, I'll Cry Tomorrow, and National Velvet, who initiated the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Born in New York, New York, on March 21, 1906; died in New York, New York, on March 15, 1992; daughter of Heyman and Ann (Freeman) Deutsch; a brief marriage was annulled.

Wrote many prominent screenplays, including I'll Cry Tomorrow and The Unsinkable Molly Brown; had initial success as co-writer of the adaptation of Enid Bagnold's National Velvet, one of the year's ten best (1944), which introduced a youthful Elizabeth Taylor to the American public; won a Golden Globe for screenplay Lili, about an orphan played by Leslie Caron .

An authentic New Yorker, Helen Deutsch was attracted to the theater during her years as a student at Barnard College and worked with the legendary Provincetown Players. Deutsch held several jobs while at the theater, including working as play reader, press secretary and—occasionally—serving in the box office, selling tickets. Determined to make her name on Broadway and in Hollywood, she supported herself during the Depression by writing short stories for magazines and feature articles for the New York Herald Tribune, while at the same time honing her skills as a playwright. Deutsch also reviewed plays, often as a ghost-writer. When Robert Garland, drama critic of the New York World-Telegram was too drunk to write his assigned piece, she would be called on to write the review that appeared the next day under his name. Deutsch also began working as a press agent during these years, doing most of her work quietly on the telephone. ("I was a shy press agent. People knew my voice but had no idea what I looked like.")

Helen Deutsch's shyness did not prevent her from taking issue with what she felt were the often wrongheaded choices made by Pulitzer Prize judges when it came to drama. Accordingly, in 1934 she founded and became secretary of the New York Drama Critics Circle, whose purpose was to award a prize that more fairly honored the best American play of the preceding theater season. Although her reputation in New York's theater world was secure by the end of the 1930s, it was not until 1944 that Helen Deutsch achieved her first major success as a screenwriter. Her screenplay adaptation, which resulted in the 1944 motion-picture classic National Velvet, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, was judged perfect by critics and audiences alike. The Enid Bagnold story, of a young English girl who disguises herself as a male jockey in order to compete in—and win—the Grand National Steeplechase, remains a popular staple of family entertainment more than 50 years after its premiere. The same year, 1944, also saw the release of Deutsch's effective screenplay of The Seventh Cross, based on a bestselling anti-Nazi novel by exiled German writer Anna Seghers .

In her 1950 screenplay for the adventure film King Solomon's Mines, Deutsch produced a highly successful entertainment of an African safari that was full of exotic locales and thrills. Another hit was her 1953 musical Lili, about an innocent French orphan girl and her infatuation with a carnival magician. Lili is comforted by a crippled puppeteer in the carnival who cheers her up and with whom she eventually falls in love. Much of the credit for the success of Lili was due to Deutsch's screenplay which made of it a slight but beguiling fantasy. A radical departure from adventure and fantasy was Deutsch's 1956 screenplay for the film I'll Cry Tomorrow (1956), based on the autobiography of actress and singer Lillian Roth . A painful look at Roth's descent into personal disaster because of her alcoholism, I'll Cry Tomorrow featured Susan Hayward and was highly successful. The same year saw a popular television production on NBC of Deutsch's adaptation of "Jack and the Beanstalk." Over the years, Deutsch also wrote a number of successful song lyrics including "Hi-Lilli, Hi-Lo," which she dismissed as being "dreadful."

In 1964, Helen Deutsch produced one of her most memorable screenplays, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, based loosely on the life of Molly Brown . In this MGM movie, Brown is a strong-willed woman who aspires to high society after her husband Johnny makes them wealthy by discovering gold in his Western mine. Remaining in Europe after Johnny returns to the United States, she eventually realizes that she is not happy without him. Returning home on the Titanic in April 1912, Brown's unsinkable spirit enables her to save not only herself but others on her lifeboat. Saved, she is reunited with Johnny. With its well-crafted screenplay, The Unsinkable Molly Brown was praised by The New York Times as "big, brassy, bold and freewheeling," and the musical received six Academy Award nominations in various categories, thus becoming the third highest-grossing motion picture of 1964.

Helen Deutsch's 15th and last screenplay was The Valley of the Dolls (1967), based on the novel of the same title by Jacqueline Susann . Deutsch's career in Hollywood ended abruptly in the controversy that ensued over authorship of the screenplay, with Deutsch disavowing any involvement and claiming that Susann had meddled with the script. The film was a commercial success but a critical disaster. From this point on, Deutsch devoted her time to lecturing and teaching adult-education courses. She worked sporadically on both her autobiography (never finished) and "a 12th-century novel I shall never complete." She continued her lifelong study of the 12th century, reading passages in Middle Latin, Middle French, Middle German and Middle English. She donated her large collection of rare books, manuscripts and letters to Boston University. Other items, including rare recordings, were donated by her to the University of Wyoming. Helen Deutsch died in her Manhattan home on March 15, 1972.


Deutsch, Helen, and Stella B. Hanau. The Provincetown: A Story of the Theater. NY: Farrar & Rinehart, 1931 (reprint ed., Atheneum, 1972).

"Helen Deutsch," in The Times [London]. April 9, 1972, p. 27.

Lambert, Bruce. "Helen Deutsch, 85, Screenwriter of 'Lili' and 'National Velvet'," in The New York Times Biographical Service. March 1992, p. 317.


Helen Deutsch Collection, Boston University.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Deutsch, Helen (1906–1992)

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