Lennart, Isobel (1915–1971)
Lennart, Isobel (1915–1971)
American writer who wrote Funny Girl for Broadway and the screen. Born on May 18, 1915, in Brooklyn, New York; died in an automobile accident on January 25, 1971, in Hemet, California; married John Harding (an actor); children: one son, one daughter.
The Affairs of Martha (1942); A Stranger in Town (1943); Anchors Aweigh (1945); It Happened in Brooklyn (1947); The Kissing Bandit (1948); Holiday Affair (1949); East Side, West Side (1949); It's a Big Country (1951); Skirts Ahoy! (1952); The Girl Next Door (1953); Meet Me in Las Vegas (Viva Las Vegas, 1956); Merry Andrew (1958); The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958); The Sundowners (1960); Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960); Two for the Seesaw (1962); Period of Adjustment (1962); Fitzwilly (1967); Funny Girl (1968). Playwright: (Broadway) Funny Girl.
A native New Yorker, Isobel Lennart was born in 1915 and moved to Hollywood when she was in her early 20s to work in the motion-picture industry. By the time she was 27, she was on the writing staff at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and had had her first screen credit. Though always thought of as a "serious writer" by her colleagues at the studio, Lennart wrote primarily light comedies and musicals.
Hollywood in the 1930s saw the heyday of political activism. The 1929 stock-market crash and the Depression that threw millions of women and men out of work gave rise to serious questioning about the viability of capitalism. There was no social security then, nor was there unemployment compensation; millions of working-class Americans were destitute. Many intellectuals and artists joined the Communist Party in the hopes of building a better future for the working class, and Isobel Lennart was one of them, joining in 1939. She resigned after Stalin signed his infamous pact with Hitler, but rejoined when Germany invaded Russia. When it became known that Stalin was murdering millions of his own people, Lennart renounced the party for the last time.
Around 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy initiated the Communist witch hunts through the congressional House Un-American Activities committee (HUAC). Known or alleged Communist Party members were subpoenaed to testify before the committee. Those who refused to testify or those who refused to name other members as Communists went to jail. In the hysteria of these early Cold War years, being branded a Communist often ended a person's career. Though many prestigious writers like Dashiell Hammett and Dalton Trumbo went to jail for refusing to testify, other members of the Hollywood community, like the future president Ronald Reagan, voluntarily cooperated with the committee. Isobel Lennart apparently was one of those who volunteered to testify. Through the remaining years of the "blacklisting," as it is known in Hollywood, and possibly because of her cooperation, Lennart continued to work.
The movies Lennart wrote during the 1950s gave no hint of the heartbreak that went on behind the scenes in Hollywood. She was still an MGM staff writer, although she was sometimes "loaned" to other studios, and writing on staff meant she was assigned projects; they were did not originate with her. In those days, Americans wanted light romantic comedies and musicals, and that was just what Hollywood gave them. Lennart wrote musicals like Skirts Ahoy! (1952), about three WAVES on leave (Esther Williams, Joan Evans and Vivian Blaine ), and Merry Andrew (1958), in which schoolteacher Danny Kaye falls in love with circus aerialist Pier Angeli . Lennart also wrote two romantic comedies with essentially the same plot and cast with the same leading man. In The Girl Next Door (1953), cartoonist Dan Dailey falls in love with his neighbor, a singer played by June Haver . In Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), rancher Dailey falls in love with a ballerina, Cyd Charisse .
In the early 1960s, with the coming of the Vietnam War, the mood in America shifted, and Hollywood reacted with more serious fare. Though Lennart adapted comedies like Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and Two For the Seesaw (1962), she also adapted The Sundowners (1960), a serious story about poor migrant workers who struggle and survive in the rugged Australian outback. She received an Academy Award nomination for her work on this film.
In 1962, Lennart adapted for the screen the Tennessee Williams play Period of Adjustment. Directed by George Roy Hill, the drama follows two newlywed couples (Jane Fonda and Jim Hutton, Anthony Franciosa and Lois Nettleton ) as they go through a "period of adjustment," learning to cope with being married. Lennart's adaptation of the play was met with critical accolades.
Throughout her career, Lennart always dreamed of writing for the Broadway stage. In 1963, she wrote the musical Funny Girl, about the legendary vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice. When it premiered in New York it was a smash hit and made the up-and-coming Barbra Streisand a household name. Lennart subsequently adapted the play for the screen. It was equally a success at the box office, and Streisand won an Academy Award for her performance. Ironically it is for this, her last screenplay, that Lennart is most known. Isobel Lennart died in an automobile accident on January 25, 1971, in Hemet, California, a town outside Los Angeles. She and her husband, John Harding, were returning home from a visit to their daughter in Prescott, Arizona. Lennart was 55.
Morsberger, Robert E., Stephen O. Lesser, and Randall Clark. American Screenwriters. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1984.
Deborah Jones , Studio City, California