Robert E. Sherwood: America’s Tallest Playwright

Not our greatest playwright but definitely our tallest. Robert E. Sherwood stood 6′ 8″

Today is the birthday of Robert E. Sherwood (1896-1955). A colleague of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker at Vanity Fair, he was one of the founding members of the informal club of wits known as the Algonquin Round Table. At 6’8″, Sherwood was nearly two feet taller than Parker who stood at 4’11”. They must have quite a sight chatting at cocktail parties.

Sherwood was to earn his greatest stature as a playwright and screenwriter. Though he was one of the most successful in his line during the twentieth century and many of his works remain popular in cinematic form, time has served to obscure the memory of his name somewhat. His popular works include Waterloo Bridge (1929, later made into two excellent movies), Roman Scandals (1933, co-written with George S. Kaufman as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor), The Petrified Forest (1934), Idiot’s Delight (1935), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1937), the Pulitzer Prize winning There Shall Be No Night (1940) and the screenplay to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). I would call most of these scripts “workman-like”. Though occasionally ambitious in a didactic sort of way (usually with an anti-war or anti-violence message), his dialogue is of that plodding Broadway sort that is neither poetic nor naturalistic — just sort of does the job, and gets you from plot point to plot point. There is a reason why people remember Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, but not Robert Sherwood or Maxwell Anderson. But this guy remembers him! His scripts (and their premises) are all memorable, even if the dialogue and their author aren’t.  In later years, Sherwood became a speechwriter for FDR and continued to write plays and non-fiction books until his death.

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