Mel Shavelson: A Jesting Journeyman

It would be too much I think to call Melville “Mel” Shavelson (1917-2007) a comedy auteur, but he was undoubtedly a key player in American comedy film from the ’40s through the ’70s and was also responsible for a couple of notable show biz bio-pics. He worked with some of the top comedy stars, and crafted comedies for stars who weren’t comedians and all, yet I would call his stamp impersonal at best. Comedies about large families, or comedies set in Italy would be what passes for themes in some of his work.

The Brooklyn native attended Cornell, where he wrote a humor column in the campus newspaper. Upon graduating in 1937 he almost immediately got hired as a jokewriter for Bob Hope’s radio program, whch led naturally to his becoming one of his principle screenwriters. Prior to becoming a director himself, Shavelson co-wrote the scripts for Hope’s comedies The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Where There’s Life (1947), The Paleface (1948), Sorrowful Jones (1949), and The Great Lover (1949). During these years he also co-wrote screenplays for Danny Kaye (Wonder Man [1945], The Kid from Brooklyn [1946]); and Doris Day (It’s a Great Feeling [1949], On Moonlight Bay [1951], I’ll See You in My Dreams [1951], April in Paris [1952]); as well as Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) for Milton Berle; Riding High (1950) for Bing Crosby; Double Dynamite (1951) for Groucho Marx and Frank Sinatra; and Living it Up (1954) for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; as well as The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950) starring June Haver, Room for One More (1952) with Cary Grant and his wife Betsy Drake, and Trouble Along the Way (1953) starring those comedy cut-ups John Wayne and Donna Reed. 

In the mid ’50s Shavelson began directing his own screenplays. His first two were were bio-pics starring Bob Hope, and among the best films of either Hope or Shavelson: The Seven Little Foys (1955) about Eddie Foy and his large performing family, and Beau James (1957) about New York Mayor Jimmy Walker. Houseboat (1958) was a fraught ordeal. It was originally written by Betsy Drake for herself and Cary Grant to star in, but Grant replaced her with Sophia Loren, with whom Grant had become enchanted (and involved) on The Pride and the Passion (1957). Shavelson was to work with Loren again in It Happened in Naples (1960), with Clark Gable instead of Grant. With Danny Kaye, Shavelson directed The Five Pennies (1959) a bio-pic about jazz musician Red Nichols, and the twin comedy On the Double (1961). Other comedies from the decade included The Pigeon That Took Rome (1962) with Charlton Heston; A New Kind of Love (1963) with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; and Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) with Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. (Fonda is fine, I guess, but it would have been vastly better with Bob Hope, who had co-starred with Ball on other occasions. Like so many of Shavelson’s comedies, this one suffers from having an essentially unfunny major actor in a principal role). This movie was later remade in 2005 with Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo with even less hilarious results.

In 1970, Shavelson created the sitcom My World and Welcome To It, also writing and directing several of the episodes. James Thurber was obviously an obsession of Shavelson’s at the time, for he also wrote and directed The War Between Men and Women (1972), starring Jack Lemmon and Barbara Harris, which just so happens to be about “a cartoonist who is losing his eyesight”). In the early ’70s, Shavelson also wrote and directed the comedies Here Comes the Judge (1972) with Darren McGaven and Barbara Feldon, and Mixed Company (1974) with Barbara Harris and Joe Bologna. This dated comedy, which continues Shavelson’s favorite theme of large families with adopted children, also features Lisa Gerritsen from My World and Welcome To it, and a young Haywood Nelson, several years prior to playing Duane on What’s Happening! 

In the mid ’70s, Shavelson directe two notable show biz bio-pics for television: The Legend of Valentino (1975) starring Franco Nero; and The Great Houdini (1976) starring Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch. We wrote about that film here.

On a couple of notable occasions, Shavelson strayed far from the precincts of comedy to direct historical epics. His first, Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) about the partitioning of Israel, starred Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. The other was the TV mini-series Ike: The War Years (1979-80), starring Robert Duvall as General Eisenhower, which was very much in the mold of such films as Patton (1970) and MacArthur (1976).

Shavelson’s last original screen credit as co-writer and co-director was Deception (1985) starring Stephanie Powers as twin sisters who switch places, a theme he had explored in On the Double with Danny Kaye a quarter century earlier.

In 1990, Shavelson co-authored Bob Hopers memoir, Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me, Bob Hope. Shavelson’s own autobiography How to Succeed in Hollywood Without Really Trying, P.S. — You Can’t! was published by Bear Manor Media in April 2007. He died just four months later

For more on comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, also published by Bear Manor Media.