George Axelrod: Lord Love a Screenwriter

We haven’t paid tribute to many screenwriters here, but the name George Axelrod (1922-2003) was stage and screen box office magic in the 1950s and ’60s. Rare among practitioners of his particular craft, he had a voice and an identity and is regarded as an auteur, though he only produced and directed on a couple of occasions.

Show business was in his blood. His father Herman Axelrod had been an earlier collaborator of Oscar Hammerstein II’s. His mother, Beatrice “Betty”  Carpenter appeared in 9 silent films: Rupert Julian’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918); then a couple of comedy shorts with Billie Ritchie and Hugh Fay: The Fatal Marriage (1918) and The Lady Bell Hop’s Secret (1919); followed by Such a Little Queen (1921); then Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (1921) with Johnny Hines; Experience (1921) with Richard Barthelmess and Reginald Denny; The Iron Trail (1921); Dawn of the East (1921) with Alice Brady; and Cardigan (1922) with William Collier Jr. She retired in 1922, the year that George was born.

Axelrod worked in summer stock when he was young, served in the signal corps during World War II, then broke into show business himself as a writer for radio in the late ’40s. This led naturally to writing for television. One of his first jobs was writing for Lewis and Martin on the Colgate Comedy Hour. Then he struck gold in 1952 with his Broadway comedy The Seven Year Itch, which ran for three years. While that was still running he wrote a teleplay called Confessions of a Nervous Man that was broadcast in 1953 on Studio One in Hollywood starring Art Carney. In 1954 came the original screenplay Phffft, a vehicle for Jack Lemmon and Judy Holiday. In 1955 he had twin successes: The Seven Year Itch was made into a film by Billy Wilder, featuring Marilyn Monroe, and he directed his play Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? on Broadway with Orson Bean and Jayne Mansfield. In 1956 his screenplay adaptation of William Inge’s Bus Stop was released, again with Monroe. In 1957 again two projects: he produced Gore Vidal’s A Visit to a Small Planet on Broadway (in 1960 it would be made into a film starring Jerry Lewis); AND Frank Tashlin made Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? into a film, changing the script drastically, much to Axelrod’s displeasure. In 1958, he contributed to the script of Leo McCarey’s last film Rally, ‘Round the Flag, Boys. In 1959, he wrote and directed the Broadway comedy Goodbye, Charlie, starring Lauren Bacall and Sydney Chaplin.

His prestige continued to increase during the next decade. He wrote the screenplay for Blake Edwards’ movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) — changing nearly as much about it as Tashlin had changed in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? In 1962 he wrote the screenplay for The Manchurian Candidate, now considered a Cold War classic, but unseeable for decades after the JFK assassination rendered it too sensitive for many viewers. In 1964 Vincent Minnelli directed the screen version of Goodbye, Charlie with Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, and Pat Boone. In 1965 came the comedy How to Murder Your Wife, directed by Richard Quine, with Lemmon and Terry-Thomas.

In 1966 Axelrod wrote and directed one of my favorite movies, the zany yet philosophical Lord Love a Duck, starring Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowell, Max Showalter, Ruth Gordon, and Harvey Korman et al. I will perhaps be unusual in considering this a high point for the satirical genius. Then, at the end of the year he directed the original production of Neil Simon’s The Star Spangled Girl on Broadway, with Richard Benjamin, Anthony Perkins, and Connie Stevens. It ran through August 1967. (The movie version would be directed in 1971 by Jerry Paris.) Axelrod’s golden age ends with the risque comedy The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968), which he wrote, produced and directed. The film starred Anne Jackson, Walter Matthau, Patrick Neal and Edy Williams.

The underperformance of The Secret Life of an American Wife at the box office seems to have prompted a major sea change for Axelrod. His next project was a show biz novel called Where Am I Now When I Need Me? (1971). In the ’70s there were German, Italian and French TV adaptations of his scripts, but he was quiet in the U.S. Then in 1979, another notable achievement. He wrote the screenplay for Hammer’s big budget remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, legendary as the last film produced by the classic Hammer studios. It featured Elliot Gould, Cybill Shepherd, Angela Lansbury, and Herbert Lom. This movie was also a failure (hence the closure of Hammer).

Then in the ’80s he returned in a big way with spy thrillers: The Holcroft Covenant (1985) and The Fourth Protocol (1987), both starring Michael Caine, as well as as the long awaited re-release of The Manchurian Candidate in 1988. I was there for that in the theatre, I can tell you — a most thrilling cinematic event. The fact that John Frankenheimer had directed The Holcroft Covenant may have precipitated this belated release. As for Axelrod, he passed way mere months before the release of Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake. But his golden era had ended over three decades before.