Norman Krasna vs. Norman Panama: Get it Straight!

A little thing today in honor of the natal day of playwright/screenwriter/producer/director Norman Krasna (1909-1984). We know of this man chiefly as a F.O.G. (Friend of Groucho), for the pair co-wrote the forgotten movie comedy The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) and the better remembered play Time for Elizabeth (1949).

If you’re like me, you’re apt to mix him up with Norman Panama (1914-2003), who had similar credits. Both men (along with Melvin Frank) co-wrote White Christmas (1954), and both look more than a little like the scientists who built the atomic bomb. I think of both as embodying what I call the “Boring Years” of American screen comedy (1940s-60s). Both writers (and American comedy, for that matter) admittedly had certain high points during those years, but as a general rule, it’s my feeling that quality dropped off considerably after the peak years of the 1920s and ’30s. For reasons why, see earlier posts here and here. Anyway I’m sure I’ll only confuse matters more by giving these dudes the same post. C’est le guerre. Is it my fault they’re indistinguishable guys named Norman?

Originally from Queens, Krasna studied for the law but dropped out in 1928 to break into journalism as a copy boy. He quickly rose up the ladder to become to drama critic for the New York Evening Graphic and other papers. From here he became a Hollywood press agent. In 1931 he wrote his first Broadway play Louder Please…about a Hollywood press agent. It was very much in imitation of The Front Page (right down to having the same star, Lee Tracy). His first screenplay was Hollywood Speaks (1932), directed by Eddie Buzzell who later directed the Marx Brothers At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), as well as Krasna’s later Love, Honor and Oh, Baby! (1933). For Wheeler and Woolsey Krasna wrote the screenplay to So This is Africa. With Herman Mankiewicz he cowrote the screenplay to Meet the Baron (1934) for Jack Pearl.

But he didn’t only write comedies. Fury (1936), directed by Fritz Lang earned Krasna an Oscar nom. Other interesting things included The Flame of New Orleans (1941), directed by Rene Clair, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. He won an Oscar for the now-forgotten Princess O’Rourke (1943), which he also directed. In 1944 he had a hit Broadway play called Dear Ruth, based on Groucho’s family! It ran for nearly two years. Who Was That Lady I Saw You With? was made into a film in 1958 with Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Dean Martin. He also produced the excellent screen version of Clifford Odets’ Clash by Night, and Nicholas Ray’s amazing western The Lusty Men, both in 1952. There are many more credits like this.

In the ’70s Krasna was one of the many folks Charlotte Chandler interviewed for her Groucho book Hello I Must Be Going. Krasna knew Groucho since the early ’30s. His interview also offers great insights into the other brothers. (Personal memories about Zeppo, for example, are always welcome, and like so many others he describes the Z man as being the funniest of the brothers in real life. So funny, in fact, the one once caused Krasna to fall out of a car from laughter.)

As it happens, Norman Panama also wrote gags for Groucho, along with his long-time writing partner Melvin Frank, although that was for radio. Panama and Frank are primarily associated with Bob Hope, from radio days all the way through the end of the 1960s. In addition to Groucho and Hope, they also wrote for Milton Berle during the radio era. For Hope (and sometimes Crosby) they wrote My Favorite Blonde (1942), Road to Utopia (1946), Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), That Certain Feeling (1956), The Facts of Life (1960), The Road to Hong Kong (1962) and How to Commit Marriage (1969). Their other major association was with Danny Kaye, for whom they wrote Knock on Wood (1954), The Court Jester (1956), and the aforementioned White Christmas, with Bing (and the aforementioned Krasna). To further muddle the two men, Panama cowrote and directed the Tony Curtis comedy Not With My Wife You Don’t (1966) which sounds an awful like the earlier Tony Curtis comedy Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?, written by Krasna.

Other notable comedies Panama co-wrote and sometimes directed, included such things as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant; Callaway Went Thataway (1951) with Fred MacMurray, Howard Keel, and Dorothy McGuire; the screen adaptation of Li’l Abner (1959); The Maltese Bippy (1969) with Rowan and Martin; Coffee, Tea or Me? (1973) with Karen Valentine; and I Will…I Will…For Now (1976) with Elliott Gould and Diane Keaton! Critics savaged the latter effort as hopelessly dated. I find myself very curious to see what such modern actors would do in such an old-fashioned vehicle. I’m picturing something like the quartet in Hitchcock’s Family Plot, which was released the same year. It was an attempt at a contemporary sex/relationship comedy, for which both Gould and Keaton’s past work made them theoretical well suited. But there was no way in hell somebody like Norman Panama could conjure a fresh-seeming comedy in the age of Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky. The writing was on the wall. The 70s had ushered in a new era of screen comedy.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.