Spotlight on Screenwriter Helen Deutsch

Helen Deutsch: American ScreenwriterAfter watching several hundred MGM films, one begins to pay attention to the credits; and when one pays attention to the credits, one begins to notice that a number of names crop up recurrently, such as Clarence Brown, Wally Westmore, Cedric Gibbons, and Douglas Shearer. For us, Helen Deutsch is another one of those names. At first we thought she was a hairdresser (getting her innocently mixed up with the great Helen Rose), but when we sat down and watched National Velvet (1944) recently, her name stood out in blazing lights.  Helen Deutsch was a screenwriter at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1944-1955, and in addition to being a screenwriter, she was also a short story writer, a songwriter (penning tunes with Jay Livingston, Bronislau Kaper and Bernard Green), and an avid bibliophile. For those who would like to know a little bit more about this fascinating woman, read on, dear reader, read on.

Helen Deutsch was born on March 21, 1906 in New York City, New York. While in her senior year at Bernard College, she worked as a play reader for the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. After the group disbanded, Deutsch collaborated with Stella B. Hanau to write a history of the famed theatre, “The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre,” first published in 1931.

This successful book inspired her to take up freelance writing and she began writing short stories for the now-defunct Brooklyn Eagle, the Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook magazines. These short stories caught the attention of Hollywood, and Deutsch was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to rewrite Theodore Reeve’s screenplay adaptation of the Enid Bagnold novel, National Velvet. Deutsch was faithful to the novel and yet added many subtle touches that heightened the film’s appeal and bits of dialogue that gave added depth to the characters.

A salute to Helen Deutsch, screen writer for the films The Seventh Cross (1944) and National Velvet (1944)That same year she was put to work on an screenplay based on the novel The Seventh Cross, which told the story of a man escaping from a Nazi prison camp. Spencer Tracy gave one of his best performances in the big-screen version. Most of the scripts she did for MGM were adaptations of other works, among them two 1950 efforts: King Solomon’s Mines (from the H. Rider Haggard novel) and the filming of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Deutsch worked on a diverse range of scripts, including dramas (I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Plymouth Adventure), fairy tales (The Glass Slipper), and costume adventure (Golden Earrings for Paramount).

LILI 2This was also the decade that she wrote what some consider her best film, Lili (1953). Based on a story by Paul Gallico (The Three Lives of Thomasina), it tells the delightful tale of an orphan, played by Leslie Caron, who joins a traveling circus. It also featured a memorable song, “Hi-Lilli-Hi-Lo,” which was penned by Deutsch. The film earned her a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild of America award, as well as an Academy Award nomination. “Hi-Lilli-Hi-Lo” was considered to be a front-runner to win an Academy Award for Best Song as well, but it was deemed ineligible because some of the lyrics had previously been published and did not receive a nomination….which is just as well since Deutsch herself dismissed the song as being “dreadful.”

By 1956, Helen Deutsch was tiring of the old Hollywood grind, and that year’s Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz comedy Forever Darling was the final film she made for a major studio…at least for a while. She switched to the small screen and obtained a contract with NBC which stated that she work on three specials over the next three years. Deutsch uprooted herself from California and headed back to Manhattan at this time where, in between writing for these productions (Jack and the Beanstalk, The General Motors Fiftieth Anniversary Show, and The Hallmark Christmas Tree), she spent her days pursuing her old love of the stage. Deutsch took on many roles in show business including helping to run a theater company, working as an assistant to the executive director for the Theatre Guild, helping to co-found the New York Drama Critics Circle (as a protest to the Pulitzer Prize selections), and working as a publicist and theatre critic for the New York Herald and New York Times.

UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWNIn the early 1960s she was once again in the spotlight when “Carnival,” based on her screenplay for Lili, was turned into a Broadway production and won a Tony Award. She also worked with Meredith Wilson in adapting his stage musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for the big screen in 1964. This brought her back to Hollywood temporarily and also led to her being selected as one of the writers for Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (1967). Deutsch was not pleased with the final film version released to the public and disavowed any association with the film. All writers have a few works that they are ashamed of, and obviously Deutsch was no different.

Writing and her love of the theatre must have absorbed quite a significant amount of her attention, but nevertheless her personal life was not devoid of romance. Helen Deutsch was briefly married to educator Spencer Pollard and then she went on to have several relationships with high profile figures (cough-cough), the most notable of these being Clifford Odets, the playwright.

In addition to being a talented writer, Deutsch had a number of interesting hobbies, the best of which was being an avid bibliophile. She amassed a tidy amount of rare books and manuscripts, which she generously donated to Boston University. She was also a student of medieval English, French, and German, and a Sanskrit scholar. Deutsch had a multi-faceted life indeed.  She passed away at the age of 85 in 1992 but left behind quite a memorable array of screen work.

Constance Metzinger is a blogger who runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”

An earlier verion of this article originally ran in 2014 and is being reprinted today in honor of International Women’s Day

  • Cara

    Again and again, when a film’s credits roll, I find that a woman has written the screenplay or partnered with a male to co-author a screenplay of a film I really like. Even when women couldn’t get jobs as directors and producers, they could get hired as writers because women have always been able to hone the writing craft, even without the support of men. Only in writing have women established something of a level playing field in most of the writing genres and fields. Thank heavens for writing.