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Henry Koster: A Life in Movies
by Bob Koster
If Dad had not had such a quick temper, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
I guess that deserves an explanation. My father, Henry Koster, was a movie director. He began by cartooning and writing short stories in Berlin in 1925 or so, and his last film was The Singing Nun, made in Hollywood in 1965. In between, Henry Koster lived several lifetimes.
My father’s mother, Emma, was the daughter of one of Germany’s better operatic tenors, so Dad’s childhood was filled with classical music. My grandmother’s brother opened one of the first movie theatres in Berlin around 1910, and soon called on Emma to play the piano to accompany the silent films. Dad went with her to the movies every day, and watched the films over and over. Eventually he realized that he could do it better.
In his Gymnasium (roughly the equivalent of high school plus two-year college), Dad directed a performance of Verdi’s opera Don Carlos. All this time – his father having left the family years before – he was writing short stories to support his mother and sister. These short stories caught the attention of German directors, who were always looking for new talent and new material to feed the flow of films.
Dad started writing for a number of leading directors of the German cinema, including Kurt Bernhardt, Robert Siodmak, and Erich Engel. In 1932, having written about 25 silent ‘scenarios’ and many scripts after sound came in, he was given the chance to direct his first film, Das Abenteuer Der Thea Roland (The Adventure of Thea Roland). Whilst directing this film, he met Joe Pasternak, a young producer who represented Universal Pictures in Europe. When they became friends, Pasternak promised that Dad would direct for him in the near future.
In 1933 Dad’s career suffered a severe setback. He was directing his second film, Das Hâssliche Mâdchen (The Ugly Girl), and was within four days of wrapping production. Adolf Hitler won the election, and Germany was suddenly taken over by the Nazis. One of the first things those fellows did was to nationalize the banks, confiscating any money held by people of the Jewish faith.
Dad knew his career was to be interrupted anyway. Extras wore Nazi uniforms to the set and refused to change into character costumes. Nazi officers ordered him to drive them to headquarters, making him late to work. Worse, his friends, normally most friendly and welcoming, were suddenly refusing to be seen in public with him. Dad decided that when the picture wrapped he would leave the country and relocate in a more accommodating climate. So during lunch break at the studio, he went to his bank to withdraw his savings. Four days left to film.
In the bank, the teller refused to recognize him. More than that, he said that since Dad was Jewish he didn’t have any money there – it had been confiscated by the Nazis. The teller, dressed in the uniform of a Sturmabteilung officer, tore up his passbook and threw it on the floor. Dad’s temper was seething by this time, and he said he’d see the bank manager, a certain Herr Schànfeld. When the teller said that Herr Schànfeld wasn’t there, Dad said he’d wait. The teller picked up the phone and dialed, then said, “Herr Schànfeld, I have a Jew here named Koster who wants to take his money out…. OK, I’ll tell him.”
The teller hung up, then turned to Dad and said, “The manager isn’t here.”
Dad said, “I just saw you speaking to him.”
The teller replied, “You filthy Jew bastard, are you calling me a liar?”
With that, Dad lost it – he jumped over the desk, grabbed the telephone, and knocked the teller unconscious. Herr Schànfeld appeared suddenly and helped to pull Dad off the officer. He took Dad out the front door, handing him some money from his own wallet. He told Dad to go straight to the railroad station and leave the country on the next train: “Don’t go back to work, don’t go home and pack, just leave the country right now.”
Dad went to Paris that afternoon. He managed to get a small apartment, and started writing. Soon German directors and producers were traveling to Paris to have Dad write their scripts for them – which he had to do under assumed names.
A few months later he received a telegram from Joe Pasternak, who remembered Dad from Berlin. Pasternak was then based in Budapest, having left Berlin for the same reason as everyone else. Eager for the chance to direct again, Dad packed up and moved to Hungary. Over the next two years in Hungary and Austria, he directed four films for Universal, all financial and critical successes.
Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, wired Pasternak in late 1935, directing him to relocate to the US because Europe was too dangerous for Jews. Pasternak telegrammed back that he couldn’t come without his director. Universal replied that they already had too many German directors. Pasternak wired back that he would leave Universal in that case and stay in Europe. Universal wired back, relenting and agreeing to allow Koster to come to Hollywood – but for only one picture.
Koster and Pasternak arrived in New York on the Ile de France on February 21, 1936, and boarded a train for Hollywood. When they arrived, they found that Laemmle had lost control of Universal Studio, which was now owned by the Bank of America. And Bank of America and their new studio chief Charles R. Rogers had decided to do away with as many of the old Laemmle employees as possible. That included Koster and Pasternak, who were not given an office but were grudgingly allowed into the gate every morning. During the day they mostly walked around, visiting with friends. They also met an attorney who looked at the contract sent to them in Europe, and determined that Universal did indeed owe them one movie.
They were finally given an office in the stables, next to the horses, with all the aroma that entails. They wrote a script called Three Smart Girls, and Universal decided to cast an unknown in the main role. They settled on Deanna Durbin, who had never acted in a major feature before, so Dad took her under his wing and coached her personally. Even so, the studio did not trust Dad’s beginner’s English, so they assigned a dialogue coach to stay on the set to watch the intonations.
The schedule was painfully short, since Universal still did not trust the foreigners. But in spite of all the opposition, the movie was released, making Deanna Durbin one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of that era. Dad joined the Directors Guild of America as soon as it was founded in 1936.
Dad’s contract with Universal was renewed, and he and Pasternak went on to create several more pictures for Universal until the early 1940s, when they moved to MGM. After that, Dad was under contract to Fox for many years. He also worked under loan-out for other studios. He directed Harvey (with Jimmy Stewart) for Universal in 1948, and The Bishop’s Wife (with Cary Grant) in 1947, The Robe in 1953, My Man Godfrey in1957, and Flower Drum Song in 1961. See
under ‘Henry Koster.’
Dad retired in 1965. He moved to Camarillo in 1980 and passed away there in 1988. He left a legacy – not often equaled by any other director – of around 60 entertaining and amusing pictures, including many musicals. And he was happy, having spent his life doing what he enjoyed doing best: using his creativity to entertain people.
Posted on Nov 04, 2008 - 01:26 PM