For those who wonder how screenwriting teams, as well as married folks, stay happily together, “The Real Nick and Nora,” a “dual biography” of screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is an entertaining read. Highly regarded in Hollywood for more than 30 years and married for 50, Goodrich and Hackett wrote such classics as “The Thin Man” (hence the book’s title), “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Father of the Bride”; and the play and film of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Being the nephew of Frances Goodrich, the author has special access to letters and papers, plus remembered conversations and mini-exclusives with friends of the couple — frequently the elite of the film and theater worlds of both coasts.
It’s a kick to find out that the duo were so tired of the witty and glamorous Nick and Nora Charles, who were played by Myrna Loy and William Powell. In fact, they wanted to have them killed off by the end of the third “Thin Man” film they adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s detective fiction. The series was so popular, though, that they settled for Nora getting pregnant, reasoning that maybe a baby would slow down the sleuthing.
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The films made millions but the Hacketts got only a $10,000 bonus; still, the success of the series blasted the team out of the anonymous writer stalls at MGM. The studio had bought their Broadway hit “Bridal Wise” in 1932 and the couple went to Hollywood. Albert Hackett wisecracked in his charming-but- ironic, William Powell-like way that their take was $3.50 a week.
Eventually, they became some of the industry’s highest paid and sought-after writers, earning $2,500 a week even in the 1930s. Equally astounding is that they made and maintained friendships with intriguing writers and actors, even prickly types like Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. Their gift for friendship — a kind of “you and me complicity,” according to one of the author’s sources — was complemented by their non-confrontational style. They were also generous to a fault: bailing out an AWOL Hammett, hosting too many house guests to list.
Yet even this magnanimous couple ended up despising Frank Capra after he directed their script for “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They called him “horrid” for hiring writers to work surreptitiously on their script before rewriting it himself. As chronicled elsewhere, the brouhaha ended in arbitration, a kind of dour comfort in its present-day familiarity. Frances Goodrich also foreshadowed modern times when she declared: “The situation for writers is much improved, now that many of them have become their own producers.”
The author takes a stab at figuring out why the Goodrich-Hackett partnership worked so long and so well. Albert, from a poor background, who supported his family by working as a child actor, was probably the better writer, with an ear for dialogue and the easy-going slang of the theater. Frances, a Vassar graduate from an upper-class family in New Jersey, was more organized and a better dealmaker. First drafts were in Albert’s phrase, “the puking stage.” The couple each wrote a draft, then gave it to the other to criticize.
Still, the two seem out of range in this account, a bit distanced and vague. Why were the former actors so driven they produced plays on Broadway, forceful enough to face down numerous film producers and directors? How did Goodrich, once a secretary for the Screenwriters Guild, muster the strength to not spill writers’ names to a government committee? How did she get and keep her female perspective? Often the only woman in story conferences, she said, “Perhaps there isn’t a ‘woman’s angle,’ but . . . I’ll fight for what the gal will or will not do.”
How did they manage to argue all day in their office as an eavesdropping neighbor reported, yet cheerfully emerge for meals as if nothing had happened? Most important of all, were they in love? Did they stay that way? Perhaps the fiercely loyal author is too much in awe to probe.
“The Real Nick and Nora” is best in its depiction of the social life of madcap writers at play, a Hollywood group for which the Hacketts were the sane, sensible hub. Studio writers fought so much during word games at lunch they were forced to eat at a separate table. The chapter titled “The Garden of Allah” describes the high jinks of ex-New Yorkers in Southern California’s version of short-term housing: 25 Spanish bungalows with tiled roofs and paper thin walls separating the likes of Marc Connelly, Al Hirshfeld, Robert Benchley, Groucho Marx, Nunnally Johnson, Nat Perrin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Stuart.
The book does not take up the issue of the demise of literate scripts like the ones Goodrich and Hackett wrote during Hollywood’s Golden Age. But it’s great to know that Oz once existed.