Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on prolific screenwriter and playwright Phoebe Ephron.
In 1914 Phoebe Wolkind was born in New York City. She graduated from Hunter College and worked as a counselor at a summer camp where she met Henry Ephron, a stage manager for famous playwriting team George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. They married in 1934 and shortly thereafter they began writing together after encouragement from Kaufman and Hart.
Yet, it was not until after the birth of their first daughter, Nora, in 1942 that something they wrote, Three’s a Family, found financial backers for a Broadway production. Notably, it began their habit of using personal family experience in their stories. Three’s a Family ran for over a year. Rather than adapting their own play, RKO Studios hired Phoebe and Henry to adapt The Richest Girl in the World, a play by Norman Krasna, turning it into the film Bride by Mistake. With that assignment, they moved to Los Angeles full time and on to a contract at Warner Brothers Studios, where they became adept at adapting plays and writing screenplays based on stories created by other writers, including Reginald Denham’s Wallflower (1948), a second Norman Krasna play, John Loves Mary (1949), and Look for the Silver Lining (1949).
Accepting a contract from another studio they landed at 20th Century-Fox in 1950, adapting scripts from New Yorker articles: The Jackpot (1950), Broadway plays: On the Riviera (1951), and books: Belles on Their Toes (1952). Along the way Phoebe gave birth the 3 other future female writers: Amy, Delia and Hallie.
Then came their screenplay adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Carousel in 1957 followed by an adaptation of the William Marchant’s play, Desk Set. The story involves computerizing the research department at a television network and stars Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Yet with the dwindling film audience created by the advent of television, screenwriting assignments became scarce. The Ephrons wrote a play based on Nora’s letters home from college. Take Her, She’s Mine played a solid year between through December 1962.
In an event similar to what happened after their initial success with Three’s a Family, the play was optioned as a film, but the Ephrons were not offered the adaptation. Nunnally Johnson inherited that chore while the Ephrons were asked to adapt a new novel by Leo Rosten. Captain Newman, M.D., tells the fictional story of Ralph Greenson, one of the first military medical officers to study Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome seriously. The film seemed completely out of the Ephrons’ realm and perhaps this is one reason it earned them their first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Writing.
This ought to have been their chance to resurrect their career, but Phoebe’s cancer diagnosis and the depression and alcoholism it exacerbated in both their lives contributed to the end rather than a new beginning. Phoebe Ephron died on October 13, 1971. In his memoir Henry wrote of offering Katherine Hepburn the job of directing one of their plays. Hepburn feared it would keep her away from caring for the aging Spencer Tracy. “As I was leaving, she stopped me at the door and said ‘Would you tell Phoebe something for me? She’s the woman I admire most. She’s done it all --- children, husband, career.’”
If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.
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