Howard W. Koch - Writer

Writer and Producer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 12 December 1902. Education: Attended St. Stephen's College (now Bard College), Annandale-on-Hudson, B.A. 1922; Columbia Law School, New York, LL.B. 1925. Family: Married 2) Anne Green, 1944; three children. Career: 1926–37—practiced law in Hartsdale, New York, and writer: first play produced, 1929, Great Scott! (later plays include Give Us This Day , 1933, The Lonely Man , 1937, In Time to Come , with John Huston, 1940, and Dead Letters , 1971); 1938—joined Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre Company, and wrote script for the radio play War of the Worlds ; 1939–46—contract writer, Warner Bros.: first film as writer, The Sea Hawk , 1940; 1947—beginning of House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of Koch, and eventually blacklisted in 1951; 1952–56—worked in England, using the pseudonym Peter Howard. Award: Academy Award for Casablanca , 1943. Died: 17 August 1995.

Films as Writer:


The Sea Hawk (Curtiz); The Letter (Wyler); Virginia City (Curtiz) (uncredited)


Shining Victory (Rapper); Sergeant York (Hawks)


In This Our Life (Huston); Casablanca (Curtiz)


Mission to Moscow (Curtiz)


In Our Time (Sherman)


Rhapsody in Blue (Rapper); Tuesday in November (Berry—short)


Three Strangers (Negulesco); The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler) (uncredited)


Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls)


No Sad Songs for Me (Maté)


The Thirteenth Letter (Preminger)


The Intimate Stranger ( Finger of Guilt )(Losey)(as Peter Howard)


The Greengage Summer ( Loss of Innocence (Gilbert)


The War Lover (Leacock)


633 Squadron (Grauman)


The Fox (Rydell) (+ assoc pr)


The Woman of Otowi Crossing (Daniel Mann)

Other Films:


Border Incident (Mann) (asst d)


Fort Yuma (Selander) (pr)


The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer) (exec pr)


By KOCH: books—

With John Huston, In Time to Come (play), New York, 1942.

With Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Casablanca (script), in The Best Film Plays of 1943–44 , edited by John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, New York, 1945.

The Panic Broadcast , Boston, Massachusetts, 1970.

Casablanca, Script and Legend , Woodstock, New York, 1973.

As Time Goes By (autobiography), New York, 1978.

By KOCH: articles—

"A Playwright Looks at the 'Filmwright,"' in Sight and Sound (London), July 1950.

"Script to Screen with Max Ophüls," in The Hollywood Screenwriter , edited by Richard Corliss, New York, 1972.

Letter in American Film (Washington, D.C.), February 1978.

Film Comment (New York), July-August 1978.

On KOCH: book—

Anobile, Richard J., (ed.), Michael Curtiz's Casablanca , New York, 1974.

On KOCH: articles—

Présence du Cinéma (Paris), June 1962.

Film Comment (New York), May-June 1973.

Culbert, David, on Mission to Moscow in American History/American Film , edited by John E. O'Connor and Martin A. Jackson, New York, 1979.

Rogers, Michael, " Casablanca : Script and Legend," in Library Journal , 1 November 1992.

Gillman, Michael, "Howard Koch: You Must Remember This," in Library Journal , 1 September 1993.

Howard W. Koch
Howard W. Koch

Hoffman, Preston, " The War of the Worlds —Fiftieth Anniversary Production," in Wilson Literary Bulletin , September 1994.

Gussow, M., Obituary, in The New York Times , 18 August 1995.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 21 August 1995.

Obituary, in Facts on File , 24 August 1995.

Obituary, in Economist , 26 August 1995.

Obituary, in Time , 28 August 1995.

* * *

Although he was responsible for writing a number of distinguished film scripts for Warner Bros. in the 1940s and for Columbia in the 1950s and 1960s, Howard Koch will probably best be remembered for contributing the marvelous dialogue to Casablanca which he coscripted with Julius and Philip Epstein in 1943. It is to his credit that the dialogue for this relatively low-budget, war-time melodrama still resonates today with wit and charm. In part, of course, it is the quality of the cast which is responsible for such timelessness, an embarrassing number of fine character actors (as one critic has described it) deliver the lines with style and control: Bogart is perfect as Rick as is Bergman as Ilse and so on. But it was Howard Koch, still a relative newcomer to film writing, who crafted the movie into one of cinema's rare and privileged films.

Koch himself arrived in Hollywood in the late 1930s in a privileged position as he followed Orson Welles to the coast on the heels of the Halloween broadcast, War of the Worlds , which he wrote for the Mercury Theatre. He was cautious in his choice of screen assignments, and produced, in the three short years before Casablanca , scripts of high literary and artistic merit. He wrote the swashbuckler The Sea Hawk , not as just another adventure film written to formula but as a thoughtful historical romance with thematic connections to the current events taking place in Europe with the rise of Adolph Hitler. He followed The Sea Hawk with a literary adaptation of Somerset Maugham's play, The Letter , which under Koch's tutelage became more than just a star vehicle for Bette Davis who was picked to act the role of Leslie Crosby, the neglected wife of the English planter. Although melodramatic, The Letter crackles with good dialogue and marked Koch as not only a fine adaptator but a fine screen craftsman as well. The next two films he wrote were also melodramas, Shining Victory , a play by A.J. Cronin which Koch adapted with Anne Froelich, and Ellen Glasgow's In This Our Life which he cowrote with John Huston as an uncredited collaborator. He had worked once before with Huston on Sergeant York , a film about a pacifist farmer who overcomes his objections to killing and becomes the most decorated hero of the First World War. Although the assignment created political problems for Koch, he had an opportunity to work with Howard Hawks who directed the film. In spite of the film's obviously propagandistic tone, Koch and Huston were nominated for an Academy Award.

Koch was brought in to work on his next project after it had been abandoned by the Epstein brothers. Casablanca was a film which took ample advantage of Koch's idealism and political leanings and avoided the cloying patriotism of Sergeant York while nevertheless supplying a pro-war, pro-ally message. Casablanca retains the correct mixture of romanticism and cynicism to remain perennially fresh and contemporary. Koch's handling of the film's political contents earned him an assignment on Mission to Moscow , based on Ambassador Joseph Davies's book and already begun by Erskine Caldwell. The film is now a political embarrassment because of its favorable portrait of Joseph Stalin, who comes across as a lovable Uncle Joe, and it also was one of the sources for Koch's blacklisting as the film was seen as subversive in a cold war perspective. Koch wrote three more films for Warner Bros.: In Our Time , with Ellis St. Joseph, Rhapsody in Blue , with Elliot Paul and later Clifford Odets, and Three Strangers , with John Huston. All three scripts show evidence of Koch's skill with dialogue.

In 1947, in an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Jack Warner denied that any Warner films contained communist propaganda and mentioned Koch among others as a writer he had fired for his political leanings. Koch was called before the committee to deny Warner's allegations, and, although he proved his point, he was "graylisted" for his support of the political left in Hollywood. Koch lost jobs because of his listing and wrote very little that was produced during the 1950s. One notable exception was Letter from an Unknown Woman , written for Max Ophüls. It is a fine film and captures the ambience of Vienna in the same way Casablanca did for the city of its title. Following The Thirteenth Letter , which Koch did for Otto Preminger, he was officially blacklisted and left Hollywood for Woodstock, New York, and later for Europe.

In 1961 Koch's name was finally removed from the blacklist after a lengthy legal battle and he was allowed to work again. The writing he did on The Greengage Summer , The War Lover , and 633 Squadron was undistinguished although workmanlike; in the case of 633 Squadron , written mostly by James Clavell, Koch was brought in as a script doctor and cannot be held responsible for the rather lackluster script.

Koch's scripting job on The Fox , an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence short novel, became distorted beyond recognition, so much so that Koch took the script to the Writers Guild for arbitration but lost. The final film owes little to Lawrence or to Howard Koch.

Koch's career, like so many others' disrupted by the era of blacklisting, never recovered from the period of enforced absence from motion-picture writing. Hollywood changed radically during the 1950s, and those who were kept out of the studios during that period seem not to have made a transition after the blacklisting was lifted. The case of Howard Koch is particularly saddening because his obvious talent as a screenwriter was thrown away for the sake of political expediency, and in the process the screen lost one of its most skilled artists.

—Charles L. P. Silet

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