Saturday, January 23, 2016

Director Henry Koster and James Stewart

James Stewart and director Henry Koster made a wonderful team. They worked together on five films, beginning with the highly entertaining Harvey. Stewart had made numerous comedies in the 1930s and 1940s and had a natural knack for comedy, but in the 1950s and 1960s he was turning more and more towards dramatic roles in westerns, biopics, and war films. The few comedies that he made in this period, almost all of which were directed by Koster, gave him a chance to return to the charming, and rather clumsy, type of characters that fans came to love in his earlier films. 

The Director

Henry Koster arrived in Hollywood from Germany in 1936 and, along with his friend, producer Joe Pasternak, managed to convince Universal to let him make Three Smart Girls. The film was a great success, pulling Universal from the verge of bankruptcy, and it launched the 14-year old Deanna Durbin, who was making her first film, to stardom. His next film - 100 Men and a Girl - established Durbin, Pasternak, and himself on top and for the next decade they were busy with Durbin's musicals. It wasn't until 1947 that Koster attempted a dramatic picture - The Unfinished Dance. This film, made at MGM, demonstrated Koster's flair for elevating a good story and script to great entertainment. His follow-up film, The Bishop's Wife ( 1948 ) earned him his first Academy Award nomination for best director. 

Henry Koster with James and Gloria Stewart

A Key Collaboration 

James Stewart was a favorite actor among many directors. He made eight films with Anthony Mann, four with John Ford, and three with Frank Capra. The five-picture collaboration he had with Henry Koster began with Harvey ( 1950 ), a film which Stewart claimed was his favorite motion picture. His portrayal of a whimsical middle-aged man who has an invisible giant rabbit for a companion earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. 

Preston Sturges had initially expressed interest in purchasing the screenrights to the popular stage play "Harvey" in the mid-1940s, but luckily Universal bought it first and it became a project for Henry Koster. Sturges may have made the film more amusing, but Koster gave it heart, and plenty of it. Like Frank Capra, Koster had a way of reaching out to his audience, leaving them with a little moral to ponder when the film is over, but he did so in a much subtler manner. His films tend to give you a warm feeling and inspire sympathy for one's fellow man. 

Henry Koster had directed some of the biggest names in Hollywood ( Loretta Young, Celeste Holm, Elsa Lanchester, and Richard Burton all received Oscar nominations for roles in Koster films ), but working with James Stewart was a special experience for him. "[Working with him was] without any doubt one of the most pleasant experiences in my life....It must have been his spirit. There was very little friction, ever, only ambition and craftsmanship and precision, just doing it right professionally. On top of that he put the whipped cream of great talent."

Harvey became Koster's biggest success to date and was a fan favorite upon its initial release. Stewart and Koster were both unable to attend the premiere of the film however, because they were in England, already hard at work on their next picture - No Highway in the Sky ( 1951 )James Stewart once again portrayed an eccentric character, but this time as a aeronautical engineer with a dire warning for an airline company. 

James Stewart and Glynis Johns in No Highway in the Sky

Three Fox Comedies

James Stewart had a busy filming schedule throughout the 1950s, filming numerous westerns, two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, and biopics such as The Glenn Miller Story ( 1954 ) and The Spirit of St. Louis ( 1957 ). It would be more than a decade before he would reunite with Henry Koster for Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation ( 1962 ), a colorful creampuff comedy geared towards teens and adults alike. 

Based on a novel by Edward Streeter ( "Father of the Bride" ), it tells the story of a businessman ( Stewart ) who wants to spend a vacation alone with his wife minus their children. Instead, he finds himself hoodwinked into spending the summer at a ramshackled house on the beach with his whole brood - grandchildren, son-in-laws, and all. Maureen O'Hara couldn't look any more stunning than she did in this film, and singing-sensation Fabian drew in the younger female audience. The film was strewn with little incidents that all bore Koster's trademark of subtle humor. 

Audiences loved seeing Stewart playing a harassed father and the success of the movie inspired Koster to produce their next film together, Take Her, She's Mine ( 1963 )James Stewart reprised his befuddled-father act, this time playing a lawyer concerned that his daughter ( Sandra Dee ) is becoming a "loose" woman while away at college. It seems everyone recognizes that his daughter has matured into a woman except Papa. This was a subject not often tackled in movies. Writers Henry and Phoebe Ephron penned the play based upon their own experiences with their college-aged daughter, Nora. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson adapted the play into a script, adding a clever running gag of Frank Michaelson ( Stewart ) constantly being mistaken for James Stewart! 

Take Her, She's Mine lacked the charm Mr. Hobbs possessed, but nevertheless it did well at the box-office, and so Koster and Stewart teamed up once more for a third comedy in the same vein - Dear Brigitte ( 1965 ). Billy Mumy starred as a 10-year old boy genius who devised a system for picking winning horses. He has a crush on Brigitte Bardot and gets his wish of visiting her in France after he agrees to help his father's university raise scholarship funds.   

James Stewart was reunited with his No Highway in the Sky co-star Glynis Johns to play Mumy's parents, both bewildered by the fuss the media is making over their son. Dear Brigitte was one of the last of the light-hearted family comedies made in the 1960s, and while a handful were produced after this, they often dealt with more serious "teen issues" involving sex and drugs. 

After Dear Brigitte, Henry Koster made one more film - The Singing Nun - before deciding that it was time to hang up his hat and retire from directing. He spent his leisure hours persuing another great passion - painting. He even created a painting of his dear friend Jimmy Stewart. 

Jimmy, on the other hand, continued acting on stage and in films throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Twenty years after the release of Koster and Stewart's first film together, he starred in a triumphant Broadway revival of "Harvey" opposite Helen Hayes. 

This post is our contribution to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon being hosted by Cinemaven's Essays from the Couch. Head on over to her site to check out more posts on popular directors and the stars they made multiple films with. 


  1. Hi there. I want to thank you for participating in my blogathon. Jimmy Stewart's my man. Now, let me find out about Henry. ( I didn't know Nicholas Koster from daytime soaps is his son. ) Boy, I've got some readin' to do. Thanks again.

  2. Remember what they say... that dying is easy, comedy is hard? Henry Koster and James Stewart make it look easy. I enjoyed learning more about Koster's career and the team's films. Thanks.

  3. I didn't realize the varied collection of films Henry Koster made, or that he made so many movies with James Stewart. (Also, I hadn't heard of "No Highway in the Sky". Must see it!)

    Thanks for providing information on a talented director that I knew nothing about. :)

  4. Isn't it interesting how James Stewart worked on multiple pictures with three directors: Koster, Anthony Mann, and Frank Capra? I agree that NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY is a overlooked gem. It's a fascinating, fact-based story and Glynis Johns is wonderful in it.

  5. One of those directors, like Stanley Donen, who were able to excel in a wide range of genres. After loving their movies as a kid, I later found that these two had directed some of my top ten faves. Koster had to immediately leave Germany after knocking our a Nazi SA (brown shirt) officer. Interestingly, his second wife, Peggy Moran, is featured in every one of his movies, usually as a bust or statuette. He directed Deanna Durbin in her first two big films, saving the studio in the process, and also suggested to his studio head that they sign Abbott and Costello whom he'd seen in a NYC club. I know his son, Peter who tells me how his stars were often his lifelong friends, too. As a consequence, I'm two degrees of separation to nearly all the golden age stars!!