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The Guardian (14/Jun/2000) - Obituary: Samuel Taylor

(c) The Guardian (14/Jun/2000)

Samuel Taylor

There was a time, up to the late 1960s, when witty well-made drawing-room comedies about rich people were a staple of both Broadway and the West End. Playwright Samuel Taylor, who has died aged 87, was one of the last American playwrights in the tradition of Philip Barry and Kaufman and Hart. In fact, there are elements of Barry's Philadelphia Story and Holiday in two of Taylor's biggest hits, Sabrina Fair (1953) and The Pleasure of His Company (1958), both of which were turned into successful films.

Taylor, born in Chicago, attended the University of California, with interruptions as a merchant seaman. While working in New York as a play doctor and reader, he got the chance to rewrite a script, What A Life! It became a hit and was turned into the radio series The Aldrich Family, with the scripts written by Taylor.

He had been occupied for several years writing radio comedies before writing his first play, The Happy Time (1950), which ran for almost two years, after which it was made into a charming film starring Charles Boyer.

In 1951, Taylor adapted a French boulevard comedy by André Roussin for Gloria Swanson. The critics didn't like the show - Nina - or the star, and in New York it ran for only 45 performances.

However, Taylor's Sabrina Fair occupied the Broadway stage for 314 performances. The play, starring a miscast Margaret Sullivan opposite Joseph Cotton, told of a chauffeur's daughter who returns to Long Island as a sophisticated young woman after five years in Paris, and is courted by the two contrasting sons of her father's employer. It was less sparkling than the Billy Wilder movie, Sabrina (1954), in which Audrey Hepburn shone.

The opposite was true of The Pleasure of His Company, which Taylor co-wrote with its female lead Cornelia Otis Skinner. For the 1961 movie, Taylor wrote a straight adaptation of his play. Starring Fred Astaire in his second non-dancing role as a prodigal father, who, turning up for his daughter's wedding, turns everything upside down, it worked less well than on stage with Cyril Richard in New York and Nigel Patrick in London.

It was while he was working on The Pleasure of His Company, that Taylor was asked by Alfred Hitchcock to mend the script of Vertigo (1958), which had already gone through two writers. Taylor made substantial changes, adding characters, made more of the San Francisco background, and decided (controversially) to let the audience in on the film's secret before the hero (James Stewart) catches on.

Less to Taylor's credit was his screenplay for Goodbye Again (1961), which he adapted from Françoise Sagan's superficially sophisticated novel, Aimez-Vous Brahms? The film, starring Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins and Yves Montand, was set in a chic Paris, as was No Strings (1962), for which Taylor wrote the book and which was the only Broadway musical for which Richard Rodgers wrote both the music and lyrics. It was a sophisticated romance between a European bum of a novelist (Richard Kiley) and a chic black fashion model (Diahann Carroll). It ran on Broadway for more than a year, but plans for a movie fell through because, owing to the inter-racial love story, the producers foresaw trouble from Southern distributors.

As the kind of theatre that Taylor represented started to fade, his last real stage success was Avanti! (1968) about a young American square businessman and a British "dolly bird" holed up together in a Rome hotel suite. The play, re-titled A Touch of Spring for its run in London starring Hayley Mills, was made into a far more entertaining and abrasive film by Billy Wilder, featuring Hayley's sister Juliet in 1972.

Among the several screenplays Taylor wrote were Rosie! (1967), with Rosalind Russell as a free-spirited grandmother, which was described by one critic as "a mawkish mixture of Auntie Mame and King Lear", and another Hitchcock picture, Topaz (1969), a cold-war thriller, one of the director's weakest.

Taylor is survived by his wife of 60 years, Suzanne Combes Taylor, and two sons.

Samuel Taylor, playwright and screenwriter, born June 13 1912; died May 26 2000