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The Times (08/Dec/1973) - Obituary: Benn W Levy

(c) The Times (08/Dec/1973)


Playwright and director

Mr Benn W. Levy, MBE, who died yesterday in Oxford at the age of 73, was for many years active as a playwright and as a director of his own and other people's plays. For nearly five years, from 1945 to 1950, he was Labour MP for the Eton and Slough Division of Buckinghamshire.

The son of Octave Levy and the grandson of the Hon J. Levy of Sydney, New South Wales, Benn Wolfe Levy was born on March 7, 1900, in London. Educated at Repton and, after service in the RAF, at University College, Oxford, he started publishing in 1923 and became managing director of Jarrolds. But a new career began for him in 1926 when his comedy This Woman Business, which had been tried out on a Sunday night, received a production at the Hay-market, with Fay Compton and Leon Quartermaine in the cast, followed, if only for a short run, by a production from an American management in New York.

In the years 1928 to 1930 English managements presented two adaptations by him and several original straight plays. The latter, consisting of one of those pro- and anti-Labour harangues as Tallulah Bankhead called it, a fantasy, a comedy, and a reworking of the theme of The Hound of Heaven, were generally thought to be as uneven in quality as they were various in kind.

However, with the coming of sound he was in demand as a writer of dialogue for films. He worked in that capacity on Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail, usually accounted the first of British talking films, and for UFA in pre-Hitler Germany. While in Berlin he conferred with C. B. Cochran and Lorenz Hart, the lyricist, on the project of a musical for Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale, and the end-product, Evergreen, with music by Richard Rodgers, gave Levy as librettist his longest run up to date.

His next two original plays, Hollywood Holiday, written in collaboration with John Van Druten, and Springtime for Henry, a hour-handed farce, were directed by Levy himself. Cochran fostered this new interest of his by engaging him to direct a very strong cast in Clemence Dane's play about the Brontes. Meanwhile, Levy had added to his credits the direction of an English film for Hitchcock and the dialogue to be spoken by Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton in a film for Paramount. "What's my part like ?" Laughton had asked of him by cable. "Even if I played it, it would steal the picture", Levy replied.

In 1933 he married the American actress Constance Cummings, who was already established in the United States in plays and films. The following year he directed her on her first stage appearance in London. He directed her again in New York in his adaptation of Madame Bovary, and in London, in conjunction with William Armstrong, in the American comedy Skylark during the Second World War. He served for three years in the Royal Navy, first as an ordinary seaman, later with the rank of lieutenant. He was wounded and decorated in 1944 in the Adriatic.

In the general election of 1945, which placed his party securely in power for the first time. Levy won the new constituency of Eton and Slough for Labour by a majority of 2,424.

During the life of that parliament he had the satisfaction of seeing his comedy Clulterbuck, which he directed in London and which also did very well in New York, run for 366 performances at Wyndhams with his wife in the cast. He also directed her in an adaptation of a short story by Maugham and, after his decision not to seek reelection to Parliament had taken effect, in a drama of his own, Return to Tyassi, which might in the general opinion have turned out admirably if he had been willing to rewrite certain scenes after the try-out.

He did not direct his later plays. His comedy on the subject of the ninth labour of Hercules, directed by John Clements, had a deservedly long run towards the end of the 1950s, with Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings in the roles of the two Queens of the Amazons ; but The Tumbler, staged in New York under Laurence Olivier's direction, was a failure in 1960. Public and Confidential, dealing with a crisis in the affairs of a man in public life in contemporary England, produced after a long period of inactivity imposed upon Levy by ill health, came somewhere between the two extremes in 1966.

In public debate on matters connected with the theatre and the arts in general, Levy was, on the platform and on radio, a persuasive speaker. From 1953 to 1960, he was an executive of the Arts Council. He is survived by his wife and by a son and a daughter.