Paul Osborn

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Paul Osborn-A native Hoosier, Paul Osborn was one of the most successful dramatists of the 1920s-1950s before his reputation went into eclipse, although he lived long enough to witness a revival of interest in his work. His best-known plays, which still are widely produced, are THE VINEGAR TREE, ON BORROWED TIME, MORNINGS AT SEVEN, A BELL FOR ADANO, and THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG. Osborn also enjoyed a major film career, writing the screenplays for "Madame Curie" (which won as Oscar for Luise Rainer), "Cry Havoc," "The Yearling," "East of Eden," "Sayonara" (Oscar for Red Buttons), and "South Pacific," among others.


Paul Osborn began his writing career, which spanned more than five decades, by producing original works for the theatre. But until a revival of his 1939 stage play Morning's at Seven appeared on Broadway in 1980 and met with rave reviews, he was perhaps best known as a prolific and successful adapted of other authors' works for both stage and screen.

After teaching English at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, for two years, Osborn grew tired of the job and moved east to study dramatic composition with George Pierce Baker at his famous Yale University "47 Workshop." Reflecting on the appeal of a career as dramatist during these early years, Osborn told Michiko Kakutani in a 1980 New York Times interview: "I suppose I was a rebel in the sense that I wanted out of the [small town] environment.... A lot of my old friends back there were working in hardware stores or banks, and that just wasn't for me. It wasn't theater itself that gripped me at first; it was the need to get away from a life which sort of bored me. Playwriting seemed like a way out." He left Yale bound for New York City, where he worked briefly with the Long Island Rail Road while establishing himself as a writer.

The most successful play Osborn wrote during his early years in New York was The Vinegar Tree, a comedy about free love that enjoyed a run of 233 performances on Broadway. After the relatively lukewarm receptions of his next two original plays, Oliver, Oliver and Morning's at Seven, he scored a major success with On Borrowed Time, and adaptation of the Lawrence Watkin novel about an old man who traps Death in an apple tree so that he might live on with his beloved grandson. This critical turn of events led Osborn to concentrate on adaptations for the rest of his career. As he explained to Kakutani: "Sometimes I wish I'd never done an adaptation.... I liked to write original plays so much more, but the adaptations were so easy. Someone would come up and ask me to do one, and since I wasn't doing anything else, I'd end up doing it." On Borrowed Time was followed by The Innocent Voyage, based on Richard Hughes's novel of high seas piracy, A High Wind in Jamaica, and A Bell for Adano, a dramatization of the John Hersey story centering on the American occupation of a small Italian town during World War II. On Borrowed Time and A Bell for Adano had Broadway runs of 321 and 296 performances, respectively.

Osborn added screenwriting to his credits in 1938 with The Young in Heart, and over the next thirty years he authored scripts for a number of critically successful films, ranging from a biography of physicist Marie Curie to reworkings of such classic novels as The Yearling and East of Eden and the film version of the musical South Pacific. Kakutani assessed Osborn's talent for adaptation in the New York Times article, explaining, "He learned how to transform the sprawling narrative of a book into tight dramatic action and he learned how to retain the essential mood of a book while tailoring the characters to individual actors' abilities." This skill garnered him two Academy Award nominations for best screenplay--for East of Eden in 1955 and Sayonara in 1957--and resulted in other Broadway hits, including The World of Suzie Wong.

Although Osborn wrote little after a degenerative disease weakened his eyesight in the early 1970s, his talent became evident to a new generation of theatergoers and critics when a revival of Morning's at Seven appeared on Broadway in 1980. The title, taken from Robert Browning's dramatic poem "Pippa Passes," serves as an ironic introduction to the lives explored in the play, for as the plot progresses the audience learns that, unlike the last line in Pippa's song, all's not right with this world.

Morning's at Seven revolves around four sisters living in a Midwestern town. Two of them, Ida and Cora, live with their spouses, Carl and Thor, in homes with adjoining backyards. The eldest sister, Esther, whose intellectual husband David detests his in-laws, lives just down the road, and the fourth sister, Aaronetta, lives with Cora and Thor. Conflict arises when Cora asks Aaronetta to leave the house, deciding that after forty years of providing a home for her maiden sister she has sacrificed enough. Later, the family learns that Thor and "Aary" had a brief affair, and this news rocks the seemingly stable foundation of the close-knit group. In addition to this startling revelation, Ida must suffer through her husband Carl's intermittent bouts of "failure anxiety," during which he rests his forehead against the nearest wall or tree and ponders what might have been. And the entire family is shocked by the unexpected announcement that her utterly dependent son Homer is about to marry the girl he's been seeing for twelve years but has yet to introduce to the family.

Although during its original run in 1939 the play was set in "the present," the revival pushed the time frame back to 1922, increasing, in Brendan Gill's view, "its distance from us and permitting it the luxury of an honorable quaintness." Morning's at Seven, Gill proclaimed in the New Yorker, "is a comedy that possesses an unusual sweetness of nature, and it constantly skirts but rarely topples into the dangerous shallows of sentimentality." Writing in Newsweek, Jack Kroll observed: "Osborn... is one of those American writers who can make you wish that we all belonged to this charmingly oddball group instead of to those irksome categories called Irish and Jews and blacks and Swedes and Italians and even Wasps. The idealization of the ordinary is our most utopian fantasy, and `Morning's at Seven' is a beguiling, almost masterly, instance of it." Kroll found that part of the play's impact rests in the fact that it "seems to echo something beyond itself, some reassuring dream of our own balked goodness."

Terming Morning's at Seven an "enchanting" and "uniquely shaped" play in his New York Times review, Walter Kerr elaborated: "The play isn't gentle genre piece, an idle ticking away of frustrated hours. Mr. Osborn's vision is double, and penetrating on both sides. The playwright has blown up what is sad until it no longer looks sad at all, just as preposterous as it inherently is; because it now threatens to pop in your face, your funny-bone takes over." T. E. Kalem also lauded Osborn's comedy, declaring in Time that while "his characters are plain-as-drain people,... their fretful crises engage our affection and concern." "Whether one goes to the theater to laugh, to cry, to muse or to learn," concluded the critic, "Morning's at Seven satisfies all four appetites." Writing in the Nation, Harold Clurman, like Kalem, concentrated his praise on Osborn's characterizations, claiming: "These characters have a fundamental innocence in spite of all the frustrations, aberrations and imbecilities--the tokens of our common humanity.... With all their upsets and eccentricities, [Osborn's] characters remain both funny and real; we are always conscious of what makes them our kin." Clurman called Morning's at Seven "delightful" and hailed it as "one of the best American comedies.

SOURCE: Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2000.