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Harriet Frank Jr. - An Obituary


Harriet Frank Jr. – screenwriter, novelist

Born March 2, 1923; died January 28, 2020

Harriet Frank Jr, who has died aged 96, was a screen-writer who took literary material beyond straightforward adaptation to reimagine it afresh. Working in tandem with her screen-writer husband Irving Ravetch, Frank did this with the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and Hud (1963). Where the former drew from three works by William Faulkner, the latter took a minor character from Larry McMurty’s 1961 novel, Horseman, Pass By, making him the film’s anti-hero lead in what was dubbed a revisionist western.

Both films were directed by Martin Ritt, and the trio would collaborate on eight pictures in all. Ritt was the perfect foil for Frank and Ravetch’s screenplays, which were rooted in ideas of social justice. In Hombre (1967), Paul Newman played a white man raised by Native Americans. Conrack (1974) cast Jon Voight as a teacher struggling against the effects of poverty and institutionalised racism in a school on a South Carolina island.

Norma Rae (1979) saw Sally Field play the title role of a cotton mill worker who stands up to exploitation by forming a union. Stanley & Iris (1990) moved Pat Barker’s novel, Union Street, to America in a tale of adult illiteracy starring Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro. Throughout all their work, Frank and Ravetch made ordinary people extraordinary.

Harriet Frank was born Harriet Goldstein in Portland, Oregon, one of three children to Sam Goldstein, who owned a shoe store, and Edith Frances (née Bergman). Using her middle name and changing the family name, her mother hosted a local radio show – Frances Frank - Speaking Frankly. It was from her that her daughter arguably inherited her straight-talking fearlessness.

With the depression biting hard, in 1939, Edith packed her children into the family car and upped sticks to Hollywood, where she reinvented herself as Harriet Frank Sr, with her teenage daughter now Harriet Frank Jr. Her mother bluffed her way into an interview with MGM studio head, Louis B Mayer, who employed her as a story editor, advising studio bosses on novels that might be turned into films.

Frank Jr. studied English at the University of California, Los Angeles. After graduation, and, with her mother’s help, Frank began working at MGM as a trainee scriptwriter. It was while working at MGM that she met Ravetch. They married in 1946, but arrived back from honeymoon to discover that the trainee scheme had been shut down.

Frank moved to Warner Brothers, working on the likes of Silver River (1948), starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan; and Whiplash (1948) about a struggling artist who becomes a prize-fighter to impress the promotor’s nightclub singer sister. Frank also worked on episodes of Playhouse of Stars (1956-1957) and Matinee Theatre (1957). Ravetch worked separately on westerns, until the pair decided to pool resources, setting in motion a working partnership that saw them painstakingly discuss, dissect and hone every line.

Frank’s early credits with Ravetch included Ten Wanted Men (1955) starring Randolph Scott, and Run for Cover (1955) with James Cagney. The couple’s first real hit was The Long, Hot Summer, for which they were nominated for best written American drama by the Writers Guild of America.

Another Faulkner adaptation, The Sound and the Fury (1959) followed, again directed by Ritt. For Vincente Minnelli the couple wrote Home from the Hill (1960), then, for Delbert Mann, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960). Hud saw Frank and Ravetch nominated for an Oscar, though Frank was too busy to attend the ceremony, buying up antiques in Paris for the couple’s lavish Laurel Canyon home instead. Known as La Maison, Franks filled it with books and art.

Having inherited a love of books from her mother, Frank believed that a screenplay should stand up as a work of literature in its own right, with all the weight of its source. Hombre (1967) took Elmore Leonard’s novel and invested its already meaty writing with a sensitivity and depth that still managed to capture audiences.

House of Cards (1968) saw an American boxer stumble on a fascist plot. For The Reivers (1969) Frank returned to material by Faulkner, while The Cowboys (1972) cast John Wayne as a rancher forced to hire inexperienced cowhands to get his herd to market on time. The Carey Treatment (1972) drew from Michael Crichton’s novel, A Case of Need. Conrack, The Spikes Gang (1974) and Norma Rae followed, while Murphy’s Romance (1985) saw Sally Field again play the lead prior to Frank’s swansong with Ravetch and Ritt on Stanley & Iris.

Beyond film, Frank wrote short stories for The Saturday Evening Post and two novels, which she dubbed ‘human comedies’. Single (1977) was about four women who find and lose love, while Special Effects (1979) focused on a film studio story editor and those falling apart around her.

Frank’s nephew Michael’s 2017 memoir, The Mighty Franks, immortalised his ‘Aunt Hankie’ as ‘the most magical human being I ever knew.’ According to him, the guidance she gave him was to ‘Make beauty whenever possible. You don’t want to be ordinary, do you? To fit in? Fitting in is a form of living death.’

Frank is survived by her brother Marty. Ravetch pre-deceased Frank  in 2010.

The Herald, February 28th 2020

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