March 30, 1894
New York City, United States
|Died||July 16, 1983
New York City, New York, United States
|Occupation||Playwright, Novelist, Screen Writer, Reporter|
Samson Raphaelson (b. New York City; 1894–1983) was a leading American playwright, screenwriter and short-story author in the first half of the 20th century. Over a single weekend he transformed his short story “Day of Atonement” into his first play, The Jazz Singer. Following its successful run on Broadway, Warner Brothers studios made it into the first successful talking picture in 1927, starring Al Jolson. Although Raphaelson’s immense admiration of Jolson as a stage performer had inspired his short story “Day of Atonement,” he did not write the screenplay of The Jazz Singer, preferring to concentrate on writing for the stage.
In the 1930s, however, he became active in Hollywood as well as on Broadway. His screenplays for Ernst Lubitsch, perhaps that era’s most admired director of sophisticated comedies, included Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait. They prompted this accolade from Pauline Kael, the eminent film critic of The New Yorker:
Raphaelson took the giddiest inspirations and then polished his dialogue until it had the gleam of appliquéd butterfly wings on a Ziegfield girl’s toque, but the skeletal strength of his screenplays was what made it possible for the ideas and the words to take flight.
One of Raphaelson’s best known screenplays is Suspicion (1941), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In 1977, Raphaelson received the Laurel Award for lifetime achievement in screenwriting from the Writers Guild of America.
Career on Broadway
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Raphaelson lived for varying periods in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, working as a journalist and an advertising writer, while trying to establish himself as writer of short stories. He had become a successful advertising executive in New York when his secretary encouraged him to convert his short story “The Day of Atonement” into a play. Showing him the manuscript of a play, she pointed out how few words were on each page, adding that he had dictated more than that in two hours the previous afternoon. She volunteered to take dictation over the weekend. The result, by Sunday evening, was a complete draft of The Jazz Singer.
Three of his subsequent six plays produced on Broadway were chosen for publication in the annual Ten Best Plays of the Season, compiled by Burns Mantle, the widely read critic of the New York Daily News, at the time the largest circulation daily in the U.S. They were Accent On Youth (1934), Skylark (1939) and Jason (1941).
Accent On Youth was a critical and popular success both on Broadway and in London’s West End, where the young Greer Garson played the leading role. Skylark, another substantial hit, starred Gertrude Lawrence. Jason was less successful commercially but won high praise from the New York critics. One called it “the best play of the season” and added that it contained “some of the finest writing to grace a stage in several years.” Another, commenting on one main character inspired by the colorful writer William Saroyan, wrote: “Many authors have tried to put into their plays characters that possess the picturesque qualities attributed to Saroyan, but Mr. Raphaelson is the first to do the thing successfully.”
Other writing and activities
In 1948, Raphaelson taught a master class in “creative writing with an emphasis on the drama” at the University of Illinois. He recorded the experience in a book, The Human Nature of Playwriting. The introduction expresses Raphaelson’s deep regard for language so visible in his writing:
This course does not aim directly to teach writing. Whether you write or not after you finish school means nothing to me as a teacher. In fact, I don’t think it is important from any viewpoint. But whether you live or not is important; and how you live. You may become businessmen or women, office workers, farmers, or wives, and as such you will be, whether you know it or not, deeply related to the culture of your age. That culture is largely expressed by creative writers through the written word. And if from this course you get a notion of how that written word comes into being, of the connection between a writer and his own life and between his life and all lives, then this course will be successful indeed.
In later years, as a result of Raphaelson’s newly found passion for photography, he wrote a variety of articles for the leading photographic magazines. Some of his thousands of photos ran in the magazines, both as accompaniments to his articles and independent of them.
In 1983 the University of Wisconsin Press published Three Screen Comedies by Samson Raphaelson with an introduction by Pauline Kael. All directed by Lubitsch, the three were Trouble in Paradise, Heaven Can Wait, and Raphaelson’s favorite, The Shop Around the Corner, which had starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullivan and which Kael wrote was “as close to perfection as a movie made by mortals is ever likely to be; it couldn’t be the airy wonder it was without the structure Raphaelson built into it.” (The story was remade in 1998 as You've Got Mail, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.)
Three Screen Comedies also included a reprint of Freundschaft, Raphaelson’s wry and affectionate reflection on his working relationship with Lubitsch that had originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1982.
In his series of television documentaries on creativy Bill Moyers devoted a full half-hour program to an extended interview with Raphaelson.
In his seventies and early eighties Raphaelson became an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York, where he taught a graduate course in screenwriting. In 1976 Columbia awarded him an honorary degree.
Raphaelson died in July 1983.
Raphaelson was married for 56 years to Dorothy Wegman, known to friends and family as Dorshka. The name was given to her by a fellow dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 1920s. Dorshka Raphaelson published two novels: Glorified, an account of her life in the Follies, and Morning Song, a highly praised story about growing up in New York’s Washington Heights.
Raphaelson’s son, Joel (born 1928), became a senior ad executive and close associate of advertising legend David Ogilvy. Joel edited The Unpublished David Ogilvy: His Secrets of Management, Creativity, and Success - from Private Papers and Public Fulminations, prized reading for advertising professionals. Joel also co-wrote (with Kenneth Roman) Writing that Works. Photographer Paul Raphaelson is Joel's son.
Samson’s daughter, Naomi (1930–2009), was a newspaper reporter and columnist in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Samson's nephew, Bob Rafelson, directed several films in the 1960s and 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces.
Samson Raphaelson died in July 1983, at the age of 89. Dorshka Raphaelson died in November 2005, just 22 days short of her 101st birthday. At her death The New York Times reported that she had been one of the last two living Ziegfeld girls.
|1931||The Smiling Lieutenant|
|1932||One Hour With You|
|1932||Trouble In Paradise|
|1934||The Merry Widow (1934 film)|
|1935||Ladies Love Danger|
|1935||Dressed to Thrill|
|1937||The Last of Mrs. Cheyney|
|1940||The Shop Around the Corner|
|1943||Heaven Can Wait|
|1946||The Harvey Girls|
|1947||Green Dolphin Street|
|1948||That Lady in Ermine|
|1949||In the Good Old Summertime|
|1953||Main Street to Broadway|
- 1927: The Jazz Singer
- Young Love
- The Wooden Slipper
- 1934: The Queen's Affair
- 1935: Accent on Youth
- 1941: Skylark
- 1947: The Perfect Marriage
- 1951: Bannerline
- 1956: Hilda Crane
- 1959: But Not for Me
- Samson Raphaelson, Three Screenplays by Samson Raphaelson (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983) 15.
- Samson Raphaelson, The Human Nature of Playwriting (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1949), 2. (© 1949 Samson Raphaelson)
- Joel Raphaelson
- Samson Raphaelson at the Internet Movie Database