Melvin Frank, who both with and without his longtime collaborator Norman Panama wrote, directed or produced some of the most gloriously sentimental, funny and durable films of Hollywood’s halcyon days, died Thursday.
The veteran scenarist was 75 and died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after undergoing a second open heart operation. His first in 1974 enabled him to remain active until shortly before his death. His last film, “Walk Like a Man,” which he directed, was released last year.
Born in Chicago, Frank teamed with Panama to write a play in the early 1930s while both were students at the University of Chicago. The success of that effort brought them to Los Angeles where they wrote gags for Milton Berle and for Bob Hope’s radio show.
The Frank-Panama relationship flowered and survived until 1966. In the interim they produced such classics as “My Favorite Blonde,” “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House,” “The Court Jester,” “Monsieur Beaucaire,” “Li’l Abner” (from their Broadway play) and “Duffy’s Tavern.”
They were nominated for Academy Awards for “The Road to Utopia,” “Knock on Wood” and “The Facts of Life,” while Frank singly was nominated for both production and writing Oscars for “A Touch of Class,” the 1973 picture that won Glenda Jackson her second Academy Award. (She had starred earlier for Frank in “Lost and Found.”)
Of them all, Frank and Panama said in December, 1984, while reminiscing about holiday pictures, their 1954 effort on “White Christmas” stood out.
They had been hired to rewrite material for the film that had been conceived primarily as a vehicle for Bing Crosby, who had sung the title melody 12 years before in “Holiday Inn.”
But director Michael Curtiz insisted on even further revisions, and Frank and Panama found themselves handing in pages of script that were being filmed the same day as written.
Smash at Box Office
The resultant musical comedy about a pair of male hoofers (Crosby and Danny Kaye) who put on a benefit to bail out an old friend took in $15 million at the box office.
But Frank and Panama earned only $40,000 between them, and Frank lamented in the 1984 interview that the two “could have asked for 5% (of the film’s earnings) and gotten it. I’d be retired right now.”
On his own, Frank went on to write, produce or direct “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Strange Bedfellows,” “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” and “The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox,” in which he also penned some of the lyrics for the bawdy picture’s songs.
In 1984, he and Panama shared the Writers Guild of America’s Laurel Award for screenwriting achievement.
His survivors include his wife, Juliet, a daughter, two sons and three grandchildren. At his request there will be no services.