Henry Koster led an amazing life: from a promising short story writer to German refugee to Hollywood director, his story is rich enough to warrant its own telling.
Hermann Kosterlitz was born May 1, 1905 in Berlin, Germany. At an early age, Hermann's father, a lingerie salesman, ran away with one of his more lascivious customers, leaving Henry and his mother to support the family. His mother made do by playing piano for the new silent picture theatre her brother had set up. Every day Henry would go and sit with her, watching the movies to pass the time. By the time he was 13, he was working as a cartoonist for a local animation studio, and began writing stories for the shows as well.
At 16, he was a promising writer, and was hired to touch up stories for a German film company. He began working under director Kurt Bernhardt. One day when Bernhardt was ill, he asked Kosterlitz to take over the reins. Hermann was overjoyed, and took to the job with vigor. He helped write and direct some 30 films for AAFA, until 1932, when Adolf Hitler rose to power and began causing trouble for German Jews, including Kosterlitz.
Kosterlitz continued working for the company, but grew increasingly wary of the anti-Semitism rampant in Germany. It finally came to a head when he was being harassed by an SS officer in a bank. He lost his temper and punched the soldier out. His banker friend stuffed 50 marks in his pocket and told him he'd better head to the train station right away. Hermann did, escaping to France and later to Budapest, where he met his first wife, Kato Kiraly. They had one child, Robert, but were divorced in 1941.
In 1936, he met Joe Pasternak, then head of Universal Studios' European division. He convinced Pasternak to give him a job in Hollywood as a writer. Unfortunately, he had problems with the studio because he did not speak English, but eventually his tenacity paid off, and he was given the opportunity to direct Three Smart Girls with 14 year old Deanna Durbin. The film was a huge success, and earned the newly named Henry Koster major respect in Hollywood.
The Glitz and The Blitz
Koster directed several successful musicals in the late 1930s, including the sequel Three Smart Girls Grow Up and Spring Parade. In 1939, while on a vacation to Palm Springs, he went to a nightclub and watched a comedy act with two performers. He was so impressed with their timing and patter that he convinced Universal to hire them. When Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first movie One Night In The Tropics in 1940, Koster didn't know how much they would repay him. One day while visiting the set, he ran into the female lead of the picture and fell instantly in love. Sixteen months later, he married Peggy Moran. When he met her, he promised he would put her in every one of his pictures from then, and he kept his word - by putting a small sculpture of her (that he himself made) in every picture.
With the start of World War II, it became unsafe for German immigrants to walk the streets, and Koster was forced to stay in at night. He was visited by many of his Hollywood friends, including Orson Welles, Durbin, and Charles Laughton, who would play chess with him for nearly 30 years. Still, Koster proved prolific, directing Margaret O'Brien in Music For Millions and The Unfinished Dance. He also ghost wrote several screenplays for Universal. His stint with the studio culminated in an Academy Award nomination for his direction of the Cary Grant/David Niven Christmas classic The Bishop's Wife.
What Comes At The End Of The Universe
After being released from his contract with Universal, Koster began working for all of the major studios, helming such pictures as The Inspector General with Danny Kaye; My Blue Heaven with bombshell Betty Grable; and an adaptation of Clare Booth Luce's Come to the Stable. But perhaps his most famous movie was 1950's Harvey, the charming tale of a drunk and his imaginary rabbit friend. Koster was unfairly left off the Oscar list for his job, but he kept on working regardless.
In the 50s, Koster put his magic touch on such films as the pictorial costume drama My Cousin Rachel with Richard Burton; the Napoleon biopic Desiree with Marlon Brando; and the first film ever to be shot in CinemaScope, 1952's The Robe. By then, his career was winding down, and soon was down to making one movie a year. By 1961, with the release of Flower Drum Song, he was exhausted, and began taking up art full-time at his ranch in Camarillo, California. He directed a few more films, including the minor classic The Singing Nun and the hilarious Jimmy Stewart romp Dear Brigitte, and was seen no more in Hollywood. He did paint several portraits of his many Hollywood friends, some of which have become valuable collectors' items over the years.
Henry Koster, prolific writer and director and one-time Nazi-punching refugee, passed away September 21, 1988 in Camarillo.