Today, one man's life in the movies. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I recently presented the old Jimmy Stewart movie
No Highway in the Sky at our Houston Art Museum. Along the way, I learned
about its director, Henry Koster. I hadn't realized that my first exposure to Koster
had been during WW-II. I was taking high school German and our teacher took us off to
see a 1934 German movie, Polandblut, which turned out to be blatant Nazi propaganda.
I didn't understand enough German to follow the dialog, but the images were enough
-- Teutonic, Wagnerian German heroes and primitive Polish peasants. Even at 13,
I was revolted by the whole business. I'm pretty sure our teacher was blindsided by it.
Polandblut was based on an operetta that'd tried to express a historic German
claim on the lands of Poland. And, sure enough, a very young Koster had been hired to
write the script, though he doesn't mention it in his biography. Small wonder --
Koster was Jewish!
The same year Polandblut came out -- 1934 -- Koster went to a bank to make a
withdrawal. When he did, a German soldier hassled him for being Jewish. Koster's
temper flared. A shouting match and scuffle followed. Koster knew he was a dead
man if he stayed; so he fled to the train station and got out of the country.
Koster, who'd gone from contract script-writing to directing, by then, found his way to
America. Through connections, he got a directing job at the then-struggling Universal
Studios. His first movie, the musical comedy Three Smart Girls, was a big
success. Koster saved Universal.
Diana Durbin, then a 14-year-old ingénue, was in the movie, and Koster, who didn't yet
speak English, coached her. Soon after, it was Koster who discovered Abbot and Costello
in a New York Nightclub. He got them their first movie, One Night in the Tropics
-- where they first did their famous
Who's on First? routine in film.
Koster didn't direct that one but he met an actress in it -- Peggy Moran. They married
after Koster promised she'd appear in every movie he made. Well, Moran was pregnant in her
last movie, King of the Cowboys, with Roy Rogers. After that she quit acting. So
how did Koster keep his promise as he went on to make Harvey, Flower Drum Song, and
more? With statuary -- for his famous movie The Robe, he commissioned a bust of
Moran for the Roman villa scenes. And the two were still married when Koster died in 1988.
The more I look at Koster's life, the more gentle selflessness emerges. During much of WW-II,
viewed as an enemy alien and restricted to his house, he'd play chess with Charles Laughton
in the evenings. He never won an Oscar for himself, but he directed six Oscar-winning
performances. After his last movie, The Singing Nun, 61-year-old Koster retired to become
He spent the rest of his life doing portraits of stars he'd worked with. And we realize that
his movie making wasn't about fame and money. It'd always been about the people, the fun of
it -- it'd been about the process. No wonder he gave us so much good movie watching.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Henry Koster: Interviewed by Irene Kahn Atkins. (Metuchen, NJ: The Directors Guild of
America and the Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1987).
See also, the Wikipedia biography of Koster.
To watch any of several versions of the Abott and Costello Who's on First routine,
Koster's first American movie
Possibly Koster's most famous movie
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.