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DeWitt Bodeen (July 25, 1908, Fresno, California — March 12, 1988, Los Angeles, California) was a film screenwriter and television writer best known for writing Cat People (1942).
Born Homer DeWitt Bodeen in Fresno, CA, his father, Gustaf, was the son of Swedish immigrants and the manager of the Fresno Savings Bank. As a boy, he was fascinated with swimming movie star Annette Kellerman. His friend, the writer and publicist Herb Sterne, would write himorously that for several weeks after seeing Kellerman in Neptune's Daughter, "the boy could be espied within the irrigation ditches without Fresno, seeking to emulate the star's more astounding acquatic stunts." He attended Fresno High School and Fresno State College where he took part in several college theater productions and won several awards. Fired with the desire to act, DeWitt headed down to the Pasadena Playhouse as a teenager, one more young actor taken under Gilmor Brown's wing, appearing as Orsino in "Twelfth Night." Later, as a student at UCLA, he wrote a play on the life of Keats, and Brown produced the work at the Playhouse. This led to another play, "Embers of Haworth," on the Brontes, which in turn led to a screenwriting contract at Warner Bros. In 1928 while attending Fresno State he received an award for the best one-act play of the year from the Drama Teachers’ Association of California when he wrote “The Captive”. Bodeen graduated from UCLA in 1933. When his script for an unnamed picture was completely rewritten, he angrily left the studio, his first disillusionment with the movies he had once so worshiped. Working for David O. Selznick, he fared better, serving as research adviser on Jane Eyre. RKO hired him then as a writer, assisting him to Val Lewton. He wrote a total of 21 plays both there and in New York before returning to Hollywood in the late 1930s.
Herb Sterne described him: "He leads his bachelor life in a single apartment crowded with a mammoth radio-phonograph, some ten thousand records, half as many books, and complete files of Theater, Stage, and Theater Arts magazines." On one wall hung a shadow box containing an autographed slipper from silent star Marguerite Clark; each day Bodeen would reverentially fill it with fresh forget-me-nots. On another wall, his "Wall of Genius", hung portraits of Gish, Garbo, and Duse.
Considering the work of classic Hollywood's gay directors and gay producers, a small but vital subset of the studio system, suggests "queer cinema" might not be such a modern postulate. Occasionally, a convergence of director, producer, writer, and star came together, such as happened with Camille (1937). The gay writer DeWitt Bodeen said that Camille "represents a meeting of talents that were perfect for its interpretation." In fact, wags like to call the picture a rare "all-gay" studio production, and in some ways it comes close: producer David Lewis, director George Cukor, screenwriter Zoe Akins. Greta Garbo, too, and Mercedes de Acosta had a hand in the early draft of the script before Akins took over. Robert Taylor, who played a stunningly beautiful Armand, was rumored to be having an affair with the film's set decorator, Jack Moore. There was also Adrian on costumes and Sydney Guilaroff doing hair. Rex O'Malley infused his Gaston with a natural feyness, a quality perhaps intended by Cukor and Akins, and another gay actor, Rex Evans, played several bit parts. ("Who is that big man and what part is he playing?" Garbo asked Cukor. "That man is Rex Evans," the director replied, "and he's playing the part of a friend who needs a job.") Cukor also manuevered the hiring of another friend, and another gay man, as the picture's true art director, supplanting the ubiquitous Cedric Gibbons, whose contract nonetheless decreed screen credit. This was Oliver Messel, esteemed scenic and costume designer from the London stage, whose outsider status evoked suspicion in the competitive world of the Hollywood studios. It wasn't Messel's first encounter with the studio bureaucracy; in 1935, during the filming of Romeo and Juliet, Cukor had caused a near war by insisting Messel design the costumes instead of Adrian, whom Cukor, according to several friends, viewed as pompous and pretentious. Cukor, as discreet as he was, never tried to obfuscate either his Jewishness or his gayness in the way Adrian did. "I get annoyed with statements that call George "closeted",", said his longtime friend and Los Angeles Times film critic Kevin Thomas. "George was never closeted. He never pretended to be anything he wasn't. He lived according to the rules of his time, that's all."
In the 1940s he wrote the screenplays for “Cat People” “Night Song” and "I Remember Mama”. Other films include The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Yellow Canary, The Enchanted Cottage (1945), Mrs Mike, The Girl in the Kremlin, Twelve to the Moon, and Billy Budd (1962).
Bodeen's films for producer Val Lewton at RKO are stunning visualizations of queer desire and alienation. In Cat People (1942), Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) is a Serbian woman in middle-class America. She hides out, painfully aware of her difference from the mainstream. Some critics have read the panther as a metaphor for homosexuality. Critic Michael Bronski has written that few classical Hollywood films can be charged with "deconstructing widely accepted moral absolutes or narrative conventions", but of those that can, two of them are Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim and The Curse of the Cat People. DeWitt Bodeen was the writer of both.
"If there was an opportunity to look at life through rose-colored glasses, DeWitt would do so," his friend, the author James Robert Parish, remembered, "because it would allow him to avoid being more aggressive in the world. That just wasn't his style. He was cultured, gentlemanly. It was the image he wished the world could be." In The Curse of the Cat People (1944), his best film, that image is central: the triumph of youthful innocence and belief over the harsh, adult, supposedly "real" world. It is the tale of a lonely, imaginative girl who lives in a world of her own dreams and wonder, teased by her classmates and despaired of by her father, as close to himself as anything Bodeen ever wrote. Write and producer clashed: Lewton kept trying to tinker with Bodeen's characterizations, with the notable exception of the old actress played by Julia Dean. "Leave the old actress alone," Lewton said with a mixture of humor and contempt. "She's DeWitt's. He likes old actresses."
Harriet Parsons began development of Arthur Wing Pinero's fantasy "The Enchanted Cottage," only to have it wrestled from her and given to Dudley Nichols. Ironically, it was Louella Parsons' rival, Hedda Hopper, who came to Harriet's defense, charging RKO in her column with a "dirty deal." The picture was summarily returned to Harriet, and her career shifted into high gear. The Enchanted Cottage (1945) is a moving, tender fable of a homely woman and a disfigured man who, within the magic walls of the cottage, find themselves transformed. Parson's collaboration with her hand-chosen writer was significant. She'd known the brilliant, sensitive, homosexual DeWitt Bodeen for years; she knew he'd be perfect for The Enchanted Cottage. Together, as Bodeen recalled, they recrafted the play in their own fashion. "What I had to rebuild," he wrote, "was a modern romance that would be credible, omit all the sentimentality and rely upon the plausibility of love between a plain and unwanted spinster and a bitter crippled soldier, each of whom sought to hide away from a world that had rejected them." Harriet clearly wanted DeWitt because they shared "something sympathique." "They were very good, lifelong friends, extraordinarily devoted to each other," remembered the writer Charles Higham, who knew Bodeen. With DeWitt, Harriet felt a trust and camaraderie neither found in many other areas of Hollywood.
Although after his break with Lewton, he had some success with his pal Harriet Parsons, adapting both The Enchanted Cottage and I Remember Mama, he found adaptation not nearly as fulfilling as writing original stories.
In the 1950s he returned to New York and moved to television, writing mainly for anthology shows including Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax!, and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars amongst others. In the 1950s he was Val Dufour's companion, living with him. He also wrote articles for the journal Films in Review.
Over the years Bodeen wrote frequently for Films In Review Focus On Films and American Classic Screen. He was a former member of the executive board of the Writers Guild of America West and was commissioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to help edit “Who Wrote the Film”.
At the end of his life, living in New York and writing to his friend, the historian Anthony Slide, DeWitt would remember Loas Angeles as always "weary, dreary, and teary," a place he'd once seen, however, as "the wonderful city of Oz."
In his retirement years he lived at the Motion Picture and Television Country Home. He wrote books and articles on old-time players like Evelyn Brent, Dolores Del Rio, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Barrymore. In his later years he'd seek out and befriend lots of old actresses, May Allison, Dorothy Davenport, Theda Bara, writing their stories in the pages of Films in Review and Focus on Film.
In his own bungalow he tended to geraniums living in a movie world past and present. His walls were lined with movie books and photos of people he had worked with — friends from the old days, most prevalently Greta Garbo. "I ve always been fascinated with her" he said, a trifle wistfully. Movies were his life and he still was seeing several a week. He spent an occasional overnight with friends in Hollywood. Bus 81 took him to the Hollywood he knew. Occasionally the home arranged a theater party. Every month there was a collective birthday lunch, every holiday a party. Every couple of weeks Dewitt Bodeen went to a podiatrist "because I like to have my feet worked on."
He died on March 12, 1988, of bronchial pneumonia at Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, CA.
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