The Craftsmans Hands: How Samson Raphaelson Shaped Classic Hollywood by Daniel Carlson

By Yasmina Tawil


The biblical character of Samson was a man divided. The story goes that he was chosen by the almighty before birth to be separate and consecrated from those around him. He would lead the Israelites to glory, and to do so, he would be given superhuman strength, but this strength would have bound within it a weakness. It was tied to his hair, and Samson was forbidden from cutting it if he wanted to remain strong. He was given a hero’s power, but a mortal’s pride, and no victory could keep him from downfall. He fell in love with the wrong woman, bragged about the source of his gift, and awoke one day to find his head shorn and his muscles worthless. The allegory lends itself to many lessons, maybe none more poignant than this: knowing your limitations is often the only way to achieve greatness.


Samson Raphaelson was born in New York City in 1894, a year before the Lumiere brothers held their first screenings of projected motion pictures, and three years after Edison held the first public demonstration of his prototype kinetoscope. This is one of those historical connections that winds up feeling portentous in hindsight but is actually just a fluke of great timing. Raphaelson — by his own account a “skinny guy with glasses” who just wanted to figure out what his talent was and put it to use — had the good fortune to grow up with the movies, and to come of age with a new medium. After he graduated high school, he spent a year doing menial clerical work for Sears Roebuck before taking a chance on himself. Recounting his youth to Bill Moyers on a PBS documentary in 1982, he said, “I rented a typewriter. Something happened, and I knew I could do it. I put it on the dining room table and I bought white paper and I put it in and I started to think of something. I didn’t plan it out.” Short stories led to rejection slips, but a year later he managed to make an impression on a publisher, who encouraged him to keep working. “I became a person” at that moment, Raphaelson said. He wrote a short story called “Day of Atonement,” about a young Jewish man who changes his name and finds success as a pop entertainer, only to return home and reconcile with his family and heritage when his father’s health fails. Raphaelson then turned that story into a stage play, which is when he felt a revelation and found his calling. “I knew I was a playwright,” he said of the experience. The play was a hit, so much so that, two years later, it was adapted by Warner Brothers into what would become a landmark of cinema history: it was the first sound film, and it was called The Jazz Singer. Raphaelson was 33.  

Almost everything about Raphaelson — his career, beliefs, gifts, impact, and goals — can be found in that moment, and the way he handled it. He’d written a story about something he knew firsthand (the intersection of Jewish faith and popular culture), and he’d done so with grace and insight. He’d written a story inspired by humor and pleasant entertainment, specifically by the shows of Al Jolson, whose verve and skill Raphaelson loved; Jolson was the only natural choice to star in the film. Yet Raphaelson didn’t write the adaptation, and he was dissatisfied with the movie version of his story. He knew the play he’d written was sentimental and melodramatic, but he also felt the movie was “overwritten” and did “awful things.” He was obsessed even then not just with story, but with style. In art, it’s not what you say, but how you say it, and Raphaelson realized that technique was going to be as important to him as anything else. Most importantly, though, he started to realize what he actually liked. As he told Moyers, “My notion of being a good writer was to write something that the critic on The Nation would praise. Now, did I like the Schubert books with the little gags and the little skits in them? Sure I did. Now, would I care to be the author of them? No. I was ‘above’ that. Until one day I said to myself, who the hell do you think you are? What do you like when you go to the theater? I love Jolson shows! That’s what made me write The Jazz Singer. So I had that out with myself. I said, why am I above that? I’m only a snob because I’m impressed by what I read in those things. But I am creatively not up to those guys. This is my level.”

Raphaelson wanted to be a workman, the guy who picked up his tools and got his hands dirty, and though he never claimed greatness, he took pride in his abilities. His work was funny and warm, sophisticated and sharp. Raphaelson himself was eager to please and determined to succeed.

Raphaelson’s most fruitful cinematic collaboration was his creative partnership with Ernst Lubitsch, who directed nine films based on Raphaelson screenplays, including The Shop Around the Corner and Heaven Can Wait. Yet Raphaelson also wrote the screenplay for Suspicion, directed by Alfred Hitchcock; continued his work on stage with plays like Accent on Youth and Skylark; and taught and wrote for the rest of his life, including a University of Illinois class in the spring of 1948 that was turned into the book The Human Nature of Playwriting, which is as much an examination of the psychology of storytelling as it is the nuts and bolts of dramaturgy. He pursued relentlessly the essence of human nature in his work, crafting some of the finest comedies of Hollywood’s golden age, and his influence on film history is inescapable. We’re all still walking on the tracks he laid down.


Raphaelson’s first screenplay was also the first time he’d work with Lubitsch. The Smiling Lieutenant, released in 1931, starred Maurice Chevalier as a Viennese army officer who falls in love with the leader of an all-female orchestra (Claudette Colbert) before becoming inadvertently entangled with the princess of a neighboring country (Miriam Hopkins). It’s a breezy little picture that relies on Chevalier’s winking charm to skip along through 89 pleasant minutes, and Lubitsch’s deft touch with romantic comedy blends perfectly with the pleasure Raphaelson clearly takes in sending his characters spinning around each other. The next year’s One Hour With You is basically just a tighter, better version of the story. In that film, Chevalier plays a doctor who’s in love with his wife (Jeanette MacDonald) but surprisingly willing to flirt with her best friend (Genevieve Tobin). Throughout both films, Chevalier’s character makes regular overtures to the viewer, breaking the fourth wall in a way that seems unusual now but feels right at home given Raphaelson’s background in stagecraft and fondness for revues. One Hour With You finds Chevalier turning to camera to sing “Oh That Mitzi,” in which he declares his fidelity to his wife while also reveling in the idea of cheating on her:

This is, of course, an almost startlingly direct way to approach moral ambiguity. The filmmakers got away with so much sexuality because they were making these movies in the final days before the institution of the Hays Code, but it’s Chevalier’s cavalier attitude toward his lovers — and their acquiescence to his wishes — that feels most unpredictable, even today. It’s part of what would come to be branded as the Lubitsch touch: a blend of melancholy and whimsy, witty ripostes sandwiched in sight gags, sexual misadventure leading to ultimate reconciliation. And while there’s no denying Lubitsch’s brilliance as a director, it does a disservice to writers like Raphaelson to imagine it all came from one man, especially given how collaborative the creative process can be. “He wrote some of my best lines,” Raphaelson said, “and I contributed more than a few of those silent things that are famous as Lubitsch touches. You couldn’t help it if you’re working together.”

That working relationship is part of what goes into making 1932’s Trouble in Paradise so wonderful. It’s a genteel comedy masterpiece that deals with class aspiration, secret identities, love triangles, and the conflict between duty and desire. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins play thieves who fall in love one night in Venice after each tries to rob the other. They eventually set out to swindle a cologne company heiress, only for Marshall’s character to (surprise) develop feelings for her. Trouble in Paradise, though, isn’t quite as sexually accommodating as its predecessors: there’s never any doubt that Marshall and Hopkins are meant for each other, and the arc of the film isn’t about the pursuit of pleasure, but about the way that pursuit is balanced against deeper feelings of love and belonging. It’s a brisk, witty, utterly winning film, and you can feel Raphaelson and Lubitsch genuinely connecting here. An early scene, in which Marshall and Hopkins banter over dinner while revealing their true identities and the personal items they’ve stolen from each other, is perfection:

Lubitsch keeps the cuts to a minimum, instead allowing the actors’ body language and position within the frame to convey their respective glee or surprise. And Raphaelson’s words — including that perfect punchline about the garter — are delivered with perfect sangfroid by Marshall. This is the film that took the Lubitsch touch to a new level. Lubitsch himself professed a fondness for it above his other work, writing in 1947, “As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good.” As a writer and builder of worlds, Raphaelson began to come into his own. He wasn’t just funny, or good with a line, or strong on concepts, or determined to find something interesting to say: he was all those things at once, and more. “There wasn’t a craftsman’s problem (for which) I couldn’t wittily — and by wittily I don’t mean funny, I mean with a surprising turn that gives a thing value — find a solution,” he would say later. “That’s what my life has been. Technique. Craftsmanship.”

It was working with Lubitsch that Raphaelson came to respect the art of story. Not in the sense that he had to invent the setup out of whole cloth, though; the movies for which Raphaelson is most known are adaptations, either of plays (Heaven Can Wait, The Shop Around the Corner, Trouble in Paradise) or novels (Suspicion). Addressing his students at the University of Illinois in 1948, he said, “Shakespeare helped himself to complete plots. Dreiser took An American Tragedy straight from a newspaper account.” Rather, Raphaelson wanted to be the one to find and elucidate the human truth of a dramatic situation. Something like 1943’s Heaven Can Wait is a perfect example. The film stars Don Ameche as a playboy who dies of old age and is sent to a waiting room in hell, where he recounts his life story for the devil. Ameche’s character isn’t pleading for absolution, though. Rather, he admits his life has been “one continuous misdemeanor,” and his intent is to prove that he deserves punishment and isolation in the afterlife. This is the kind of enjoyable subversion of the expected that Raphaelson can have fun with, since it turns Ameche from a desperate man into a contrite one, and it lets us share in his regret and sorrow as he looks back on the people and lovers he’s wronged. (It also, smartly, gets the viewer on his side from the beginning.) Instead of a comedy about a scoundrel, the film becomes a drama about a man wishing for atonement but not expecting any. It’s a much richer and more interesting story, and it’s one of Raphaelson’s, and Lubitsch’s, best. As Raphaelson would address a group of students in that PBS documentary, “They’re human beings up there! And do they make sense or don’t make sense?” That’s what should matter to the writer, because that’s what will matter most to the viewer. “Not hammer shots. Not wipes and swipes and fades and all the things that are important for an assistant director to know. But who’s doing what? And why?”


The sense of regret underpinning Heaven Can Wait would turn out to be prophetic. That was the last film Raphaelson and Lubitsch completed together. They reunited for 1948’s That Lady in Ermine, but Lubitsch died a week after filming started, and the project was completed by Otto Preminger. Raphaelson wrote 1953’s Main Street to Broadway, but that was it for his time in Hollywood. His greatest creative partner was gone, and he would spend much of the rest of his life reckoning with how those heady days in the 1930s and 1940s had gone.

He’d been drawn to the life of a writer in part because of his desire to be “a person,” to be known and recognized as a creator. Not just that, but the sole creator. “I wanted to be the sole author of anything I wrote, otherwise how would people know how good or how bad I was? I wanted the recognition to be clear.” It was his pride in a strength he thought would never be taken away that led him to recklessness. He lamented in his old age, “When I worked with Lubitsch, we had the most fabulous collaboration. Utterly. Why I didn’t realize I was in heaven, I don’t know.” He was so driven by a thirst for greatness that he didn’t realize how good he had it. “Sitting with Lubitsch, in two seconds, when we began to work together, I knew him as if we had lived in another world together as workmen. As craftsmen. … Why I didn’t grab that and forget my goddamn ego and say I’ll share my whole life with him because we both — I now know that we could’ve produced something marvelous together that I could not have produced alone, and that he couldn’t. Who gives a damn if two people are writing it or six? But I gave a damn then because that comes also from some wound that we’ve forgotten. Some ancient wound. We’re gonna show Joe Smith or Joe Glutz who sneered at us in high school. Some chance remark as a kid. Now, you continue if you have talent and luck. You continue to be creative. You’ve forgotten about Joe Glutz who said this about you, you’ve forgotten about the girl that he took away from you because she wouldn’t interest you for two seconds today, but the pain continues to make you drive forward and makes you need to do it all yourself. To prove that you can do it. But the hurt continues to operate, and the energy it creates continues to operate. We keep on doing it for thirty years without realizing it. That’s what we’re doing. And that’s what creativity comes from, too.”

Raphaelson’s screenplays are remembered for their sophistication and elegance, for the nuanced way they deal with comedy and pathos, but it doesn’t take anything away from them to observe that they’re still constructions at heart. He was a masterful writer of a certain kind of story — rhythmic, playful, aware of its fictionality — yet he knew enough to know that his talents lay in making the ordinary seem enticing. He couldn’t envision building Notre-Dame Cathedral, but he could find you the best stone. Raphaelson knew where his strength came from, and that honesty about his facilities let him do more than some who’ve been given true genius. “I never wrote anything that represented something that I profoundly stood for,” he said. “I just wrote something that I found I could write. Characters that I could handle. A theme that I could respect. A style that I felt was within my grasp. I’m a better craftsman than Eugene O’Neill. There’s just no comparison. Than Tennessee Williams. No comparison. But they’re much better playwrights than I am … because their lives, in both cases, feed marvelously into their plays. Their tragedies are part of the tragedies they write. Tennessee Williams writes one marvelous and bad play after another, which if he sat with me for two hours, I could do miracles on, but I’d never be as good as the guy who wrote it.”

Raphaelson continued to teach, and footage of him expounding to students is bracing stuff: he waves his hands and stares them dead-on, forcing them to examine their and their characters’ motivations, giving not an inch until they’ve proven themselves willing or capable of standing up and making an argument. But in his final years, he expressed lament at the writing he never got around to doing. “I never found a way of talking, with authority and dramatically, about what I know. I never found a way of writing my mother. I only recently found a few little ways of writing my grandmother. I never found a way of writing my marriage. I never found a way of writing parents and children. … Not the full way. I didn’t have the agony. I didn’t have the capacity for punishing myself. I didn’t have the heroic instinct. Maybe a richer endowment of feeling. I don’t know. But in the last few years … I’m beginning to get a few little insights. And if I only had the energy, in the next few years, I might really write some plays inspired by my life. That might happen.”

It never did, though. Raphaelson gave that quote to Moyers for the documentary that aired in 1982; in June 1983, Raphaelson died at the age of 89. He never found a way to create that last elusive work, to make what he called the “final liaison” and turn the drama of his own life into a work the likes of which had inspired him to take up writing in the first place. The years have turned his name into the answer to a trivia question no one bothers to ask, and Lubitsch’s popularity both before and after his death in 1947, combined with the creep of auteurism in critical discussion, contributed further to Raphaelson’s sidelining. Even Raphaelson’s own downplaying of his talents had a way of hiding his powers. He once told his students of the day in his 20s when he looked in the mirror and realized with “a profound sigh of relief” that he was “mediocre.” He knew what he could do, and what he couldn’t, and he worked within those parameters to create the best things he knew how. But mediocrity feels like far too harsh or limiting a way to describe him, and in fact, he was closer to greatness than he knew. What is greatness, after all, if not the ability to evoke in someone feelings of excitement and passion, humor and heartbreak, just by the way you pull the words out of the air? What is genius if not a belief in the primacy of humanity and honesty in drama? Raphaelson withheld himself from what he considered greatness in his time, hounded by ego and telling himself he would only ever be at a certain “level.” But such self-assessments missed the mark. There’s no better testament to Raphaelson’s lasting brilliance than the body of work he left behind. His movies thrum with energy, and his stories are captivating from the first word. He was greater than he knew.