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Screenwriter Laura West Perelman: From New York to LA and Back

Script contributor Dr. Rosanne Welch celebrates the female screenwriters who came before us with this month's spotlight on playwright turned screenwriter Laura West Perelman.
Laura West Perelman-Script

At the dawning of the talkies in the late 1920s Hollywood found a need for more dialogue than had appeared on the title cards of the silent era so they imported New York playwrights, reporters and novelists in hopes of creating the next generation of screenplay writers. Though a born (May 23, 1911 as Lorraine Weinstein) and bred New Yorker, Laura West Perelman preferred her life as a playwright in New York. Still, she initiated a move to the West Coast with her husband, humorist S. J. Perelman for two reasons. She wanted to live near her brother, struggling novelist Nathanael West (Miss Lonelyhearts) and, as the couple admits in much of their correspondence, they went Hollywood for the cash, a typical attitude among many of these transplanted New Yorkers.

In letter after letter they discussed their hopes of making fast money writing movies to remodel the vacation home they owned in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Their neighbors included writers such as Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, Frances and Albert Hackett, Henry and Phoebe Ephron, and Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who were recipients of many of those letters.

[Dorothy Parker: Born to be a Star of Poignant and Pointed Word Play]

The Perelmans came to the attention of the studios through their play All Good Americans, which was optioned for a film, adapted by Wells Root in 1934 as Paris Interlude. Laura then wrote seven films from 1934-1942, six of them with her husband. The couple shared screenplay credit with Marguerite Roberts and David Boehm on Florida Special (1936). According to IMDb.com, they deserve uncredited notice for assisting Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell on the 1938 screenplay Sweethearts. In 1939 they earned their first solo screenplay credit on Ambush and wrote Boy Trouble. In 1942 Laura and S.J.’s names appear in film credits together for the last time when their play The Night Before Christmas became the film Larceny, Inc. On his own, S.J. had written a few films, including Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932) for the Marx Brothers before working with Laura.

Laura West Perelman

Laura West Perelman

Being a playwright, Laura disliked the way the film business treated writers. Instrumental in early union efforts to protect screenwriters, she served on the Screen Writers Guild Board of Directors from 1938-39. There she grew tired of fighting for writers’ rights. Several sources reference problems in her marriage begun by S.J.’s infidelities and exacerbated when Laura retaliated by taking a weekend trip with novelist Dashiell Hammett. Friends felt that those issues -- coupled with the death of her brother and his wife actress Eileen McKenney in a car accident in 1940 on the same weekend their close friend, F. Scott Fitzgerald died, caused her to become an alcoholic. Laura and S.J. returned to the East Coast soon after Nathaneal West’s death. They remained married and split their time between their homes in New York and Bucks County. After Laura retired from writing S.J. wrote only one other film Around the World in Eighty Days which won the 1957 Best Screenplay (Adapted) Academy Award. Laura died of breast cancer in 1970. S.J. never remarried and died nine years later. 

[Make Way for Viña Delmar]

If you’d like to learn more about the women highlighted in this column, and about the art of screenwriting while earning your MFA, our low residency Stephens College MFA in TV and Screenwriting is currently accepting applications.


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