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Screenwriter Ruth Goodman: Her Instincts Made 'The Heiress' an Enduring Classic

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

Ruth Goodman’s family had been involved in theatre even before her birth in 1908. Her father produced shows involving W. C. Fields and Jerome Kern. Those connections, and her education in New York and Paris, brought her jobs as a costume designer and story editor before marrying Augustus (Gus) Goetz on October 11, 1932 after having met onboard ship. Her mother disliked him, but Ruth described Augustus as enchantingly witty. Though a stockbroker when they met, he gave up finances and they began writing plays together, collaborating nearly exclusively throughout their career. Their most famous play, The Heiress, brought them to Hollywood.

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Their first produced play, Franklin Street, based on the book her father had written of his youth in Philadelphia, opened in 1940 and closed during out-of-town tryouts. One-Man Show, similarly influenced by Goodman’s father, debuted in 1945 with Jed Harris as producer. Sadly, Harris spent more time trying to break up the marriage than working on the play and it too failed.

Despite the discomfort of their last working relationship, the Goetzes submitted their next play, Washington Square, to Harris, who wanted to wait for a particular actress to take on the main role, so they went with another producer, one who insisted on a happy ending. Reviewers felt the play failed in out-of-town tryouts based on the false ending. Then Harris offered to produce the show again. Goodman realized that opportunity rarely came to playwrights and agreed, renaming the play The Heiress to avoid the stigma of failure. Goodman and Goetz changed more than the title in the story of Catherine, the spinster whose only chance at love is with a conman out for her money. The original novel does not involve the heroine being jilted, nor did it focus on the cruel fact that Catherine is an unloved only child.

The Heiress-Paramount Pictures

The Heiress not only succeeded as a play but Goodman and Goetz sold the film rights for $250,000 plus a guarantee that they would adapt it into a screenplay at a $10,000 salary per week. In 1950 the film earned 4 Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Music, Scoring, and a Best Actress Academy Award for Olivia de Havilland. Though not nominated themselves, the Goetzes earned assignments in Hollywood and on Broadway across the next decade.

Carrie-Paramount Pictures

They worked again with Wyler, adapting Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie into Carrie in 1952. The novel tells the story of a poverty-stricken girl who decides to be a kept woman rather than work in a sweatshop. Later she gains fame as an actress and jilts the man who kept her. The Goetzes preferred writing plays where censorship was not an issue which explains their relatively small output of films after The Heiress. In 1954 they adapted Henry Handel Richardson’s novel Maurice Guest into the film Rhapsody, starring Elizabeth Taylor. Their final film credit came from remaking Morning Glory (1933) into the film Stage Struck in 1957.

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Goodman and Goetz were produced on Broadway twice more. They adapted Andre Gide’s The Immortalist in 1954 and then wrote an original play The Hidden River in 1957. After Goetz died that year, Goodman wrote a play in his honor, Sweet Love Remember’d. Sadly, it closed in New Haven in 1959, partly because lead actress Margaret Sullivan committed suicide. Goodman continued writing, working on boards of directors for various theatrical and charity organizations, and raising their daughter, Judy Goetz Sanger, and Goetz’s nephew, George Goetz Daniels, to adulthood. 

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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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