Like his contemporary George Cukor, Irving Rapper gained a reputation as a director of "women's pictures," undoubtedly resulting from what has been acknowledged as his masterpiece, the Bette Davis weepie "Now, Voyager" (1942). Yet over the course of his career, he was also responsible for eliciting fine performances from male performers like Fredric March, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid and Arthur Kennedy. Rapper flourished in the studio system as his later films attest. With the exception of "The Brave One" (1956), the majority of his later efforts pale next to his Warner Bros. output.
Exactly when the London-born Rapper emigrated to the USA has been the subject of debate, although most sources now agree that he crossed the pond as a child. (Some sources claim he arrived in America to attend law school at NYU). In either event, while enrolled in college, he began to work with the Washington Square Players moving from acting to stage managing to directing. In an June 1982 interview with CLASSIC IMAGES, Rapper claimed he became "Gilbert Miller's protege" which led to directing assignments on Broadway. In his 1978 book "Warner Brothers Directors," William R Meyer claims that Rapper was first brought to Hollywood in 1929 to assist Robert Florey on "Hole in the Wall" and then returned four years later to work as a dialogue director on the Joan Crawford starrer "Dancing Lady." But it was his successful staging of the Broadway melodrama "Crime" that led to a 1936 contract with Warner Bros. For the next five years, Rapper served as dialogue director and vocal coach, often working on films helmed by Anatole Litvak ("All This and Heaven Too" 1940), William Dieterle ("The Story of Louis Pasteur" 1936) and Michael Curtiz ("Kid Gallahad" 1937 and "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" 1939).
As early as 1938, Rapper was receiving scripts to consider as his feature directorial debut but confounding the studio and surprising many, he turned them down, preferring to hold out for an A-list project. Finally, he settled on the melodrama "Shining Victory" (1941) which cast James Stephenson as an ambitious research psychologist and Geraldine Fitzgerald as his lovestruck assistant. The film proved moderately popular despite the somewhat pedestrian direction, With his sophomore effort, "One Foot in Heaven" (1941) about a minister and his wife as they adjust to the fast-paced changes of the 20th Century, Rapper found popular and critical success. The movie was one of 10 nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and it contained strong performances from a cast headlined by Fredric March and Martha Scott.
His 1942 efforts solidified his standing as a woman's director. "The Gay Sisters" was pure soap opera that offered Barbara Stanwyck a meaty lead as a woman who marries for money. In the same vein, but of vastly superior quality was "Now, Voyager" which cast Bette Davis as a spinster, Claude Rains as her psychiatrist and Paul Henreid as her married lover. While Davis took credit for bolstering the script (and making herself look dowdy), Rapper was the guiding hand and indeed was responsible for the film's classic scene wherein Henreid lights two cigarettes at once then hands one to Davis. Audiences flocked to the film, making it one of the most profitable of the year, and though the story is maudlin and very nearly unbelievable, the director and his cast made the fantasy seem real. Davis offered one of her finest performances and the director's reputation for handling actors was secured.
Over the next few years, Rapper continued at Warner Bros., directing Fredric March in the rambling, somewhat sentimental biopic "The Adventures of Mark Twain" (1944) and reteaming with Bette Davis for "The Corn Is Green" (1945), adapted from Emlyn Williams' play, and "Deception" (1946), which also included Rains and Henreid in this melodramatic love story. He also excelled guiding Eleanor Parker in "The Voice of the Turtle" (1947), although he later regretted the casting of Ronald Reagan in the male lead, stating that the actor lacked the necessary light touch for comedy. In between, however, was the picture that purportedly led to his break from the studio, "Rhapsody in Blue" (1945), a whitewashed biopic of composer George Gershwin. The director claimed he was unhappy that Warner Bros. forced him to use Robert Alda in the leading role. (The film, while highly fictionalized, does contain many marvelous musical sequences.) Whatever the real reasons, Rapper left the studio when his contract expired.
Few of the 13 films he directed after separating from Warner Bros. proved to be worthwhile. His first "Anna Lucasta" (1949) featured Paulette Goddard as a prostitute forced into an arranged marriage. Rapper was unable to work his magic on his leading lady who was clearly miscast. His 1950 rendering of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" could overcome the piece's theatrical origins despite a strong turn by Arthur Kennedy as the authorial stand-in. Rapper did elicit fine work from Ginger Rogers in "Forever Female" (1953) and child actor Michael Ray in "The Brave One" (1956) but his later projects were marred by miscasting (i.e., Natalie Wood as "Marjorie Morningstar" 1958; Carroll Baker as a nun in "The Miracle" 1959). In the early 60s, he headed to Italy to direct back-to-back biblically-themed projects, neither of which caught the audience's attention. Clearly out of step with the current Zeitgeist, Rapper more or less retired. His one-shot "returns" to filmmaking undoubtedly mark two of the more bizarre projects any director has undertaken. For someone who cut his teeth on superior melodrama and biopics, perhaps the idea of "The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970) seemed to marry the genres. The helmer also offered little in the way of assistance to lead John Hansen in this old-fashioned, low-budget flick. His final film was the even more bizarre biopic of Charles 'Chuck' Colson, "Born Again" (1978) with Dean Jones in the lead. A one-dimensional portrait of President Nixon's Special Counsel whose involvement in Watergate led to jail time and a prison conversion to Christianity, the film found an audience with evangelicals but was roundly panned by most critics and proved a sad coda for a man who had once made potent melodramas.
Director (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Signed by Warner Bros.; worked initially as a dialogue coach and assistant director; worked under Michael Curtiz and William Dieterle
Served as dialogue director on "Kid Galahd"
Turned down several directing assignments while waiting for the right script
Feature directorial debut, "Shining Victory"; sources claim that Bette Davis made a cameo appearance as a nurse
First major success as a director, "One Foot in Heaven", which was one of the 10 nominees that year for the Best Picture Oscar; replaced Anatole Litvak
Helmed what is considered his best feature, the Davis vehicle "Now, Voyager", also starring Claude Rains and Paul Henried
Made first biopic, "The Adventures of Mark Twain", starring Frederic March
Reteamed with Davis as director of "The Corn Is Green"
Directed "Rhapsody in Blue", the whitewashed musical biopic of George Gershwin
Reteamed Davis, Henreid and Rains in "Deception"
Left Warner Bros.
First film as a free-lancer, "Anna Lucasta"
Returned to Warner Bros. to helm "The Glass Menagerie"
Final film with Bette Davis, "Another Man's Poison"; shot in England
Directed "The Brave One", loosely inspired by "Androcles and the Lion"
Returned to Warner Bros. as director of "Marjorie Morningstar", starring Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly
Went to Italy to direct several films, beginning with "Joseph and His Brethren"
Last film for eight years, the Italian-French co-production, "Pontius Pilate"
Made return to feature directing with "The Christine Jorgensen Story"
Again returned to filmmaking; directed last film, "Born Again", the biopic of Watergate conspirator turned Christian Charles Colson