Unsung Aussie Filmmakers: Ivan Goff – a Top Ten

July 28, 2019
The release of the new Charlie’s Angels prompted Stephen Vagg to point out that the original TV series was co-created by an Australian, Ivan Goff (1910-99).

Goff was one of the most successful Australian screenwriters in history – nominated for an Oscar, head of the Writers’ Guild, a career that spanned five decades. Yet he is very little known in this country.

So, Stephen did a top ten of Ivan Goff writings.

1) No Longer Innocent (1933)

Goff was born in Perth in 1910. He started working as a journalist while a teenager, and left his hometown for London when he was twenty. Goff took the scenic route, going via New Zealand, Fiji, the US, Canada and Mexico over a 12-month period. He turned this adventure into a book, No Longer Innocent which was published in 1933 to some acclaim. He wrote it with his travelling companion, Edward Irwin, and Goff would be at his best writing in collaboration.

2) My Love Came Back (1940)

Goff worked in London as a journalist, then was assigned to Hollywood where he tried to break in as a screenwriter. After a number of less prestigious jobs, including a Gene Autry Western, he earned his first decent credit on My Love Came Back (1940), with Olivia de Havilland. This really launched him as a screenwriter, but just as it seemed Goff’s career was up and running the US entered World War Two and Goff joined the army.

3) Portrait in Black (1946)

Goff spent the war making propaganda shorts for the Army Signal Corps in New York. While there, he became friends with a fellow screenwriter, Ben Roberts. The two of them decided to team up and write a murder mystery play, Portrait in Black, which they succeeded in getting produced on Broadway and London, as well as selling the film rights for a tidy sum. This established them as a team and Goff would not have any credits without Roberts for the remaining thirty plus years of his career. The play wasn’t filmed until 1960 with Lana Turner, Anthony Quinn and Sandra Dee. It’s a very entertaining mystery, a sort of riff on Double Indemnity – you can see it’s appeal to producers.

4) White Heat (1949)

The next big break of Goff’s career came when Warner Bros put he and Roberts under a five year contract and assigned them to work on a story written by Virginia Kellogg, White Heat (1949). This was a gangster tale which was to mark James Cagney’s return to both that genre and Warner Bros. Roberts and Goff made considerable changes to the story, notably turning the lead character of Cody Jarrett into a mother obsessed psychopath… The resulting film, directed by Raoul Walsh, was a massive success, showcasing one of the all-time legendary screen gangsters and one of the most iconic cinematic deaths of all time: Cagney/Jarrett blowing himself up on top of an oil tank yelling “made it, Ma, on top of the world”. Kellogg earned an Oscar nomination but Goff and Roberts didn’t under the rules of the time. However, Cagney would go on to employ the team as writers on Come Fill the Cup (1951), The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957, see below) and Shake Hands with the Devil (1959).

5) Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)

White Heat meant Goff and Roberts were in much demand as writers of action films during the 1950s. Some of these are underwhelming – eg White Witch Doctor (1953), King of the Khyber Rifles (1954), and Grace Kelly’s one bad movie, Green Fire (1954) – but a very good one was Captain Horatio Hornblower, based on the novels by C.S. Forster. This was meant to be a project for Errol Flynn at one stage. Gregory Peck stepped in and the result is a rousing, entertaining movie.

6) The Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

Goff and Roberts stepped out of their comfort zone with this entertaining biopic of Lon Chaney Jr, a vehicle for Cagney. Although (because) the script heavily fictionalised Chaney’s life, it earned the writers an Oscar nomination, making Goff one of three Australians to be nominated for screenwriting in the 1950s (the others were Alec Coppel with The Captain’s Paradise and John Farrow with Around the World in 80 Days).

7) Midnight Lace (1961)

Producer Ross Hunter, famous for his glossy entertainments, was the one who made a movie out of Portrait in Black. He promptly hired Goff and Roberts to do another thriller, Midnight Lace, a highly enjoyable piece of tosh which always seemed to be on television when I was growing up. The opening sequence of Doris Day being terrified by a high-pitched voice in a foggy London scared the hell out of me and still does.

8) Mannix (1967-75)

Feature film work dropped off for Goff and Roberts in the 1960s, so they entered the world of TV. They had critical success with The Rogues (1964-65) and a big fat hit when they took over as show runners on the second season of Mannix, a private eye series starring Mike Connors. Goff and Roberts made several key changes, removing Mannix’s computer-using boss, introducing a secretary and adding more humour. The results helped turn the show into a big success that ran for years.

9) Charlie’s Angels (1976)

Goff and Roberts worked on a variety of projects in the 1970s, mostly on the small screen. Their most notable one was when Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg hired them to write a pilot script about three female detectives called The Alley Cats. This morphed into Charlie’s Angels which became a sensation on its debut in 1976. Goff and Roberts walked away from the project after doing the pilot, but they were the ones who created it. The show remains a cultural touchstone.

10) The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

The careers of Goff and Roberts tailed off in the 1980s. Their last big credit was for The Legend of the Lone Ranger, Lew Grade’s famous flop attempt to conquer the US market. Mind you, people judged it less harshly after the Johnny Depp version.

Roberts died in 1984 and Goff effectively retired after that, although he lived until 1999. It was a hell of a career that should be better known.

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