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Rose, William (1918-1987)


Main image of Rose, William (1918-1987)

Although he was American by birth, William Rose's screenwriting work displayed a uniquely English voice, from the gentle whimsy of Genevieve (d. Henry Cornelius, 1953) to the darkly offbeat wit of The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955) – arguably the blackest of Ealing's black comedies. But he was equally adept at writing on home territory, winning an Academy Award for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (US, 1967).

Born in Missouri, he relocated to Canada to volunteer for the Black Watch during WWII. He was stationed in England, and opted to remain there after wedding future writing partner Tania Price. He completed a screenwriting course but initially struggled for recognition, eventually earning his first credit in 1948 for Esther Waters (d. Ian Dalrymple/Peter Proud) and following up with speedway drama Once a Jolly Swagman (d. Jack Lee, 1948). But it was another motoring-related project that brought him his first major success.

A nostalgic comedy centred on the rivalry between two vintage car enthusiasts, Genevieve was one of the biggest British successes of 1953 and brought Rose his first Academy Award nomination. The dark streak that would colour the some of his later work surfaced in the not-always sporting feud of John Gregson and Kenneth More, but this took a back seat to the whimsical charm that would be another trademark of his writing.

Genevieve was directed by ex-Ealing man Henry Cornelius, and its recognisable Ealing comedy flavour was noted by that studio's head of production Michael Balcon. It was at Ealing that Rose would produce some of his finest work. He was teamed with the studio's most cynical director (and a fellow American ex-pat), Alexander Mackendrick, for The 'Maggie' (1954). A culture-clash comedy that pitted the wily captain of a dilapidated steamboat against a wealthy American businessman, it was the least successful of Mackendrick's four comedies at Ealing.

The pair's second collaboration, however, was destined to be one of the best-remembered films of its era. The idea for The Ladykillers, in which a gang of bankrobbers pick each other off in their attempts to eliminate genteel landlady Mrs Wilberforce, apparently came to Rose in a dream, and the resulting dark farce had a suitably dreamlike feel. Nevertheless, it proved to be the last of the great Ealing comedies. Rose's three other Ealing projects were less successful, the best of them being Man in the Sky (d. Charles Crichton, 1957), a tense melodrama in which a test pilot bravely attempts to land a damaged aeroplane.

Subsequent work included the very Ealing-influenced The Smallest Show on Earth (d. Basil Dearden, 1957), in which a couple inherit a run-down cinema. In the 1960s he returned to the US, where he found renewed success with hectic ensemble comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (US, 1966), swiftly followed by the satirical Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?.

Richard Hewett

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Genevieve (1953)Genevieve (1953)

Cheerful light comedy set against the London to Brighton car rally

Thumbnail image of Ladykillers, The (1955)Ladykillers, The (1955)

A gang of ruthless criminals meet their match in the elderly Mrs Wilberforce

Thumbnail image of Maggie, The (1954)Maggie, The (1954)

A wily old Scottish puffer boat captain outwits an American millionaire

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Meet the team at 'the studio with team spirit'

Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)Mackendrick, Alexander (1912-1993)

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