Hollywood director who had a way with leading ladies

Vincent Sherman: To filmgoers for whom the names of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino and Ann Sheridan evoke the glory …

Vincent Sherman: To filmgoers for whom the names of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino and Ann Sheridan evoke the glory days of Warner Brothers' "women's pictures" of the 1940s and early 1950s, the director Vincent Sherman, who has died aged 99, was something of a hero.

According to a friend, Sherman, who had the virile looks of a middle-weight boxing champion, discovered a way of dealing with difficult leading ladies: "He went and slept with them. After that, the next morning, they were angels." By these means, Sherman handled the obstinacy of Davis, the tantrums of Crawford and the insecurity of Rita Hayworth.

His wife, former literary agent Hedda Comoro, to whom he was married from 1931 until her death in 1984, and with whom he had a son and daughter, accepted these brief encounters as a necessary part of his job. At the end of Sherman's The Adventures of Don Juan (1948), Errol Flynn in the title role, says: "There is a little of Don Juan in every man, and since I am Don Juan, there is more of it in me".

Sherman was born Abe Orovitz in the small town of Vienna, Georgia, where his Jewish father, who had left Russia in 1900, ran a grocery shop. His mother's maiden name was Vinnie Schurman so, when he started acting, he became Vincent Sherman, and studied with a voice teacher to get rid of his southern accent.


He appeared on Broadway in the world premieres of Eugene O'Neill's Marco Millions (1928) and Elmer Rice's Counsellor at Law (1931), playing a young Jewish communist beaten up by the police. He made such an impression that Universal Studios asked him to reprise the role in a film version, directed by William Wyler and starring John Barrymore.

After a few small parts in Hollywood, Sherman returned to New York, where he worked with the left-wing Group Theatre, directing Clifford Odets's taxi strike play Waiting for Lefty (1935). The same year, in Dead End, Sidney Kingsley's social protest play, he portrayed gangster "Baby Face" Martin, subsequently played by Humphrey Bogart on screen.

It was for Bogart that Sherman wrote Crime School (1938), when he got a writer's job at Warner Bros. He also co-wrote King of the Underworld (1939), featuring Bogart and Kay Francis. The first film he was given to direct was The Return of Dr X (1939), in which Bogart comes back to life after being executed for murder.

Sherman went on to direct Saturday's Children (1940), a Depression drama that gave John Garfield the chance to get away from crime movies, and Underground (1941), an anti-Nazi film about a secret radio in Germany. Another anti-Nazi film was All Through the Night (1942), a comedy-thriller starring Bogart and set in New York.

Around the same time, he read a script called Everybody Comes to Rick's, which Warner Bros was thinking of rejecting. Sherman recommended the studio do it after a rewrite, and asked to direct it. He was bitterly disappointed when Casablanca, as it was retitled, was given to Michael Curtiz.

For The Hard Way (1942), about a drab housewife (Ida Lupino) who propels her younger sister (Joan Leslie) into stardom, Sherman wanted to shoot in a Pennsylvania mining town to give the film a realistic look. Warner would not let him leave the studio, however. So he used footage from a Pare Lorentz documentary and insisted the actors wore no make-up. "I wanted the freckles, sweat and blemishes to come through," he said. At first, Lupino resisted, but Sherman convinced her.

He was now becoming known as a woman's director, especially after Old Acquaintance (1943), in which he coped with the rivalry - both on screen and off - between Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. At one stage, he shouted: "Ladies, sometimes I feel I'm not directing this picture, I'm refereeing it!"

His influence on Davis was not strong enough to convince her to tone down her make-up and gestures in Mr Skeffington (1944). But Claude Rains gave a fine performance as her Jewish husband, in a moving melodrama of a woman's destructive vanity.

The first of two films Sherman made in 1947 with the underrated Ann Sheridan was Nora Prentiss, about a nightclub singer who has an affair with a doctor. Made in San Francisco, it had expressionistic camera work by James Wong Howe, which captured the mood of seedy hotels and nightclubs. The other film was The Unfaithful, concerning a woman forced to shoot her lover.

In contrast, Sherman made The Hasty Heart (1949) at Elstree studios, set in an army hospital in Burma during the second World War, with a predominantly male cast, including Richard Todd - in the role that made his name - and Ronald Reagan.

Back in Hollywood, he made three movies with Joan Crawford: The Damned Don't Cry, Harriet Craig and Goodbye My Fancy, all of which allowed the star to suffer beautifully, although Sherman was instructed by Jack Warner to avoid close-ups of the 45-year-old Joan as she was getting "too old". To get away from women's pictures and Warner Bros, he took on Lone Star (1952) at MGM, with Clark Gable, which had been turned down by Howard Hawks.

Then, although not called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he became a victim of the red scare because of his radical past in the theatre, and found it difficult to get work in Hollywood for some years.

In the late 1950s, Sherman was back at his old studio, making The Young Philadelphians and Ice Palace.

He later became a successful director of television series, including The Waltons and 77 Sunset Strip.

"A director must be a good storyteller," he said. "He must know how to establish interest in his characters and their problems so that an audience will be anxious to know how the problems are finally solved."

He is survived by his son Eric and daughter Hedwin.

Vincent Sherman (Abe Orovitz), born July 16th, 1906; died June 18th, 2006