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December 2nd, 2008
Biography: Henry Koster

Biography by Bob Koster

(b. Berlin 1905 – d. Camarillo, California 1988)

Henry Koster citizenship application

Photo from Koster’s application for U.S. citizenship.

Click to see the application.

Henry Koster was born Herman Kosterlitz in Berlin, Germany, on May 1, 1905. His maternal grandfather was a famous operatic tenor, Julius Salomon (who died of tuberculosis in the 1880s). His father was a salesman of ladies unmentionables who left the family while Henry was at a young age, leaving him to support the family. He still managed to finish gymnasium (high school) in Berlin while working as a short-story writer and cartoonist. He was introduced to movies in 1910 when his Uncle Richard opened a movie theater in Berlin and his mother went there every day to play the piano to accompany the films. Henry went with her, day care being nonexistent then, and he had to sit for a couple of hours a day staring at the movie screen. He achieved success as a short-story writer at age 17, resulting in his being hired by a Berlin movie company as a scenarist. He became an assistant to director Curtis Bernhardt. Bernhardt became sick one day and asked Henry to direct (this was around 1931 or 1932). He had directed two films in Berlin for Aafa when Adolf Hitler came to power. He was in the midst of directing a film, DAS HÄSSLICHE MÄDCHEN, at that point, and having already been the victim of anti-Semitism, he knew he had to leave Germany, and soon. Any hesitation he may have had about leaving the country was erased when, at a bank on his lunch hour one day, a Nazi SA officer insulted him, and Henry hit the Nazi so hard he knocked him out. He proceeded to go directly to the railroad station and took a train for France. Upon arriving in France he was rehired by Bernhardt (who had left earlier). Eventually Henry went to Budapest and met and married Kato Kiraly (1934). It was there he met producer Joe Pasternak, who represented Universal Pictures in Europe, and directed four films for him.

In 1936 he was signed to a contract with Universal and brought to Hollywood with Pasternak, several other refugees and his wife. At first he had some troubles at the studio (he didn’t speak English), but eventually convinced Universal to let him make Three Smart Girls (1936) with Deanna Durbin and coached Durbin, who was 14 years old. The picture was a huge success and pulled Universal from the verge of bankruptcy. His second film, One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937) with Durbin and Leopold Stokowski, put Universal, Durbin, Pasternak and himself on top. He went on to do numerous musicals and family comedies during the late 1930s and early 1940s, many with Betty Grable, Durbin and other musical stars of the era. He stayed at Universal until 1941 or so, then worked for MGM and around 1948 moved over to 20th Century-Fox. He was nominated for an Academy Award for The Bishop’s Wife (1947).

In 1950 he directed what was his biggest success to date, the James Stewart comedy Harvey (1950), but, although many in the industry thought it would be nominated for Best Picture, it wasn’t. He directed the first American film in which Richard Burton appeared, My Cousin Rachel (1952), then was assigned by 20th Century-Fox to direct its first CinemaScope picture, The Robe (1953), also with Burton, which was a tremendous success. He directed a few more costume dramas, such as Desirée, then went back to family comedies and musicals, such as Flower Drum Song (1961) for Universal. After he finished The Singing Nun (1966) he retired from the film business to Leisure Village, Camarillo, California, to indulge his lifelong interest in painting. He did a series of portraits of the movie stars with whom he worked.

Henry Koster was a founding member of the European Film Fund.

  • Otie Nicholson

    I enjoyed the two-hour documentary immensely last night, and now this biography. Although it mentions no children by Koster, I am reasonably certain that I know his son, Peter. Peter Koster was hired as a social worker in the late 70’s (?) by Contra Costa Social Service Dept., where I was employed. I knew he was from Southern CA, and it has stuck in my mind that he once told me that his father was a film director in Hollywood. I plan to attempt contact with Peter, to see if I can verify this.

  • Ziggy Cannonball

    Henry Koster had 1 child, Robert, by his first wife, Kato Kiraly, and had 2 more sons, Peter and Nicholas, by his 2nd wife, Peggy Moran. Robert Koster has 2 sons, as well. I am one. So is my brother.

  • Anne Bradley

    Robert (Bob) Koster is a friend of mine. His father, Henry, was Deanna Durbin’s coach and director at Universal. I live in Sydney, Australia and am related to Deanna, she’s a cousin. Hopefully I’ll get to see this 2 hr documentary.

  • raphael koster

    my father always told me his uncle Henry was a famous hollywood director…?….can anyone help me family tree him to me ?…my grandfather was

  • Ed Kimball

    Otie, yes the Peter Koster you know is indeed Henry’s son. Peter and I were friends in college and we are still in touch by email. You can find him on LinkedIn.

  • Catheleen Jordan

    I knew Peter Koster while working with CPS in Contra Costa County in the mid 80s. He helped me when I was collecting data for my dissertation at U of California. He did talk about his family. I remember him as a lovely man, but have not kept in touch. Hope he is doing well! cj

  • Linda Bush

    When I was a child actor – I had the honor of being directed by Mr. Henry Koster in a 20th Century Fox TV Pilot, “My Island Family.” Eugene B. Rodney and Robert Young were the producers. They persuaded Mr. Koster to come out of retirement for their last project. Whenever I see one of Mr. Koster’s films, such as “The Bishop’s Wife,” which I view during the Christmas Season – I’m reminded of the art, magic and humanity of his films.

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  • Hap Hall

    My mother Dolly Mollinger, spoke often of Henry Koster. He had directed her in a film back in Germany. She also fled to America, but much later in 1947.

  • Bob Koster

    First of all, Raphael, my father had no nieces or nephews, so your father was mistaken. In any case, his birth name was Kosterlitz, not Koster. We had it changed in 1943 when he got his American citizenship.

    Hap Hall, I have a copy of the film Dad directed with Dolly Mollinger, DE KRIBBEBIJTER. It was produced in Amsterdam in 1934 or so.

    Ziggy, you are perfectly correct. You brother is indeed Henry Koster’s grandson. I should know.

  • Sue Jackson

    Bob – we chatted on a Facebook page devoted to “The Bishop’s Wife” a couple of years ago and I am unable to find that page or those conversations. It must have been taken down. I am wondering if you finished your book. Would love to read it! Also, a friend of mine is a German professor at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, MO, and he is affiliated with many organizations of German exiled writers/poets, etc. I wonder if there might be a way to get in touch with you in this regard.

  • DAvid Abrams

    Bob: Are you related to a Wally Koster? He was a singer in Winnipeg who later moved to Toronto and was active in the early years of television on shows like Cross Canada Hit Parade and World of Music. He died in 1975. His wife Myra (nee Symes) passed away in 2008. I’m curious because Wally had a niece named Jane who was in my classroom in grades 4-6 at Machray School in North Winnipeg.

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