Local writer helped turn `noir' on its head

WAY BACK WHEN

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November 25, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

A recent showing on Turner Classic Movies of Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk's classic 1944 noir film starring Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe along with fellow actors Claire Trevor and Otto Kruger, was followed by Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, the 1982 spoof of the genre starring Steve Martin.

At the conclusion of this entertaining film double-header, one serious and the other hilarious, my eye caught the name of George Gipe as the credits rolled.

Gipe, a well-known Baltimore playwright, novelist, TV writer and freelance writer, died 20 years ago. He was the third member of the creative writing team of Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, which included Carl Reiner and actor Martin.

"It's an amazingly clever pastiche of old movie scenes and new movie schtick, knit into a consistently funny parody of the conventions and traditions of film noir, that shadowy, striking, melodramatic genre of the Hollywood of the Forties and Fifties," wrote Stephen Hunter, former Sun film critic, of the Reiner-Martin-Gipe collaboration in a 1982 article. Hunter is now at The Washington Post.

Gipe grew up in Hamilton, and after graduating from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), received a Fulbright fellowship that sent him to the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where he studied English literature and drama for several years.

He returned to Baltimore, and in 1958 went to work as a cameraman and set-and-production manager at WJZ-TV.

Tiring of television, he left the station and embarked on a career as a freelance writer. His work on a variety of subjects -- mainly humorous or parodies -- found their way into The Sun, The Evening Sun, Sports Illustrated and Mad magazine.

In the mid-1960s, he returned to television, where he busied himself writing documentaries and editorials for WMAR-TV while producing freelance stories.

"He was a writing junkie," longtime friend Bill Stump, retired News American editorial page editor, wrote in The Evening Sun after Gipe's death.

"Essentially Gipe was a comic writer, and frequently he wrote for the sheer hell of it. I remember seeing a series of articles, never published, that were deadpan histories of terribly important contributions to American civilization: `The Story of Marking Tape' stands out," he wrote.

Gipe -- who never learned to use a computer -- was a two-finger typist whose daily routine included climbing out of bed way before sunrise and being hard at work on his clacking typewriter no later than 5 a.m.

In a 1981 piece on incompetence, Gipe wrote, "The world needs losers, for without losers there could be no winners."

"For example," he wrote, "the Leaning Tower of Pisa has survived largely because of its peculiar handicap. As an ordinary, competently constructed building, it probably would have been demolished centuries ago."

Or this: "Suppose Marguerite Gautier had not succumbed to tuberculosis but miraculously recovered from the dreaded disease? Wouldn't the `lady of the camelias' now be forgotten instead of immortalized by Verdi and Garbo?"

Of Saint Joan, Gipe wrote: "Suppose Joan of Arc had hired herself a sharp lawyer who found a loophole in 15th-century canon law that got her off? If that had happened, there would be no Saint Joan, with all the concomitant books, plays, and movies lauding her."

Gipe, who had written The Great American Sports Book, came out with The Last Time When in 1982 that celebrated not firsts but lasts, such as Babe Ruth's last home run (May 25, 1935); or the last words of psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung: "Quick, help me out of bed. I want to look at the sunset."

He also was the author of Coney Island Quickstep, as well as movie-to-book novels, such as Gremlins.

Eventually Hollywood beckoned, and Gipe traveled west to work on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and the science-fiction comedy, The Man with Two Brains.

Gipe described his life in Burbank, Calif., as "Just a rejected script's throw from Burbank studios."

I became friendly with Gipe when he used to come into The Sun's library to do research. When he was working on Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, he came to my home several times to discuss 1930s and 1940s railroading.

He was a quiet and modest man whose sharp wit and observations were always quite trenchant. He was an interesting person to be around, and while he enjoyed success in Hollywood, hadn't let it go to his head and still maintained his home in Upperco.

So imagine my surprise when watching Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid in a scene near the end of the film when my last name pops up on a sign on a shadowy, noir-at-its-best, lit wall, announcing "Rasmussen Flats." This had to be George's doing.

He died in 1986 of an allergic reaction after being stung by a bee while entertaining at his second home in Glendale, Calif. He was 53.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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