Val Lewton, RKO’s master of horror, was born Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon in Yalta on May 7th, 1904.
Leaving their father, his mother moved with her children to Berlin, emigrating to the States in 1909, at which point his name was changed. After a career as a society reporter and journalist, in 1932 he wrote the best-selling pulp novel No Bed of Her Own, on which the film No Man of Her Own, with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard (1932), was later based. It is a little known fact that Lewton worked as an uncredited screen-writer on David O Selznick’s 1939 production of Gone With the Wind, having warned the producer that the novel was unfilmable, and Selznick would be making “the mistake of his life” trying to make a successful movie of it.
But it was in 1942 that Val Lewton became head of horror at RKO, at a salary of under $250 USD a week. His first production was The Cat People (1942), quickly followed by I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943).
Lewton always wrote the final draft of the screenplays for his films himself, but avoided on-screen co-writing credits except in two cases, The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946), for which he used the pseudonym Carlos Keith. Boris Karloff appeared in both of these films, as well as Isle of the Dead (1945), and it is reported that Karloff had a great love and respect for Lewton, saying he saved him from “the over-extended Frankenstein franchise at Universal”. Karloff further cited Val Lewton as “the man who rescued me from the living dead and restored, so to speak, my soul.”
Val Lewton died on the 14th of March, 1951, aged just 46.