The death last week of writer-director Carl Reiner recalled the collaboration of actor Steve Martin and George Gipe, a well-known and prolific Baltimore writer, that constituted the creative team that wrote the 1982 noir spoof, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.”
Gipe, a Hamilton native, graduated from what is now McDaniel College and after receiving a Fulbright fellowship, studied English literature and drama at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
In 1958, he returned to Baltimore and went to work as a cameraman and set and production manager at WJZ-TV. Bored with television work, he launched a career as a freelance writer with his work — mainly humor pieces — being published in The Baltimore Sun, The Evening Sun, Sports Illustrated and MAD Magazine.
He went back to television work in the 1960s when he wrote documentaries and editorials for WMAR-TV, while continuing his freelance work and serving for a time as Baltimore magazine’s movie critic. He also indulged in writing plays that were performed locally in dinner theaters.
Gipe, who refused to learn how to use a computer, was a two-finger typist, whose daily routine saw him at his desk each morning no later than 5 a.m.
“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 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,” Stump wrote.
In a 1981 piece on incompetence, Gipe wrote, “The world needs losers, for without losers there could be no winners.” In another, he opined that the Leaning Tower of Pisa has survived because of faulty engineering, otherwise had it been an ordinary building, ‘it probably would have been demolished centuries ago,” he wrote.
Of Joan of Arc, he 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.”
He was the author of “The Great American Sports Book” and “The Last Time When,” which explored lasts rather than firsts, an example being Babe Ruth’s last home run, May 25, 1935. Other books that flowed from his typewriter included “Coney Island Quickstep” and movie-to-book novels, such as “Gremlins.”
In 1980, Gipe was summoned to Hollywood where he joined Reiner and Martin, who had written a spoof that was both comedy and a mystery that was based on the noir films of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
The feint of “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” combines snippets of classic noir pictures with such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Edward Arnold, Joan Crawford and James Cagney to name just a few, with the Reiner, Gipe and Martin film.
“It’s an amazingly clever pastiche of old movie scenes and new movie shtick, 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 then Sun film critic, Stephen Hunter, in a 1982 review.
“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” featured an all-star cast that included Martin as detective Rigby Reardon, Rachel Ward as Juliet Forrest, and Reiner playing Field Marshall Wilfried von Kluck.
I had gotten to know Gipe after his many visits to The Sun, and he called me one day, and said he wanted to pick my brain about 1930s and 1940s railroading, since train sequences were de rigueur for noir films.
He came to my home several times where over several beers, I answered his questions. Imagine my surprise as I watched the film, and in a scene near the end, my name pops up on a shadowy lit wall, announcing: “Rasmussen Flats.” I suppose this was Gipe’s way of thanking me for my assistance.
The next film he worked on was “The Man with Two Brains,” that was directed by Reiner, and starred Martin as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, and Kathleen Turner, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate, as the unfaithful wife, Dolores Benedict.
Gipe, who never went Hollywood and continued to keep his home in Upperco, once observed in his comic way that life in Tinseltown was “Just a rejected script’s throw from Burbank studios.”
Gipe died in 1986 of an allergic reaction after being stung by a bee while entertaining at his second home in Glendale, California. He was 53.