Saturday, January 17, 2009

The wicked wit of the west

Screenwriter Irving Brecher passed away last year in November, but had he been fortunate to stave off the Grim Reaper until today he would be celebrating his ninety-fifth birthday. He would also been around to see the release of his autobiography (written in tandem with journalist/radio broadcaster Hank Rosenfeld), The Wicked Wit of the West, the publication date of which was timed in accordance with his natal anniversary. The title of this wonderful book, comes from the sobriquet bestowed upon Irving by his longtime chum and frequent benefactor of his writing talent—the one, the only…GROUCHO! (Marx, that is.)

Jordan R. Young, author of The Laugh Crafters (which, interestingly enough, features Mr. Brecher as one of the “Crafters”), once opined that writers made the best raconteurs and most articulate interview subjects—and Irving’s lengthy conversations with Rosenfeld in Wicked Wit would certainly seem to bear this out. Brecher’s career is covered in-depth from his early days of writing for Milton Berle (before he was “Uncle Miltie”) to his final years as an elder statesman for comedy and screenwriting, often in demand by young researchers for his insights on The Golden Ages of Hollywood, Radio and Television. Irving’s profession covered many facets of show business: he was under contract to director-producer Mervyn LeRoy (LeRoy signed him on the strength of his Berle material), and found himself employed by the Tiffany’s of motion picture studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—where he scripted films as varied as Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). (Brecher started his rise at MGM by writing the screenplays for the Marx Brothers vehicles At the Circus [1939] and Go West [1940]—and would be the only writer to receive sole credit on two films during the Marxes’ lengthy cinematic career.)

While at MGM in the 1940s, Brecher also created a long-running radio sitcom entitled The Life of Riley, which had originally been crafted as a vehicle for his pal Groucho—but when it became obvious that the cigar-smoking jokester was wrong for the part, comic actor William Bendix got the nod and made the character of a blue-collar working stiff who bungled everything he touched his own from 1944 to 1951. Brecher also brought the series to television in the fall of 1949—with The Great One himself, Jackie Gleason, as Riley because Bendix’s contract with Hal Roach kept him off the cathode ray tube—and became the first sitcom to win an Emmy as Best Comedy Series. (Brecher leased the rights to Riley to NBC three years later for a version that featured Bendix and was a bit more successful—but Irving didn’t completely abandon television, creating and producing—in partnership with George Burns—a sitcom entitled The Peoples’ Choice, which ran for three years on NBC and starred former Our Ganger Jackie Cooper.)

Irving Brecher even dabbled in film directing, bringing his radio Riley to the big screen in 1949 with a film that remains one of the best radio-to-film adaptations; he also held the reins on features like Somebody Loves Me (1952), with Betty Hutton and Ralph Meeker as the real-life vaudeville team of Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields, and Sail a Crooked Ship (1961), where he became fast friends with the immortal Ernie Kovacs. (As revealed in Wicked Wit, Brecher was also slated to direct the 1963 musical Bye Bye Birdie—he did contribute the screenplay—but he stepped aside for his friend George Sidney…whose career was revitalized as a result.)

What makes Wicked Wit such a wonderful and accessible book is that because Irving’s writing skills took place in so many different mediums the fabulous anecdotes and stories he relates will appeal to many individuals with different interests. Classic movie buffs will devour with relish his misadventures in working for MGM (Brecher unleashes his suffer-no-fools wit on lunkhead studio execs and other relatives…and yet is most complimentary about people he admired, like Judy Garland, William Powell [the star of The Thin Man movies, who drank more martinis onscreen than any other actor with the exception of W.C. Fields, was the individual responsible for introducing Brecher to that very libation] and Carole Lombard) and Paramount, and his experiences as both scribe and director. Old-time radio enthusiasts will revel in his respect for luminaries like Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and vintage TV fans will not be able to stifle their laughter over Irving’s headaches involved producing Riley and Choice (in the case of this latter sitcom, I learned that the man responsible for putting the Groucho-like Cleo the Basset Hound through her paces was Frank Inn, who would later train animals for The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.)

Wicked Wit is a testament to the rapier-like humor of Irving Brecher…but it’s interesting to note that like his longtime associate Groucho Marx, Brecher frequently unleashes stinging retorts for the main purpose of getting a laugh, and seems unconcerned as to whether his observations draw blood or not. Marx, by all accounts, was one of the wittiest of comedians—but even Groucho’s confidantes and associates admit that he could be a real miserable essobee, particularly in his declining years. This is why I thought it was interesting that in one chapter, Brecher cavalierly dismisses the circumstances of actor John Garfield’s death as being “on top of a hooker” and then several chapters later laments that his show business career nearly ground to a halt because of HUAC and the influence wielded in Hollywood at that time by John Wayne. Garfield, who was hounded by HUAC to “name names” and refused to do so, stuck to his principles though it cost him his life. Brecher took the easy way out by writing a mea culpa letter to the Duke. (An associate of Irving’s, Life of Riley scribe Reuben Ship, was apparently deported to Canada because of his past political affiliations.) An armchair psychologist like me can’t help but speculate that by reducing Garfield’s untimely end to a wisecrack, Brecher was trying to rationalize taking the road that he did to protect his career. Brecher acknowledges:

Okay, so maybe I don’t look at the world through rose-colored implants. In fact I really like the world. It’s the putzes in it! And I don’t resolve to change. If I’ve said anything snide, I’m sorry. Unless it gets a laugh.

But this, of course, is just tiny nitpicking. Wicked Wit is crammed with fascinating stories: how Brecher was used as a pawn by the William Morris agency in attempting to bring George Burns back into their management fold; how Irv paid for Jackie Gleason’s teeth; and a hysterical account of a fishing trip with Brecher and Groucho (plus an equally amusing anecdote about a stay at the famed Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, WV in 1939). Nostalgia fans will eat up Brecher’s memoir with a spoon, so The Wicked Wit of the West is available for purchase from Ben Yehuda Press in case you have that kitchen utensil at the ready.

1 comment:

DorianTB said...

Ivan, I always enjoy reading and learning about the writers who made folks like Groucho Marx and William Bendix so funny, so I very much enjoyed reading your fascinating post about the late great Irving Brecher! Now you've given me yet another great book I must get my hands on! :-) Great post, as always!