Thursday, November 20, 2008

Death: "What a revoltin' development this is"


Irving Brecher 1914-2008 RIP

I suspect that the finest moment in the career of the late writer Irving Brecher may have come the day he told Darryl F. Zanuck that his latest movie was not released, but had escaped. Mr. Brecher is not a man with instant name recognition, but you've probably laughed at some of his bon mots via the Marx Brothers, Jackie Gleason, and his work on screenplays for Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Du Barry Was a Lady (1942), Yolanda and the Thief (1945), and Bye Bye Birdie (1963), among others. I like to think he wrote all those lines given to Marjorie Main and Chill Wills in the adaptation of Sally Benson's lovely collection of "The Kensington Stories" in Meet Me in St. Louis, but I suspect that those actors thrived because they needed few words to make their presence indelible. Brecher, who created other characters during his career who were comically if darkly fascinated with death, ("Digger Phelps" in The Life of Riley was one), may have added some touches to Margaret O'Brien's endearingly ghoulish Tootie role. One character in that film whose puzzlement over his family's peregrinations may have detectable Brecher roots was the Father played so beautifully by Leon Ames.

In some sense that upper middle class "working stiff" Alonzo Smith played by Ames may have provided the template for a remarkably memorable character of the put upon, none too bright Chester A. Riley, a blue collar husband, father and everyman schnook, who was a creation of Mr. Brecher's fertile, funny mind. Brecher created what some have cited as the first tv sitcom: the "Life of Riley" which was first on radio, where he was played by Lionel Stander, memorably by the great character actor William Bendix (seen at right) and, briefly for one season on tv, Mr. Jackie Gleason. It was Brecher who was the author of Chester Riley's tag line "What a revoltin’ development this is!"

No less an observer of Hollywood than New Yorker humorist S. J. Perelman once crowned him one of the three quickest wits in America (followed closely by George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant). A lover of puns and pushing the envelope of censorship, the writer found that twisting the tail of the Hollywood lions came naturally to him. In At the Circus, after Eve Arden hid a billfold in her cleavage, Irving wrote Groucho's line "There must be some way of getting that money without getting in trouble with the Hays Office." Asked by Groucho to come up with a line to get him out of a difficult scene, the Marx Brother was delighted with the writer's contribution. However, at the helm of At the Circus, director Eddie Buzzell thought the reference was over the head of most audience members, who wouldn't be savvy enough to know about the censorship board. As soon as Buzzell left the set after refusing to shoot the scene, producer LeRoy had MGM journeyman director S. Sylvan Simon shoot the Arden-Groucho sequence. According to Brecher, "They previewed the picture, and I was there. When Groucho said the line, the theater shook for two minutes. Which proved something that Buzzell failed to understand: which is that the public is much smarter than he thought they were. The public knew the Hays Office would censor everything."

When asked a few years ago about his penchant for creating a witty spin on a line, he replied, “This is very immodest, but I have to tell you this. I almost always knew what would play. That doesn't make me out to be a genius. It just happened to be an instinct.” Beginning by writing vaudeville sketches for the likes of Milton Berle, he moved on to the theater and radio, and later went to the West Coast for the movies. From what I've read, it would seem that his heart may have belonged to radio. "[I]n radio you can say that you're any place," he explained to a reporter. "You could make the audience visualize anything you want, but you haven't the liberty in movies to say arbitrarily I'm going to have this set here. You're restricted by cost and all the other factors. Things that you can imagine in theater and radio, you can't imagine in the movies." When his radio work earned him a contract with producer-director Mervyn LeRoy, he first worked at Warner Brothers with him and later moved to MGM where he eventually worked for the legendary Arthur Freed unit at the studio until a dispute with producer Freed sent him packing. Ironically, that gave Mr. Brecher a chance to work on his most remunerative material for The Life of Riley.

A man who continued to practice what he preached, Brecher was active in the Writers Guild of America practically since its beginning in 1921 and voiced his very real concerns during the recent divisive strike over writers' compensation in a youtube piece found here.

Brecher, who also had made uncredited contributions to The Wizard of Oz was sometimes called The Wicked Wit of the West by his friend Groucho, a line that will be the title of an imminent autobiography (see below).
  • A link to a hilarious article in the Jewish Journal about Mr. Brecher's life work can be found here.
  • A great career overview with Irving Brecher is found here at Scriptmag.com
  • A lovely piece by one of my favorite writers, Scott Eyman, who knew Mr. Brecher, can be seen here.
  • The autobiography of Irving Brecher, The Wicked Wit of the West will be on sale at the Ben Yehuda Press in January, 2009.

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