Kalmar and Ruby: The American Gilbert and Sullivan

If you take nothing else away from this blog, ever, please take away the names Kalmar and Ruby. They are the American Gilbert and Sullivan, the equals or superiors of ALL of their Algonquin Round Table contemporaries in wit, the authors of some of our most timeless songs, and the brains behind some of the top stage and screen comedians of the 20s and 30s.

Lyricist and writer Bert Kalmar (b. 1884) started out as a magician in tent shows at age 10, and gradually worked his way up to vaudeville. Composer Harry Ruby was born in 1895 — he met Kalmar when he was working as the accompanist to a singing trio in vaudeville. Ruby was already writing music for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies by 1913. The two began to collaborate around 1920. Their collaboration was magical, as evidenced by some of their best known songs from the 20s: “Baby Face”, “I Wanna Be Loved by You”, and “Who’s Sorry Now?”. They were in heavy demand for revues, but also book shows, for which their contributions increasingly grew from songwriting to book writing. They wrote the songs for George S. Kaufman’s Helen of Troy, NY in 1923. In 1926 they wrote The Ramblers for Bobby Clarke and Twinkle, Twinkle for Joe E. Brown. The latter collaboration was to be one of their most fortunate, as they were shortly to write a half dozen movies for him. In 1928, they began their most famous association of all, writing songs for the original stage version of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, notably Groucho’s theme song “Hooray for Captain Spalding”.

Here, I will prove myself a heretic, but I stand by my thesis, and I could ramble on about it at much greater length. Theatre and film are ultimately collaborative arts,  involving many ingredients. As far as I’m concerned, the Marx Brothers’ greatest collaborators — by a wide margin — are neither George S. Kaufman nor S.J. Perelman (and certainly none of the far lesser writers who penned their vehicles), but Kalmar and Ruby. They had a hand in all of the best parts of the best Marx Brothers films. The greatest Marx Brothers film of all, Duck Soup was written entirely by the team.The second best, Horse Feathers was co-written by them and Perelman. Animal Crackers (tied for 3rd place with Monkey Business in my infallible estimation), features, as I mentioned, their crazy song at a crucial part in the show. (They also wrote terrific songs that were cut from movies that suffered because of it, such as “Dr. Hackenbush”, cut from the disappointing A Day at the Races).

This Kalmar and Ruby magic is apparent in every collaboration. Many contemporary people find Eddie Cantor’s comedies sort of unfunny and perplexing. But I urge you to watch The Kid from Spain (1932), penned by the team, and it’ll open your eyes. It’s hilarious. Likewise Wheeler and Woolsey, generally merely mildly enjoyable. Watch Hips, Hips Hooray (1934) or Kentucky Kernels (1935) – – the absurdity flies off the screen. I just watched 1935’s Bright Lights, in which Joe E. Brown plays a vaudevillian — also penned by the team and also hilarious. Also in the cast are Arthur Treacher, acrobats The Five Maxellos, and William Demarest (as “Detective”.)


Towards the mid 30s it looks like the partners got sucked up by the horrors of the Hollywood system. They wind up as co-writers (with numerous other cogs) on numerous films, none of which bear any distinguishing features. Just more sausage out of the factory. Kalmar passed away in 1947. The pair was the subject of a deadly dull and highly inaccurate 1950 MGM bio-pic  Three Little Words, starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. Ruby actually got to perform with Groucho during some of his 11th hour performances at Carnegie Hall in the late 60s/ early 70s. He passed away in 1974.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and numerous other fine establishments.


  1. This query came in from a Mr. Judd Tooke, who is writing a book on the team: “After spending many years in research, the writing is underway. The thrill of the chase drove me to discover a trove of info about K&R and their families, careers and separate interests. One gap I hope to fill is specific info on Jessie Brown Kalmar’s mother and father and origins. Somewhere there is a niece or nephew of Agnes Aitken Brown who came to America from Scotland with her husband…..James Brown. (There are no more Kalmars after Bert Jr. died in 1996 without progeny). Maybe your readers have that odd piece of info. Thanks and will keep you abreast.”


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