On The Marx Brothers Writers
In which we continue our ongoing series of Marx Brothers posts. (We observe this morning with satisfaction but not surprise that, after Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers are the vaudeville act about whom we have blogged the most. The frequency has picked up again recently because of the recent revival of I’ll Say She Is.) Having recently written about the directors and producers of the team’s Hollywood films, today we discuss some of the people who wrote for their act, for both stage and screen.
In essence, their primary writers were the Marxes themselves. They created their own act, and in their early vaudeville days, their own material. And of course they were famous for their ability to improvise funny business right on the spot. But the demand for novelty in show business is relentless. The volume required is oceanic. All of the great comedians worked with other writers, often many writers to sustain their act. In the case of the Marx Brothers, some “got” them, some didn’t.
Al Shean (vaudeville)
The Marx Brothers’ uncle, sometime star of the act of Gallagher and Shean, not only inspired the boys to go into show business, but was an influence in their own early attempts to create an act (Groucho and Chico especially are acorns off of Al Shean’s tree). So, at crucial times in their career when they were expanding, he was the natural person for them to approach to craft them an act. The boys themselves had devised their first sketch “Fun in Hi Skule” (with assistance from Shean). In 1912, they expanded it into a much more elaborate production called “Mr. Green’s Reception”, and for this Sheen was hired to contribute gags and jokes and other suggestions. Then in 1914, he was hired to write an entire sketch for them and their little company, which was called “Home Again” (legend has it that he wrote it on a piece of butcher paper though, to use a Smith and Dale phrase “I’m dubious”.) “Home Again” is said to have set in cement the Marx Brothers’ characters as we would forever know them. There had been many previous incarnations of the act. First they were a singing act. Then when they had incorporate comedy, Groucho had initially played a German character. Harpo had not only spoken, but played an Irishman. And Chico had only joined the act recently. The one remaining change was for Gummo to be replaced by Zeppo, which happened in 1918. Around 1919 the act was spruced up and redubbed variously “N’Everything” and ” The Marx Brothers’ Revue”. In 1920, Shean rejoined his old partner Ed Gallagher (from whom he’d split in 1914) and for the next several years was too busy creating material for his own successful vaudeville act to be writing for his nephews. But fragments of the Marx Bothers’ old act survive and what we see is recognizable to us. Shean’s importance to the Marx Brothers can’t be overstated. Shean didn’t just supply material to the Marx Brothers, he was crucial in forming their act.
Jo Swerling (The Street Cinderella, Humor Risk)
This is intriguing. Jo Swerling (later to write or co-write such well known scripts as Guys and Dolls, The Pride of the Yankees, and Lifeboat) only had a few magazine and newspaper squibs to his credit when the Marx Brothers hired him to write their first tab musical in 1919. I have seen the title variously rendered as The Street Cinderella and The Cinderella Girl. Unfortunately it opened and shut in the blink of an eye, reportedly due to a flu epidemic. Similarly, Swerling is credited with penning their first film, made in 1920, the lost silent Humor Risk.
Herman Timberg (vaudeville)
Herman Timberg, like Groucho, had gotten his start with Gus Edwards’ kiddie revue. Timberg wrote for many vaudeville acts in his day, including the similarly surreal Clark and McCullough. The act he wrote for the Marx Brothers was called variously “On the Mezzanine Floor”, “The Mezzanine Floor”, “On the Mezzanine” and “On the Balcony” and they performed it from 1920 to 1922. A good portion of this act is well known to fans of the Marx Brothers and I’ll Say She Is — it’s the rhyming “Theatrical Agency” sketch. This was a guy who understood very well how to write for the Marx Brothers’ characters.
Originally a cartoonist (credited with being the guy who came up with the image of a tax payer wearing a barrel because he “lost his shirt”), Johnstone was also the man who wrote the lyrics and (theoretically) the book to the Marx Brothers’ first Broadway show, I’ll Say She Is, which ran from 1923 to 1925. (I say theoretically, because, of what survives, particularly the famous “Napoleon” scene, the hand of Groucho himself is so evident). But for the full circumstances of Johnstone’s involvement in that show, I direct you to Noah Diamond’s definitive and exhaustive book on the subject.
Later, in the wake of their films The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both of which were adaptations of Broadway shows, when they were tasked with making their first movie completely from scratch, Johnstone was one of the writers brought in for the daunting task. The result was Monkey Business (1931). It is difficult to assess the extent of what Johnstone contributed to the script, as the voice of co-writer S.J. Perelman is so so strong in it. Likewise the follow up vehicle Horse Feathers (1932), which boasts not only Perelman, but Kalmar and Ruby.
The best known and best loved of all the Marx Brothers writers, Kaufman had a dozen previous Broadway credits under his belt when he (along with his cowriter Morrie Ryskind) was entrusted with the Herculean job of crafting the Marx Brothers’ first full-length Broadway book musical (as opposed to a revue, as I’ll Say She Is had been). The result, The Cocoanuts, which ran on Broadway 1925-1927 and became a film in 1929 was a hit in both versions. Kaufman’s innovation was to juggle Marxian insanity with both a romantic subplot and a third “mystery” subplot about a theft, a formula he would repeat in Animal Crackers a few years later. The latter vehicle is even better at capturing the Marx Brothers’ voices, and would properly set the template for their next several vehicles.
A decade later, when the Marx Brothers left Paramount and came over to MGM, Kaufman and Ryskind were hired once again to craft A Night at the Opera, which tempered the zaniness just a tad in favor of the romance, although it still remained a nice balance. He did far less on its follow-up A Day at the Races (1937), a goobledy-gook on which a zillion writers toiled (Kaufman’s role seems to have been mostly supervisory). An interesting footnote: in 1933 the Marx Brothers considered making a film version of Kaufman and Ryskind’s satirical musical Of Thee I Sing.
Morrie Ryskind (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, A Night at the Opera, Room Service)
Kaufman’s frequent co-writer (not just on Marx Brothers projects). Beyond those films just mentioned, he worked solo on the thankless job of converting the Broadway play Room Service (by Glenn Tryon and Philip Loeb) into the 1938 Marx Brothers vehicle of the same name, basically trying to spruce up Groucho’s lines and crafting a role for Chico. Other notable non-Kaufman scripts he contributed to included My Man Godfrey (1936), His Girl Friday (1940), and Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag (1945).
S. J. Perelman (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business)
The great humorist Perelman looms so large in the Marx Brothers’ legend, it’s a comedown to contemplate just how brief a time their careers overlapped. Basically Monkey Business (1931) was Perelman’s big break, and that’s the one picture on which he truly dominates. Astounding to consider that it’s his first screenplay — that’s a lot of trust to place in a newbie! His role seems to be much smaller in Horse Feathers, in which the voices of Kalmar and Ruby appear to dominate. For more on Perelman and the Marxes, go here.
After that, Perelman began to write pictures for other comedians, like Wheeler and Woolsey, Jack Oakie et al. Eventually he would win a Best Screenplay Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days (1956), but one thinks of his greatest work (One Touch of Venus, The Beauty Part) having been written for Broadway.
While not one of the best known of the Marx Brothers’s writers, Arthur Sheekman would be in the top third of the list as most important. He met the team when he was a Chicago theatre critic in the 1920s and would remain one of Groucho’s best friends for the next 50 years. He ghostwrote the humor book Beds (1930) for him. He got an “additional dialogue” credit on Monkey Business, and (uncredited) wrote jokes for Groucho for Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. His biggest contribution to the team was co-writing, with partner Nat Perrin their radio show Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel, which ran from 1932 to 1933. Later, Sheekman would write for other comedians, such as Eddie Cantor and Joe E. Brown. He met his wife Gloria Stuart while working on Roman Scandals.
Kalmar and Ruby (Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup)
Oh, these are handily my favorite Marx Brothers writers, and among my favorite comedy writers and song writers. My full post on them is here. One of the top songwriting teams of the 1920s, they wrote the songs for Animal Crackers, including Groucho’s theme song “Hooray for Captain Spalding”. Their hand is strong in my favorite Marx Brothers’ movie Horse Feathers, and they wrote everybody’s favorite Marx movie Duck Soup in its entirety. Appallingly, unthinkably, they also generated material for the Marx Brothers that was rejected! Including the “Dr. Hackenbush” song for A Day the Races and a first draft for Go West which simply HAD to be better than the one that eventually made it to the screen. The team also wrote terrific screenplays for Eddie Cantor, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Joe. E. Brown. Harry Ruby was to remain close to Groucho until the end, and performed with him at Carnegie Hall in the early 1970s.
Nat Perrin (Monkey Business, Horse Feathers Duck Soup, Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel, The Big Store)
Perrin worked in the p.r. department of Paramount and managed to buttonhole Groucho and talk himself into a job writing on Monkey Business. He became writing partners with Arthur Sheekman, and thus all his early credits. He also wrote the original story for The Big Store, which has a sort of vague-ish connection to Flywheel.
Later Perrin became one of the writers on Olsen and Johnson’s long-running Hellzapoppin, and wrote for two dozen Hollywood films, including the highly quirky 1945 Frank Morgan vehicle The Great Morgan, which he also directed.
Al Boasberg (Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)
Vaudeville’s greatest comedy writer, Boasberg wrote legendary routines for Burns and Allen and Jack Benny, and on radio wrote for Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers show Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel. While he was a capable (in fact a brilliant) sketch writer, he was to evolve into a gag writer, coming up with individual jokes or routines to spruce things up. He had worked in that capacity on A Night at the Opera (the famous stateroom sequence was reportedly his) and he played a much larger role on A Day at the Races, although there was a rather large battle for screen credit on that one. He died prior to its release.
George Oppenheimer (Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel, A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)
Oppenheimer had written two Broadway shows when he came into the Marxian fold as one of the minor writers for Flywheel Shyster and Flywheel (Perrin and Sheekman were the main guys). And he wrote some additional dialogue for A Night at the Opera. His main Marx Brothers notability comes from being the first writer hired for A Day at the Races.
Joe Adamson’s commentary on the development of this and their other films in his book Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo is invaluable in understanding where their late pictures went wrong. Many people like A Day at the Races just fine, but many hardcore fans dislike it for reasons I lay out here. One’s first impulse is to blame the writers for a terrible script. But in Hollywood during the studio era the writers were just pawns, doing the bidding of producers. And from Adamson’s account (he had access to archival material) the early treatments and drafts of A Day at the Races (when it was merely set in a sanitarium and wasn’t about a race track) sound hysterically funny, and appropriately Marxian to me. Oppenheimer and his colleagues Pirosh and Seaton might well have written a proper Marx Brothers picture if the producers had left him alone. But…they didn’t. Nevertheless, Oppenheimer later went on to write many other screenplays, and to become a theatre columnist for Newsday for 20 years.
Robert Pirosh (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)
A staff screenwriter for MGM, Pirosh wrote a little dialogue for A Night at the Opera and played a much bigger part in crafting a script for A Day at the Races. War pictures would prove to be his true metier. His won an Oscar for his screenplay for the 1949 film Battleground.
George Seaton (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races)
Another MGM staff writer who made contributions on the two films listed above similar to those of Pirosh. Later credits would include Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Country Girl (1954), and Airport (1970). He also wrote great vehicles for Jack Benny, like the 1941 adaptation of Charley’s Aunt and The Meanest Man in the World (1943).
Irving Brecher: (At the Circus, Go West)
Because he wrote two of the Marx Brothers weaker, more clueless vehicles (in the case of Go West, that’s putting it mildly), I’d love to respect Brecher less than I’m obliged to. He didn’t seem to understand the Brothers’ characters, his lines for Groucho are mostly uncharacteristic and unfunny and he didn’t write good routines for Chico. (His understanding of Chico seems derived from the Tutsi Frutsi ice cream scene in A Day at the Races, which he essentially recreates in both Marx Brothers pictures he worked on. Some fans consider these highlights of both pictures, but what can be said of a weak highlight of an even weaker picture?)
The thing is, though, apart from the Marx Brothers, he wrote some great stuff. He started out supplying gags to Walter Winchell’s and Ed Sullivan’s columns and for Al Jolson’s radio show. The first screenplay he worked on (with Nat Perrin and others) was the revue film New Faces of 1937 ) starring Milton Berle, Joe Penner, and Harry Parke. He supplied some lines to The Wizard of Oz. Other notable screenplays he worked on included Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), DuBarry Was a Lady (1943), and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). While the latter was nominated for an Oscar, his most most notable credit must be creating and writing the sit-com The Life of Riley in all its various incarnations (radio, film and tv). The franchise lasted from 1944 through 1958 and starred William Bendix (with Jackie Gleason as a replacement for one season). In later years he also directed. He did the 1952 Blossom Seeley bio-pic Somebody Loves Me starring Betty Hutton, and Sail a Crooked Ship (1961) with Ernie Kovacs. His last credit is Bye Bye Birdie (1963).
Buster Keaton (At the Circus, Go West)
Yes! As you’ve probably heard, Keaton worked as a gagwriter on these pictures, all nonverbal gags, mostly having to do with Harpo. Groucho didn’t seem to like him very much, in fact was downright rude to him.
Sid Kuller, Hal Fimberg , Ray Golden (The Big Store)
I was all set to hate on these three palookas, as The Big Store is such a stinkeroo (in fact someone should fumigate that “store”), but again, their resumes make it hard to dismiss them, and I’ll go with hating on the suits.
Kuller started out in vaudeville working for Al Boasberg and writing for the likes of Bert Lahr and Jack Benny. What he was best known for (along with Golden) was being one of the primary writers for the Ritz Brothers, from Earl Carroll’s Vanities through their long string of pictures for RKO in the 30s. And maybe that speaks to the kind of comedy we get in The Big Store…the writers were used to creating material for another team, and it was just wrong for the Marx Brothers. Kuller turns out to be an interesting guy though. It’s well worth going here to read about his many fascinating projects. As for Golden, he went on to co-write the equally dreadful Laurel and Hardy vehicle Nothing But Trouble (1944). As for Fimberg, he got his start in radio writing for the likes of Al Jolson, Ken Murray, Judy Canova and Amos and Andy. The Big Store was one of his first screenplays. Later, he would become most famous for writing the scripts to the Our Man Flint series of spy spoofs.
Joseph Fields (A Night in Casablanca)
There is something wonderful, magical and circular about this. Lew Fields of the team of Weber and Fields was a major influence on Al Shean, who was in turn a major influence on his nephews the Marx Brothers. Joseph Fields was Lew Field’s son (presumably named after his partner Joe Weber). Fields fils, who had a zillion impressive Broadway credits, wrote the first draft of this Marx Brothers comeback vehicle, and amusingly it sounds much more like his dad’s work than his own. Essentially, it started out as much more of a parody of the original Casablanca. Subsequent drafts steered it in new directions.
Roland Kibbee (A Night in Casablanca)
Kibbee came from radio where he wrote for Fanny Brice, Fred Allen and Groucho himself. A Night in Casablanca was his first screenplay and it was his task to put together the final version. In later years he had a close working relationship with Burt Lancaster, writing some of his best vehicles.
How delightful to know that this comic genius (whom I wrote about here) not only worked for Warner Brothers cartoons, and for Jerry Lewis, but for the Marx Brothers. But, as with Keaton, Tashlin had scant opportunities to demonstrate his brilliance in these films. On Casablanca he strictly contributed gags, although one of them — the collapsing building — is legendary. While his role in Love Happy was more central, I refuse to believe that such flaws as the film possesses has much to do with him, given the realities of its production.
Ben Hecht (Love Happy)
Yes! This legendary God of the cinema wrote the first draft of this film (when it was a Harpo solo vehicle), but had his name taken off when the producers altered it to shoehorn in Groucho and Chico in the crudest possible fashion.
Mac Benoff (Love Happy)
This gent, whose only previous screenwriting credit was the 1944 Phil Baker vehicle Take It or Leave It, scripted the Groucho wrap-around bits in Love Happy. His last screen credit was the script for Bless the Beasts and Children (1971) — which blows my mind, because I loved the book and movie of this when I was in the 7th grade. I haven’t really looked at either since. I probably should, just to see how they hold up after all this time, although I imagine being 12 years old helps one’s appreciation for that particular film immensely.
But I digress. And that’s okay. Because it is high time for us all to move on.
At any rate, like I say, there is some Herman Timberg and Will Johnstone (and Noah Diamond) Marx Brothers writing on the boards now even as we speak. For more tickets and info on I’ll Say She Is, go to : www.illsaysheis.com