Irving Brecher: Great for All But the Marxes

Because he wrote two of the Marx Brothers’ weaker, more clueless vehicles (At the Circus and Go West), I’d love to respect Irving Brecher (1914-2008) less than I’m obliged to. Brecher 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?) All that aside, Brecher was famous friends with Groucho, and was said to resemble him a great deal — so much so that he once subbed for him in publicity photos for Go West. Apparently no one noticed the difference.

The thing is, while his writing for the Marx Brothers was lousy, Brecher wrote some great stuff for other comedians. 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 Joe PennerHarry Parke, and Milton Berle (whose radio show he also wrote for). He even supplied some lines to The Wizard of OzOther 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 film was nominated for an Oscar, his 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). The show was originally cooked up for Groucho, who was game to do it, but the sponsor thought no one would buy Groucho in a domestic role. So the part (and it’s popular catchphrase, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”) went to Bendix.

In later years Brecher 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. Irving Brecher’s last screen credit is for Bye Bye Birdie (1963).