Arthur Sheekman: Outgrowing Groucho’s Shadow

Happy birthday to Arthur Sheekman (1901-1978), best known to many of us a F.O.G. (Friend of Groucho), but in the end he had much more going for him than that.

Sheekman was a popular Chicago critic and columnist when he first met the Marx Brothers in 1926 when they came to town with the touring production of The Cocoanuts. Groucho and Sheekman hit it off immediately. Sheekman became one of Groucho’s closest friends, as well as one of his most trusted suppliers of special material. In 1929 Groucho hired him to ghostwrite the humor book Beds (1930). Then he summoned him to Hollywood to help out with the Marx Brothers’ movies. Sheekman got an “additional dialogue” credit on Monkey Business (1931), and (uncredited) wrote jokes for Groucho for Horse Feathers (1932) and Duck Soup (1933). 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.

Groucho got Sheekman’s career started, but it didn’t take long for the budding writer to fly on his own wings. His work with the Marxes led to other offers. With Nat Perrin he co-wrote screenplays for Eddie Cantor‘s Roman Scandals (1933) and Kid Millions (1934). On the former picture, he met the woman who would be his wife ’til the day he died, actress Gloria Stuart. Sheekman and Perrin also worked together on the screenplay for the 1936 adaptation of David Belasco’s Rose of the Rancho, as well as the story for Pigskin Parade (1936, now famous for being Judy Garland’s first movie). They also wrote the screenplays for two Shirley Temple movies (Dimples and Stowaway, both 1936) and  Joe E. Brown’s The Gladiator (1938).

In 1937 Sheekman split with Perrin, and he and Stuart moved to New York to try to tackle Broadway. (Is it a coincidence that worst Marx Brothers movies were made over the next few years? Their late comedies would certainly have been less terrible if Sheekman had written a piece of them!)  Broadway proved unkind to Sheekman and Stuart, so the pair returned to Hollywood in the mid ’40s, and during this period he truly distinguished himself, with the screenplays for Blue Skies (1946), Dream Girl (1948), Call Me Madam (1953) and Some Came Running (1958) among many others. His last screenplay was the political drama Ada (1961) with Susan Hayward and Dean Martin.

A heart attack in 1960 forced him to slow down, but some additional work came out of his pen. In 1967 he edited (and wrote the intro for) The Groucho Letters, the source of this item we cited just a few days ago. His last credit was for a 1971 episode of My Three Sons. Sheekman died in 1978, just a few months after Groucho.