Some obligatory props today for classic comedy co-writer and Colum alum Morris “Morry” Ryskind (1895-1985). Ryskind has the same birthday as Margaret Dumont, who spoke many of his words on stage and screen. Ryskind appears to have done nothing by halves. In his youth he was extremely left wing; in his advanced years he swung far right. As a Columbia student he wrote for the campus humor magazine Jester, then was thrown out of school in 1917 for referring to the college president as “Czar Nicholas” in print. Ryskind was a member of the Socialist Party through the ’20s and ’30s.
Ryskind began contributing to Broadway musicals and revues as early as 1922. He is best known for co-writing the Marx Brothers vehicles The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and A Night at the Opera with George S. Kaufman, and adapting the Broadway hit Room Service for the team. With Kaufman, he also co-wrote the smash hit Of Thee I Sing (1931), which the Marx Brothers had also strongly considered starring in. Ryskind’s other theatrical collaborators included Howard Dietz (Merry-Go-Round, 1927), the Gershwins (Strike Up the Band, 1930), and Irving Berlin (Louisiana Purchase, 1940).
Films he worked on included Eddie Cantor’s Palmy Days (1931), My Man Godfrey (1936), the adaptation of Kaufman and Ferber’s Stage Door (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Jack Benny’s The Meanest Man in the World (1943), and Fred Allen’s It’s in the Bag (1945).
In the ’40s Ryskind evolved into a conservative, trading in his Hollywood friends and colleagues for the likes of Ayn Rand and William F. Buckley. He was a friendly witness to HUAC, helped found the National Review, and wrote columns and articles for publications like The Freeman and The Los Angeles Times, leaving the comedy behind. His last hands-on work for Hollywood had been the 1946 adaptation of Heartbeat, starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou (both Hollywood Republicans, I mention in passing). There’s a nice interview with him in Charlotte Chandler’s Hello, I Must Be Going, which deliciously collapses in the end into Ryskind trying to get Groucho to admit that “The Star Spangled Banner” is a wonderful song.
For more on show biz, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.