The Whole Town’s Swerling

Born 125 years ago today: Joseph “Jo” Swerling (1897-1964). Musicals fans know Swerling best as the co-author (with Abe Burrows) of the book to Guys and Dolls; like most Marx Brothers fans I first became aware of him as one of the team’s earliest writers after themselves, Al Shean and Al Boasberg. Those two credits are like bookends to his career, though he accomplished much else in between.

Born in Berdichev, Ukraine (a couple of hours from Kiev), Swerling moved to New York’s Lower East Side with his parents, fleeing Russian oppression. (A perennial historical theme, eh? One might almost say it never gets old, but you know what? It’s getting very old). Why Swerling spells his nickname without the silent e can be confusing, as one tends to identify that spelling with women (Jo Van Fleet, Jo Stafford).

Swerling started out hawking newspapers in the streets as a kid, then worked his way up to reporter, and was eventually contributing pieces to magazines like Vanity Fair. His script to the Marx Brothers’ ill-fated 1918 show The Cinderella Girl a.k.a. The Street Cinderella was one of his first theatrical credits; he was only 21 at the time. In 1919 he married stage and screen actress Marcia Moore, who sadly died just a few months later. By 1921 he had rebounded, for then he wrote the scenario for the Marx Bros.’ now lost silent movie Humor Risk. The revue The New Yorkers (1927) was his first Broadway show, followed by Kibitzer (1929), which he co-wrote with Edward G. Robinson, who also starred. It was made into a film the following year, with Harry Green in the title role. Meantime, his play The Understander was made into the 1929 film Melody Lane starring Eddie Leonard.

Around this time he also did some work on Joe Cook’s solo vehicle Rain or Shine (1930) directed by none other than Frank Capra. He also worked with Capra on the films Ladies of Leisure (1930), Dirigible (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Platinum Blonde (1931), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Of his over five dozen screen credits, other classics to which he contributed include Ten Cents a Dance (1931), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Pennies from Heaven (1936), Gone with the Wind (1939), The Westerner (1940), The Pride of the Yankees (1944), Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945). In 1950 he and Abe Burrows adapted the writings of Damon Runyon into Guys and Dolls, a major Broadway hit; it was adapted for the screen in 1955. This would almost have been the capstone of his charmed career, but his last major work was actually the screenplay for the 1961 bio-pic King of the Roaring ’20s: The Story of Arnold Rothstein.

Swerling died in 1964, long enough to see his namesake Jo Swerling, Jr. (b. 1931) pick up the baton by becoming a TV producer on Kraft Suspense Theatre. The younger Swerling later went on to be a producer on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones, The Rockford Files, Toma, Baretta, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, The Greatest American Hero, Hardcastle and McCormack, The A-Team, Hunter, 21 Jump Street, The Commish, and dozens of others. He retired in 1997.

For more on show business history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent comedy film, like Humor Risk, read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.