Getting a Laugh and Getting a Life: An Interview with Irving Brecher

Throughout his long and varied career, screenwriter Irving Brecher has kept one thing consistent: his wickedly irreverent sense of humor. He’s applied this gift to the radically different mediums of stage, radio, films and television and has made imposing and amusing contributions to each.

Irving Brecher (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

In addition to his long period as a contract writer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Irving Brecher created the influential radio and later television sitcom The Life of Riley, whose title character is practically Homer Simpson’s grandfather. New Yorker humorist S. J. Perelman once dubbed him one of the three quickest wits in America (the other two were George S. Kaufman and Oscar Levant).

Age has not slowed his wisecracks. When he was initially contacted for this article, I nervously told him, “Uh, my name is Dan Lybarger.” “Well, I can’t do anything about that,” he replied.

Practical Jokes Pay Off
As he demonstrated over the phone, Brecher, 90, still knows how to get a laugh. “This is very immodest, but I have to tell you this. I almost always knew what would play. That doesn’t make me out to be a genius. It just happened to be an instinct.”

His instinct surfaced when Irving Brecher was a 19-year-old usher working at the Little Carnegie Playhouse in his birthplace of New York. Like a lot of people he knew, Brecher followed a rising comedian named Milton Berle.

Today Berle is “Mr. Television” or “Uncle Miltie,” but in the 30s Berle developed a reputation among other comics for stealing quips, which led Brecher to play a bizarre practical joke: He bought an ad in Variety. “I wrote a one-inch ad saying, ‘positively Berle-proof gags, so bad even Milton wouldn’t steal them’ and put the telephone number of the theater where I was working in the ad,” recalls Brecher. “Berle called up when the paper came out, and I thought it was a friend of mine kidding me when the man called saying, ‘This is Milton Berle.'”

“He called back and said, ‘No son-of-a-bitch hangs up on Milton Berle,’ and I started to shake. And then he said, ‘If you’re so damn smart be over at the Capital Theater tonight cause I’m being held over for the third week and bring some jokes,’ and that’s how it started.”

Brecher began writing vaudeville sketches for him and eventually penned the comic’s 1930s radio series Gillette Community Sing. Berle’s growing fame on radio attracted Hollywood’s attention, and he brought Brecher along with him to L.A. so the radio show could continue while Berle worked on a film titled New Faces of 1937. Brecher soon pulled double duty when the producer found the existing script wanting and requested the writer’s help.

Brecher recalls that writing for the screen was a vastly different process than working on radio scripts. “The difference is enormous because in radio you can say that you’re any place,” he explains. “You could make the audience visualize anything you want, but you haven’t the liberty in movies to say arbitrarily I’m going to have this set here. You’re restricted by cost and all the other factors. Things that you can imagine in theater and radio, you can’t imagine in the movies.”

Nonetheless, Brecher then relocated to L.A., and his radio work landed him a contract with producer-director Mervin LeRoy (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Quo Vadis and dozens of others), who was at Warner Bros. at the time. When LeRoy moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938, he took Brecher with him and hired the writer to revise the comedy sequences for The Wizard of Oz.

Go West

A Passionate Marxist
Brecher had grown up idolizing Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx, so when LeRoy informed Brecher he’d be working with the Marx Brothers, the writer’s reaction was predictable. “I imitated Groucho at home among the guys, with what little social life we had. Having fun at a party, I would take some burnt cork and a rubber cigar and wire glasses and do a Groucho routine because I actually thought he was the funniest man in the world. I loved Chaplin and W.C. Fields, but Groucho killed me. When LeRoy took me to MGM after The Wizard of Oz, he said to me, ‘You’re going to write a movie for the Marx Brothers.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Brecher’s two films with the siblings were At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940), which featured the expected wordplay from Groucho but also had sight gags that varied from a seal showing its ID badge to security guard Chico Marx and the brothers finding out what happens if you use popcorn to fuel a train when firewood runs out. Switching from writing wisecracks for Groucho to sight gags for the non-speaking Harpo was surprisingly easy for him. “I have a mind that shoots a lot of pictures, and I really had no trouble thinking up stuff for Harpo, particularly the scene in Go West, where they cut up the train. I’d say that I found it enjoyable and not too difficult to do sight comedy,” recalls Brecher.

Coming up with enough insanity to fill 90 minutes proved challenging to the 24-year-old writer. He explains, “Very often when you’re on the set, I found it possible to improvise something that you hadn’t thought of. But for both pictures, they stuck to the script. They were tough jobs. I didn’t realize at the time. I was so young. No one had ever written a Marx Brothers movie himself; I did two. They generally had five or six writers.”

One on-set musing by Brecher became, according to Groucho, the biggest laugh of the great comedian’s career. Playing a greedy trapeze artist in The Circus, Eve Arden stuffs a wad of cash that belongs to the circus down the neckline of her leotard. Groucho requested a wisecrack to get out of the scene. Producer Mervin LeRoy and director Edward Buzzell summoned Brecher to the set.

At The Circus

“And then I said, ‘How about this? There’s got to be some way of getting the money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office (the censorship board that determined the content of American movies from 1934 to 1968).'”

Groucho was ecstatic, but Buzzell balked at the line, thinking that most audiences wouldn’t know about the censorship board and refused to shoot it. Groucho held his ground, and LeRoy immediately hired S. Sylvan Simon to shoot the contested line. Brecher adds, “They previewed the picture, and I was there. When Groucho said the line, the theater shook for two minutes. Which proved something that Buzzell failed to understand: which is that the public is much smarter than he thought they were. The public knew the Hays Office would censor everything.”

Making the Lion Roar
For most of his career at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Brecher contributed to the Arthur Freed unit, famous for making such unforgettable musicals as An American in Paris, Gigi and Singing in the Rain.

From 1942 through 1948, Brecher wrote or co-wrote the scripts for For Me and My Gal (Gene Kelly’s breakthrough movie), Du Barry Was a Lady, Best Foot Forward and Ziegfeld Follies. He also worked on the non-Freed films Shadow of the Thin Man and Ship Ahoy.

Easily his greatest achievement with that team was the 1944 blockbuster, Meet Me in St. Louis. Directed by a then up-and-coming Vincente Minnelli (An American in Paris, Tea and Sympathy), the film is an adaptation of “The Kensington Stories” that Sally Benson wrote for The New Yorker from 1941 to 1942.

Meet Me In St. Louis

The movie popularized tunes like the title song and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Fred Finklehoffe, who shared writing credit with Brecher on Best Foot Forward, started the project, but Brecher did most of the work. Both men earned Oscar® nominations, and George Folsey’s Technicolor cinematography, composer Georgie Stoll’s score and “The Trolley Song” by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin received similar nods. Not only did Brecher’s achievement rub off on the songwriters, he even helped inspire their work.

He was writing a passage where ingénue Esther Smith (Judy Garland) boards a trolley hoping that the handsome neighbor (Tom Drake) might come onboard. “I was writing the script, and when I came to the end of that scene, I felt that this was a spot that would be good for a song,” said Brecher, who even wrote a note in the script to that effect.

Meet Me in St. Louis became MGM’s and also won a special Oscar for child actress Margaret O’Brien as Esther’s death-obsessed little sister Tootie. But according to Brecher, few saw potential in the loosely plotted tale set in 1903 St. Louis. In addition to selling skeptical executives on the tale, Brecher had to personally convince Judy Garland to play the lead because she feared, quite rightly, that O’Brien could potentially upstage her.

MGM Chief Louis B. Mayer ordered Brecher to meet privately with Garland in order to persuade her. “I read her some sequences where I would highlight – I was a good reader – and I would really read her lines, they would sound so great, and I’d throw away the kid’s lines and minimized it,” says Brecher. “She said, ‘I’m afraid.’ I said, ‘Believe me. You’ll be great in this. I don’t think you can miss. It’ll be great. You’ll be singing these great songs.’ She said, ‘I guess I’d better do it.’ I went outside and said to Mayer, ‘Judy wants to do the movie.’ ‘It’s the smartest thing you ever did, honey,’ and he put his arm around her. That was it. It was the biggest thing she ever did,” recalls Brecher.

Wary executives warmed to it as well. “At the sneak preview, a couple of the executives, whom I had known had said this thing if they’re going to shoot it, don’t expect anything ’cause there’s no story, they came over to me, and they said, ‘We were wrong about that. Whatever you did was just great.’ They were used to heavy plots, but that was quite an experience.”

As for producer Freed himself, Brecher bluntly describes having difficulties with him that eventually drove Brecher from the studio. “He had a great talent for picking out talent, particularly musical talent. He was also a talented lyricist. But he was a sycophant of the worst kind, and from my standpoint a very difficult fellow to respect even though I respected his abilities as I just outlined. We didn’t get along because he couldn’t take any disagreement. If you disagreed with him, he’d go crazy.”

Brecher’s final assignments for the unit were Yolanda and the Thief, which Brecher adapted from a story partially written by Madeline creator Ludwig Bemelmans, and Summer Holiday, a musical reworking of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness. The writer had his last straw when Freed cursed him out over the Summer Holiday script. Through some of Freed’s detractors at the studio, Brecher took his grievance to Louis B. Mayer, who demanded that the producer apologize.

Brecher still left MGM but received an unusual honor for his trouble. “All writers at the writer’s table got up and applauded me. Apparently one of the executives must have told somebody else what happened with Freed and me. Of course, they were thrilled that anybody would screw a producer or humiliate him.”

Brecher with Groucho Marx

Getting a Life
Brecher was able to leave MGM because he had another project that became the most popular and arguably the most significant of his career. At the suggestion of Groucho Marx, Brecher developed what evolved into the radio and then television series The Life of Riley. “Well, in the sense that he forced me out of friendship to do an audition record—we didn’t call them pilots then; we called them ‘audition records’—of a program called The Flatfoot Family, which I didn’t want to do. I said, ‘It won’t work. Nobody will believe you as a flesh and blood father because of your black (greasepaint) mustache, which they know from the movies.’

“He insisted I do it out of friendship, and I did. The studio audience laughed, and nobody bought it. Six months later, I saw a character in a movie short and found out his name was William Bendix and had the idea of changing the show and putting him in it. And I called it The Life of Riley, and six months later we sold it. So what (Groucho) had to do with it was inspired me, forced me to do something for him but worked out later for me. Isn’t that interesting?” he muses.

In its radio incarnation, The Life or Riley ran from April to September of 1941 and later ran from 1944 to1951. On TV, the show had two versions, one that ran from October of 1949 to March of 1950. Brecher even directed, wrote and produced a feature film version based on the series in 1949.

William Bendix (replaced by a pre-Honeymooners Jackie Gleason in the 1949-50 season) played Chester A. Riley, a likable working stiff and family man who continually ran into trouble when he misunderstood the things that people around him said, usually resulting comic mishaps. Like Homer Simpson, Riley was a father who didn’t know best. He assumed that a paid vacation was a layoff or set his home ablaze as he tried to share a quiet evening at home with his family, who desperately wanted to go out.

In listening to the series, it’s intriguing how little the structure of situation comedies has changed little over the years. For example, each lead character has his own trademark phrase. Homer exclaims, “Why you little … ,” and Riley laments, “What a revolting development this is.” Unique to Riley’s world, however, is his eerily amusing pal.

Digby “Digger” O’Dell (John Brown) was a cheery fellow whose relentlessly positive attitude seemed a bit out of place with his profession. Let’s just say he put the “fun” back into funeral.

Brecher explains, “The Life of Riley radio show was doomed to be cancelled early on in its career. Nobody was listening. One day I was rehearsing, and the show was to go on in a couple of hours. I was over at NBC, and the show was two minutes short, so I had to fill it with something. The plot was that Riley was missing, and his friends and his wife and everybody were frantic about it. Maybe harm had befallen him.

“Through some miracle, I said, ‘I think I’ll have an undertaker come and ask for him. That’ll scare the hell out of everyone.’ The miracle was that not only did I think of an undertaker, but I’d give him an Irish name like Digby O’Dell. And from Digby, I got the idea of calling him, ‘Digger.’ I had no plan. It’s just the way your mind works. We’ll I wrote the scene where he said, ‘This is Digby O’Dell, the friendly undertaker’ in a very sepulchral voice. ‘Digger’ O’Dell the undertaker turned The Life of Riley radio show from a flop to a hit.”

Bye Bye Birdie

Present Tense
Brecher’s last screenplay credit was for the popular 1963 film adaptation of the stage musical Bye Bye Birdie, which starred Dick Van Dyke and Ann-Margret. While he might not be writing any new musicals, Hollywood has started making them again, and audiences are embracing them. Despite the success of movies like Moulin Rouge! and Chicago, Brecher’s not sure if the trend is more than a fad.

“In other words, I may sound a little cynical, but what I’m saying is Chicago was a hit. The stage show was far more something I’d want to relish and hold on to than the movie despite the fact that the movie naturally grossed millions of dollars, but so do things like Dumb and Dumber.

Brecher had his share of frustrations with the old studio system. For one thing, neither he nor any of the other writers he worked with on the radio series of The Life of Riley could take a writing credit because doing so would have violated his MGM contract.

Nonetheless, he believes the current generation of writers would have benefited greatly from the support the studio system offered. He explains, “They were willing to lose money, and in the end to come out on top. Because they had developed some writers, I can’t recall their names now from junior writers, who became proficient.”

“There was a time, and this you can quote me, that these old wonderful monsters who ran the studios like Harry Cohn, Jack Warner, L.B. Mayer, all men that I knew. They all may have been rough guys: rough on each other, rough on their employees, but they loved movies. They loved movies and wanted to make movies that made money, but they wanted essentially to make movies that were good. They cost more than they should; but they still made them.”

“Today, they’re making movies that cost a lot, but they’re not making them out of love. These people today are bankers, brokers, agents, whatever they are. I’m not happy; I’m not unhappy. I would say rather that I’m grateful that I had a shot at a time when they were in that era when movies were made by people who loved movies.”

For most of us, getting older can be an obstacle and a source of grief. For Brecher, it’s new material. Some of his recent activities would make Digby O’Dell proud. “I like to do eulogies, but only if I can make people laugh at the services. There was this one where I was looking down, and I can’t read my own notes. I said, ‘This morning my eyesight was so bad I couldn’t find my hearing aid.'”

“I like to have fun at my own expense.”

Dan Lybarger has contributed film articles to the Kansas City Star, NitrateOnline.com, the Lawrence (KS) Journal-World and PitchWeekly. He can be reached at dan@tipjar.com.

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