Irving Brecher Was a Mensch

You never heard of him? Yes you have. Have you heard of the Marx Brothers? Milton Berle? "The Wizard of Oz?" "Meet Me in St. Louis?" Then you've heard of Irv Brecher.
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I attended a funeral the other day, in the very samechapel where Cyd Charisse's service was held last June. Cyd's was an oddfuneral for a Jewish cemetery but this one, for writer Irving Brecher who diedlast week at the age of 94, was wildly appropriate. Many of Brecher's mostfamous colleagues are buried nearby and I'm sure their spirits were in thechapel welcoming him to the astral version of a table at the Carnegie Deli. HillsideMemorial Park in Culver City is the final resting place for many of theindustry's most prominent Jews. The list reads like the attendees of a FriarsClub Roast: Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Moe Howard,Shelly Winters, Dinah Shore, Allan Sherman, Sheldon Leonard, David Janssen, VicMorrow, Jeff Chandler, Jan Murray, Michael Landon, Lorne Greene, and in aspectacular towering white stone monument at the entrance to the park, AlJolson.

Lest you think I am a celebrity funeral stalker, I can atleast say that Brecher's niece is a friend of mine. Well, not exactly hisniece, but definitely a close member of the family. Brecher's wife Norma wasonce married to my friend's uncle, and when Norma and Irv got married almost 30years ago, my friend and her family migrated to the new marriage. And why not?By all accounts, Irv Brecher was a joy to be around. At the funeral his wifeand his friends confirmed that he could be difficult and opinionated but that he was also a fantastically loyal friend and, of course, one ofthe funniest, wittiest men on the planet.

You never heard of him? Yes you have. Have you heard of theMarx Brothers? Milton Berle? "The Wizard of Oz?" "Meet Me in St. Louis?" Thenyou've heard of Irv Brecher.

Brecher was born in 1914 in the Bronx and was a teenagerworking in a movie theatre on 57th Street in Manhattan when hestarted sending one-liners to columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.Sometimes his jokes ended up in print. When someone told him he should trygetting paid for the one-liners, he put an add in Variety, touting his"positively Berle-proof gags--so bad not even Milton will steal them." MiltonBerle saw the ad, thought it was funny, and became Brecher's first payingcustomer: $50 for a page of one-liners. Irv thought he was a millionaire. Hewas only 19.

The young writer started writing for Berle's radio show andeventually got signed by producer-director Mervyn LeRoy who brought him to MGM.There he was the sole writer for two films starring his idols, the MarxBrothers. Brecher wrote the screenplays for "At the Circus" and "Go West." Heused to tell the story about meeting Groucho for the first time. He walked intoMervyn LeRoy's office and Groucho was sitting at LeRoy's desk.

"I said, 'Hello, Mr. Marx.' He said, "Hello? That's supposed
to be a funny line? Is this the guy who's supposed to write our movie?" I
probably turned white.

"Then I said, 'Well, I saw you say hello in one of your
movies, and I thought it was so funny I'd steal it and use it now."

How many people could come up with such a perfect responseto such an intimidating remark? Groucho laughed, took Irving to lunch, and theywere great pals from then on.

One of Brecher's earliest jobs at MGM was to punch up thecomedy scenes in "The Wizard of Oz," mostly the vaudeville-like bickeringbetween the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. He didn't get creditfor this gig but his lines helped make the film such a timeless classic.

Although his personal style was far more appropriate forMarx Brothers films and the other sarcastic Jewish comedians he wrote for,Brecher found himself writing screenplays for some of the most beloved MGMmusicals of all time, most notably "Meet Me in St. Louis." It was at a Writers'Guild screening for that film last year where I last saw Brecher in person,regaling the crowd with all sorts of ribald stories of those glory days. Thoughwell into his 90s and not well, Brecher always came to life in front of anappreciative crowd, and I felt he could have gone on for hours.

Brecher also penned the scripts for some of MGM's moststylistic and ambitious productions including gorgeous failures such as"Yolanda and the Thief" starring Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer (JudyGarland's older sister from "Meet Me in St. Louis"), and three films thathelped make Lucille Ball a star long before she conquered television: "DuBarryWas a Lady." "Best Foot Forward," and "Ziegfeld Follies." In those days, movieproducers would buy the rights to film successful Broadway shows and theninexplicably change them so much that the films bore only a fleetingresemblance to the original musical. "Du Barry Was a Lady" was an early ColePorter vehicle for Ethel Merman on Broadway. Casting the non-singing LucilleBall in Merman's role was an indication of how far Brecher veered from theoriginal story.

One actress who appeared in several Brecher films was thebeautiful Virginia O'Brien. God, I loved that dame. She was famous for herdeadpan singing style. She'd be given comedy numbers that she'd perform as ifher face was shot full of Botox. She developed her trademark shtick byaccident: in one of the first musical numbers she ever performed in front of anaudience, she was basically paralyzed by stage fright. At the end of the number,she ran off the stage humiliated, until she realized that the audience thoughther terror-filled performance was a scream. O'Brien's character, Ginny, was notin the Broadway version of "Du Barry Was a Lady," but she was excellent in thefilm. And because I'm sad that she is all but forgotten today, here is VirginiaO'Brien in that film singing the crazy song, "No Matter How You Slice It, It'sStill Salome."

"Best Foot Forward" was another big musical that Brecher freely adapted for thescreen as a vehicle for Lucille Ball's rising star. In the preposterous plot,Ball plays herself, a glamorous movie star, who reluctantly agrees toparticipate in a PR stunt after a young cadet at a military academy invites herto be his date at his school prom. Bizarre, Weird. Fantastic! If you haven'tseen these Brecher-Ball collaborations, I couldn't recommend them more highly.

The only holdovers from the Broadway cast of "Best FootForward" were two young whippersnappers, June Allyson, who would soon becomethe new darling of the MGM lot, and a brash young thing named Nancy Walker whois like a 1940s version of Bette Midler. For all her incredible talent, short,non-glamorous Walker was not destined for stardom in the movies of that era, and she'd have to wait several decades to make a huge name for herself on TVas Rhoda Morgenstern's mother on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Rhoda" (not tomention her stints on "MacMillan and Wife" and as Rosie, the waitress in the"quicker picker-upper" Bounty paper towel commercials). Although this haslittle to do with Irv Brecher's writing, I want to show you my favorite obscuremusical number from "Best Foot Forward" called "The Three B's" featuringWalker, Allyson, and the sexy Gloria De Haven. This should be in a time capsulefor American pop culture of the early 1940s. Note the hideous dresses andhairstyles and the almost unintelligible slang. Also get a load of the startreatment given band leader and trumpet player Harry James (who had just becomeMr. Betty Grable), one of the superstars of that era:

Irving Brecher's other big claim to fame was creating theseries "The Life of Riley," both the radio version, starring William Bendix, aswell as the TV version that gave Jackie Gleason his first big break. The showwon the first Emmy Award in 1949 but was cancelled after a year because of lowratings and because Jackie Gleason wanted to move on to other projects. Itreappeared in 1953 with Bendix back in the title role and stayed on TV infirst-run episodes and then reruns until 1964.

Irving's final screenplay was for another adaptation of astage musical, 1963's "Bye Bye Birdie." Brecher did a fabulous job adaptingthat Elvis-like story into a hysterically funny film starring Dick Van Dyke,Janet Leigh, Maureen Stapleton, and the hot new discovery, Ann-Margret. Between"The Wizard of Oz," "Meet Me in St. Louis," and "Bye Bye Birdie," I probablyhaven't gone a week without quoting some line written by Irv Brecher. I have noidea what he was doing between that last screenwriting assignment 45 years agoand his death last week, especially since he still seemed sharp as a tack. Ihope to hear about that and many other Hollywood stories in his upcoming autobiography that will be released on what would have been his 95
birthday this coming January. It's sad that he didn't live to see that publication,but "The Wicked Wit of the West: The Last Great Golden-Age Screenwriter Sharesthe Hilarity and Heartaches of Working With Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns,Berle, Benny & Many More," by Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld, promises to be a great read.

In the meantime, here's the feisty man himself, in aWriter's Guild spot filmed last year during the strike:

Hope you're surrounded by your friends up there, Irv. Enjoy your pastrami.

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