Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Irv
“We were young, gay, reckless! That night I drank champagne from your slipper. Two quarts. It would have been more, but they were open-toed.” — Groucho Marx to Margaret Dumont in “At the Circus.”
When Irving S. Brecher was writing the Marx Brothers’ movie, “At the Circus,” in 1938, he got into trouble with the Hollywood censors.
“Eve Arden was playing ‘Peerless Pauline,'” Brecher recalls over lunch at his favorite deli, Labels Table on Pico. Currently, Irv is prepping for a guest appearance and question-and-answer session Dec. 23 during the American Cinematheque’s Marx Brothers Festival at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.
“Arden is in her leotard in the dressing room and our detective, Groucho Marx as J. Cheever Loophole, suspects Peerless Pauline has $10,000 hidden in a purse. So he starts to make ardent love to her. She’s playing along, holding him off until suddenly he sees Arden slipping the evidence down her cleavage. Groucho steps forward to the camera and says: ‘There must be some way I can get that money back without getting in trouble with the Hays Office.'”
The Hays Office was the industry’s watchdog from the days of Warren G. Harding all the way to 1964.
“It was run almost like a religious institution and was brutal on any suggestion of sexuality,” Brecher explains. “But it also challenged us to be cleverer with our scripts. Groucho said that was the biggest laugh in the picture, although today it would mean very little.”
Brecher is the only writer to have gotten solo credit on two Marx Brothers movies, “At the Circus,” and “Go West.” Now 91, he could count as the last of the Marx Brothers. His voice and timbre still sound like Groucho, and his hair often looks like Harpo’s. After his two features with them, Brecher went on to write, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and seven other musicals at MGM. He created the radio show “The Life of Riley,” which also became the first sitcom on American television in 1949. He also wrote for and forged friendships with Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Ernie Kovacs and George Burns.
“But I had been a passionate Groucho Marx worshipper since I was a kid,” he recalls. “When I was a teenager [in 1930], the night editor of the Yonkers Herald-Statesman, where I worked, gave me a movie pass–worth 25 cents! — to see ‘Animal Crackers,’ and I was on the floor. I stayed in the theater and watched it a second time. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started doing my own version of Groucho Marx.”
But nothing prepared him for meeting his idol when he was just 23.
“I was working at MGM in 1937,” Brecher remembers. “Helping spike, or punch-up, ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The great Oz producer, Mervyn Leroy, told me I was going to write a Marx Brothers picture. I couldn’t believe it. I was excited, but scared, and when he introduced me to Groucho, I’m sure that my knees were shaking and my voice, too. ‘Hello Mister Marx,’ I said, extending my hand. Groucho says, ‘Hello?’ This is the writer you’re gonna put on the picture, a guy who ad-libs hello? That’s some ad-lib.’ Groucho took me to lunch, and from then on, we became friends.”
Groucho called Brecher, “the Wicked Wit of the West.”
“I loved the nihilism of Groucho,” Brecher says. “The anarchism. I’m a complainer, a dissenter and a put-downer, and Groucho was my alter ego. He was my champion. He always defended my scripts against less-than-talented producers.”
Brecher says he wishes the Aero were screening “Go West” at the festival, too. “At the Circus” features the famous Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg song, “Lydia O Lydia,” about the tattooed lady, and gave him the chance to have Groucho playing off his favorite foil, Margaret Dumont. But among other amazing feats of humor in “Go West,” Groucho, Harpo and Chico chop up and burn down a train to keep it running. This scene led New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to label the last reel of “Go West” among the 10 funniest sequences in motion picture history.
“Well,” says Brecher, reaching for a napkin as his wife, Norma, brings over the “old Rolls,” her nickname for his walker (she’s ready to leave Label’s). “The only thing I can do is use my tongue and my brain. I can talk about the trip Groucho and I planned for Europe after ‘At the Circus,’ and how the State Department sent us a telegram warning us against it. Hitler was on the move. We ended up in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va, at the Greenbrier Hotel where after Groucho asked, ‘Is it true you run a chain of brothels coast-to-coast?’ the anti-Semites suddenly had no reservation for us. That night the movie they showed their guests was the Marx Brothers’ ‘At the Circus.’ They let the movie in, but wouldn’t let in the Jews who made it.”
Although glaucoma has hampered Brecher’s burgeoning standup career (he performed most recently at the Oasis Center and Cedars-Sinai), his wit and memory remain outrageously sharp.
“Harpo Marx loved his mezuzah,” Brecher recalls, telling one more story before leaving Labels. “Every time I saw him he had it on. He came home from a trip to New York once and when I talked to him he said, ‘I’m so annoyed. I lost my mezuzah. I’m sure I left it on the airplane.’ I said, ‘Did you have them look for it?’ Harpo said, ‘Well I left my name and described what it was. I don’t think I’ll ever see it again.’ But when I ran into him a few days later he said, ‘Can you believe it? They found my mezuzah. No kidding. They called me and said: “Mr. Marx, we have good news for you. We found your whistle. But somebody had stuffed it full of paper, which we got out so you can blow it.”‘”
Many of Brecher’s stories have to do with his faith. In fact, when asked by a Warner Brothers DVD crew to describe the Marx Brothers in one word, he answered: “Jewish.”
Irving S. Brecher will be at The Max Palevsky Theater at the Aero Cinema, 1434 Montana Ave., Santa Monica on Dec. 23., at 7:30 p.m. for the screenings of “At the Circus” and “Animal Crackers.” For more information about the festival, call (323) 466-3456.
Comedy writer Hank Rosenfeld lives in Santa Monica.