The Wicked Wit Of The West

by Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld

Virtually the last man standing from the era of vaudeville, radio comedy, and the Marx Brothers’ heyday, the screenwriter of Meet Me in St. Louis, and the creator of The Life of Riley, Irving Brecher had a long, amazing career, but he never gave serious thought to writing an autobiography. Then an ardent admirer named Hank Rosenfeld insinuated himself into the nonagenarian’s life, becoming a friend and confidant and wisely taking a tape recorder along every time he spoke to Brecher or accompanied him to an event.

The result is an unconventional but entertaining book, full of great stories, wonderful show business memories, rants and salty opinions. (Told by Rosenfeld that I don’t credit writers in my Movie Guide—which is not entirely true—Brecher hurls a profanity in my direction.) It also offers a bittersweet portrait of old age, although Brecher refuses to surrender to sentiment. In one of their last conversations, Rosenfeld asks the 94-year-old what he would like as an epitaph. He replies, “Here lies Irv Brecher, who doesn’t recommend it.”

Brecher sold his first jokes to young, up-and-coming vaudevillian Milton Berle in the early 1930s, never dreaming that he could make a living as a writer. By the end of that decade he was under contract to MGM, where he crafted the scripts for two Marx Brothers movies, At the Circus and Go West, and formed a close, long-term friendship with Groucho. One of the joys of this book is its illustrations; there aren’t many but what’s there is cherce. Script pages from the Marx Brothers films show how Groucho’s dialogue was written and revised. Pictures bear witness to Brecher’s claim that he stood in at a hurried photo session for a stage tour of Go West—only to discover that his picture, in Groucho makeup, was reprinted for years to come as if it were the real Julius Marx. Another anecdote involving the writer and Jack Benny pulling a practical joke on director Mervyn LeRoy might seem like a tall tale if there weren’t photographic evidence to back it up.

If you love vintage show business, this book is a must-read. Prepare yourself for conversational detours, trips to the local deli, and a lot of anger over George W. Bush. And be ready to appreciate a man who never got the attention he deserved. (Irving Brecher died just as this book was going to press, late last year. He couldn’t have asked for a better testament to a life well lived.) (Ben Yehuda Press)

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June 2024