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BOOK REVIEW

Making 'em laugh

By Mark Griffin
Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2009
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In 1964, Groucho Marx was asked which of his contemporaries he considered fastest on the draw in terms of "one-line impromptus." Marx replied, "George S. Kaufman, Oscar Levant, and Irving Brecher." Irving Brecher? Before his death last year, at 94, screenwriter and professional curmudgeon Brecher was one of Hollywood's best-kept secrets. Which is surprising when you consider that he turned out scripts for the likes of Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Dick Van Dyke, and Lucille Ball.

While even the most devout movie buffs may not know Brecher's name, his contributions to cinema are unforgettable. The sight of Groucho wooing matronly Margaret Dumont in "At the Circus" may have been a rib-tickler to begin with, but it was Brecher's inspired dialogue that made their pairing truly hilarious: "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. Ah, Hildegard!"

Thankfully, that kind of irreverent brilliance is on ample display in "The Wicked Wit of the West," Brecher's entertaining memoir written in collaboration with erudite disciple Hank Rosenfeld. With chapters titled "The Angel of Death, in Yiddish" and "Girls! Berle! Catskills!," the reader is immediately alerted to the fact that this overview of Brecher's multifaceted career is far more Buddy Hackett than John Houseman in tone and, therefore, a lot more fun.

Brimming with delectable anecdotes and presented as a series of engaging interviews, Brecher's look back is like leafing through a scrapbook with your favorite crotchety uncle.

A sizable chunk of the memoir recounts the gag-master's friendship and screen collaborations with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx, and it's interesting to discover just how much of their sublime lunacy is attributable to their favorite scribe. For all his success with raucous comedies, it was Brecher's script for a sumptuous period musical that brought him his greatest acclaim and an Academy Award nomination. A slew of screenwriters had taken a crack at adapting Sally Benson's "Kensington Stories," which had been serialized in The New Yorker. Character driven and virtually plot free, Benson's nostalgic tales concerned her quirky family in turn-of-the-century St. Louis. Brecher not only distilled the essence of Benson's prose in his masterful screenplay for "Meet Me in St. Louis," he also persuaded a reluctant Judy Garland to star in the film. Released in 1945, the movie was both a critical and commercial triumph.

Brecher next authored a pair of offbeat MGM musicals that were costly flops in their day, though both have achieved cult status: Vincente Minnelli's Dadaist fantasy "Yolanda and the Thief" and Rouben Mamoulian's "Summer Holiday," a variation on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," and an attempt to replicate the phenomenal success of "Meet Me in St. Louis." In the '50s, Brecher was blacklisted, and although he managed to find work in television, a period of artistic decline followed. In 1963, he bounced back with a splashy adaptation of the Broadway smash "Bye Bye Birdie" starring Ann-Margret, though this proved to be his last major studio production.

In later years, Brecher was a much-sought-after interview subject, since he could be counted on for eminently quotable observations on his colleagues (on John Wayne: "The brave, patriotic hero of Hollywood who went and fought three war films for his country"; on Bob Hope: "I was surprised that Bob Hope died, because there's no money in it").

Brecher elevated the wisecrack into an art form and wrote some of the most original films of the studio era. After feeding lines to some of Hollywood's finest, the "wicked wit" finally gets the last word in this irresistible memoir.

Mark Griffin is the author of a forthcoming biography of director Vincente Minnelli.

THE WICKED WIT OF THE WEST: The Last Great Golden Age Screenwriter Shares the Hilarity and Heartaches of Working With Groucho, Garland, Gleason, Burns, Berle, Benny, and Many More By Irving Brecher as told to Hank Rosenfeld

Ben Yehuda, 332 pp., illustrated, paperback, $25

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