Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Irving Brecher, Hail and Farewell!


He wrote for the Marx Brothers and lived to see South Park. Now that's what you call living through a whole lifetime of entertainment.
No wonder he's died. Wouldn't you?
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Irving Brecher was the only man to ever get solo writing credit on a Marx Brothers movie. He was also a good friend of Groucho's and, if rumours be believed, an occasional stand-in for him in MGM publicity photos when the man himself was elsewhere. As you can see, they do look sort of similar. (He's the one on the left.)

Brecho, who also wrote lots of proper films including Meet Me In St Louis, was 94. I'm not going to get sentimental and claim that either of his efforts were great Marx Brothers films; in fact Go West gets my vote as the worst, and by a pretty safe margin.
But Brecher is not the man to blame. For one thing, one man in a room on his own is simply not how great Marx scripts get written: they need the energy of noisy collaboration, the escalating invention that comes of great writers coming up with toppers, then topping the toppers, then topping the topper that topped the topper.

Secondly, a great Marx Brothers film needs energy from the performers, and by the time they made At The Circus and Go West the boys were almost completely devoid of enthusiasm, spontaneity and improvisational spark. They just go through the motions, so that even Brecher's best lines don't get the treatment they deserve.

Most importantly, and not coincidentally, these films suffer from the MGM effect. MGM was where great comedians went to die; they simply had no idea about comedy, and no qualms about enforcing that ignorance on the comedians they hired. The Brothers had found something approaching a kindred spirit in Irving Thalberg, the young maverick who saved their careers with A Night at the Opera, but when he suddenly died during production of A Day at the Races they were left to the mercy of Louis Mayer, who hated them.

MGM were literal about everything; everything had to be explained, nothing could be funny for the sake of it. They understood nothing of comedy characterisation, and set about ruining the Marx screen personae with the same zeal they wielded to finish Keaton and would soon use to poleaxe Stan Laurel.
The Paramount Marxes were spirits, ideas floating on air, with no more substance than the sum total of the words they said and the things they did. At MGM they're wacky. They're funny fellows. Chico is an obtuse simpleton with a meaningless foreign accent, Harpo is a figure of puckish near-pathos, and Groucho is a funny conman, a wisecracking incompetent sporting - in both Brecher movies - an obvious and repulsive wig.

These are the problems Brecher inherited along with the commission and it should be said that, especially in At The Circus, he makes a far better job of it that we have any right to expect. Look past the MGM sheen, and Groucho's wig, and Harpo's sneezing, and there's plenty to enjoy. It's an under-rated film, not far below the standard of A Day At The Races, its somewhat over-rated predecessor.
The scene where Harpo and Chico search the strongman's room is vintage stuff, as is the final image of the orchestra floating obliviously out to sea; the Groucho-Dumont scene is good enough, and there are a couple of good moments in the gala dinner - Groucho counting the heads and musing on the unlikelihood of getting seconds, and stalling for time with "I'll have another cup of coffee!", the film's equivalent of "and two hard-boiled eggs".

I also like the scene with the midget and the cigars. So what if it's out of character? So was the tutsi-fruitsi ice cream sketch in Races. At this stage of the game, I say if it's funny be grateful for it. The days when you could afford to be picky about this sort of thing were long gone by this point. Likewise, the slapstick finale may well be a cruel misuse of the team's true talents, but it's good fun.

So no, Irving Brecher did not write great Marx Brothers movies. But as James Agee wrote of A Night In Casablanca: "It is beside the main point to add that it isn't one of their best movies; for the worst they might ever make would be better worth seeing than most other things I can think of."
My sentiments exactly. Irving Brecher, hail and farewell.