Friday, June 26, 2009

S.J. Perelman Revivisected

S.J. Perelman, 1961. Photo by Carl Mydans. From the Life Magazine Archives.

S.J. Perelman, whom I featured in an earlier post, was a brilliant humorist. His relationship with the Marx Brothers in general, and Groucho in particular, was a stormy one. Groucho was a fan of Perelman's prose, including his first book, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, of which Groucho wrote, "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day, I intend reading it." Groucho subsequently asked Perelman to work on a radio script for the Marx Brothers. His cowriter was W.B. Johnstone, who had written the Marx Brothers' stage show I'll Say She Is. The writers came up with the idea of the Marx Brothers as stowaways on a luxury oceanliner. Groucho liked the idea so much, he convinced Paramount Pictures to hire Perelman and Johnstone to write the next Marx Brothers movie. When Perelman arrived in Hollywood from New York, producer Herman J. Mankiewicz told Perelman that the Marx Brothers were "mercurial, devious, and ungrateful. I hate to depress you, but you'll rue the day you ever took the assignment. This is an ordeal by fire. Make sure you wear asbestos pants." Mankiewicz' words came true when Perelman read the completed script to the Marx Brothers. After he finished, Groucho said (depending on which version of the story you believe) either, "It stinks," or "I think we need a script."

Over the ensuing months, with the input of the brothers and other writers, an acceptable script for Monkey Business was produced. When Monkey Business was released in 1931, Arthur Sheekman received credit for the screenplay. Even though Perelman was uncredited, undoubtedly some of his material remained in the script.

Perelman hated Hollywood, but stayed around long enough to work on the script for Horse Feathers, for which he, along with Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, did receive screen credit when it was released in 1932.

After he left Hollywood, Perelman resented the fact that much of of his reputation was based on his relatively brief association with the Marx Brothers, of whom he said, "I did two films with them, which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at ten-minute intervals until the blood spurted from his frame than ever work for those sons of bitches again."

The interested reader may want to read a more in-depth and thoroughly engaging profile of S.J. Perelman by Becky Karush at her blog.


  1. Haha, great post! I didn't know that the Marx Bros were so ungrateful writing for, besides them always ad-libbing and coming late to the set. Well written, fellow Marxist!

  2. Things have been hectic. I missed my Marx Brothers fix.

  3. Lo,
    Thanks. I'm sure that as entertaining as we find the brothers, they were equally annoying to work with.

    Did you ever stop to think that if you were a Latin teacher (if such a thing exists anymore), you could be Pater CLXVII? Welcome back.

  4. I always thought Groucho was a bit jealous of old S.J, or S as I call him, which is unusual for him. He was normally hugely appreciative of comic writers and generous in his praise of them. But some of his more waspish comments about the Perel Man seemed tinged with resentment at his getting credit for Marx material. Not sure why that would be, or even if I'm imagining it.
    What do you think?

  5. Matthew,
    It's hard to say what was at the heart of the animosity between Perelman and Groucho. There's no question that by the time Anobile interviewed Groucho for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, their relationship was beyond strained. Groucho got testy when Anobile persisted in asking about Perelman, and Perelman refused to be interviewed at all for the book. There may have been some underlying jealousy. Groucho fancied himself a writer, was proud of his friendship with T.S. Eliot, and resented the fact that the writers of the Algonquin Round Table embraced Harpo.

  6. In the Marx Bros. Scrapbook, Groucho reacts rather scathingly to Anobile's reference to Perelman i.e. He's bored to tears about talking about the Marx Bros. When Perelman went to visit Groucho in his bedroom in the late 70s, he asked him, "Do you mind if I smoke?" Groucho replied, "I don't care if you burn." Their letters, however, seem to reveal a friendly, mutually respectful relationship.

  7. I think it was S.J. who accused Groucho of stealing his visage ; the
    big bushy eyebrows and moustache ! Any-
    way, I read Perelman every day, I still
    laugh out loud and delight in his ver-
    bage . And I'm only 60. Life just
    wouldn't be the same w/o him.