“I’ll bet your father spent the first year of your life
throwing rocks at the stork.”
Irving Brecher with Groucho Marx
I happen to be watching one of my favorite musicals, Bye Bye Birdie the other day. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times, but I was unaware who wrote the screenplay, so I Googled the movie.
The screenplay was written by Irving Brecher. Known by his friends and colleagues as one of the funniest, wittiest men on the planet.
What’s that you say, you’ve never heard of Irving Brecher?
Yes you have. Have you heard of the Marx Brothers? Milton Berle? The Wizard of Oz? Meet Me in St. Louis? Then you’ve heard of Irv Brecher.
He was born in the Bronx on January 17, 1914, and grew up in Yonkers. After a brief stint covering high school sports for a local newspaper, he took a job as an usher and ticket taker at a Manhattan movie theater, where he learned from a critic for Variety that he could earn money writing jokes for comedians.
So at just 19 years old, being the resourceful young man he was, Irving Brecher placed an ad in Variety that read in part: “Positively Berle-proof gags. So bad not even Milton will steal them.” Milton Berle saw the ad and hired him immediately.
This launched Brecher’s career and in 1937, he moved to Hollywood and began working on scripts for Mervyn LeRoy, a prominent producer at MGM. He was an uncredited script doctor on The Wizard of Oz and was hired to punch up the comedy scenes in the movie. Mostly the vaudeville-like bickering between the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. He didn’t get credit for this gig but his lines helped make the film a timeless classic and prompted Groucho Marx to begin calling Brecher, “The Wicked Wit of the West.”
Mr. Brecher received sole screenplay credit for two Marx Brothers films, a feat in itself. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his musical screenplay for Meet Me in St. Louis. The musical was one of Judy Garland’s biggest hits. The story goes that Garland initially didn’t want to make the movie, but Brecher talked her into making the movie by reading her the script.
In a 2001 interview Brecher was asked who he liked writing for the most? He said he found it easiest to write for Groucho. “I’m a complainer, a dissenter and a put-downer,” he said. “He was my alter ego. I liked the anarchism.”
He died in 2008 at the age of 94. He was one of the last great golden-age screenwriters of his era.