That Old Feeling: Perelmania

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Smitten by adventures novels and Graustarkian romances, young Sid was also in thrall to the silent screen, its gaud and goddesses — especially Jedda Goudal, the tempestuous Dutch-born diva whose picture hung in Perelman’s studio 40 years later, and Nita Naldi, cavortress with Barrymore in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Valentino in “Blood and Sand,” and “down whom, as I once wrote, it was my boyhood ambition to coast down on a Flexible Flyer.” (In his 40s and 50s he would write a series called “Cloudland Revisited,” in which he reminisced about the books and films of his youth; a rereading or reviewing usually shook him awake rudely.)

The Marx Brothers called in 1930 and paired him with comic-strip writer Will B. Johnstone. The two devised a radio skit about four stowaways on a transatlantic cruise ship; the Marxes thought the premise could sustain their first original movie. Thus began a brief, tumultuous relationship with a long, acrid tail: Sid rueing that the films had lent him more celebrity than his “real” writing, Groucho complaining that Perelman got too much credit for a community effort.

With Johnstone, Arthur Sheekman, producer Herman Mankiewicz and the Brothers adding their salt to the scenarial stew, it’s hard to know what is Perelman. But “Monkey Business,” at least in Groucho’s dialogue, has familiar echoes. Examples: “That’s what they said to Thomas Edison, mighty inventor; Thomas Lindbergh, mighty flyer; and Thomaschewski, mighty like a rose.” ... “What’s the capital of Nebraska? What’s the capital of the First National Bank?” ... Thelma: “You’re very shy for a lawyer.” Groucho: “You bet I am. I’m a shyster lawyer.” ... “You’re a woman who’s been getting nothing but dirty breaks. But we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you’ll have to stay in the garage all night.” ... A tough guy wants Groucho and his brother Zeppo to plug a rival with the gats (guns) he gave them. Groucho: “Well, we had to drown the gats. But we saved you a little black gitten.” ... Groucho to mob boss: “Your overhead is too high and your brow is too low.”

Perelman says that Groucho complained of the script’s recherché references, and was particularly vexed that one speech, parodying “The Merry Widow,” had to be trimmed to the phrase, “Come, Kapellmeister!” in fact, it’s all there (“Ah, ’tis midsummer madness, the music is my temples, the hot blood of youth! Come, Kapellmeister, let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn!”). The most famous couplet in “Horse Feathers” also sounds Siddish. Secretary: “The Dean is furious. He’s waxing wroth.” Groucho: “Is Roth out there too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.”

However chaotic the Marx Brothers experience, it at least put some of Perelman’s words in movies. Few subsequent screenwriting gigs, which Perelman usually took with his wife (and always for the money) accomplished even that. Sid’s story “Did You Ever See Irving Plain” tells of one such excursion, to MGM in 1936-37, to massage a wan scenario called “Greenwich Village” into shape for Joan Crawford. Prideful Sid would have junked the assignment if not for his wife’s purse sense, “God knows it isn’t Flaubert, but it’s better than picking lettuce in the Imperial Valley.”

So they reported to the Culver City writers’ quarters, “colloquially known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,” to await an audience with his holiness Irving Thalberg, the studio’s legendary production chief. For months they dawdled, with mounting asperity, until “my wife and I seriously began to question whether Thalberg even existed, whether he might not be a solar myth or deity concocted by the front office to garner prestige.” (Thalberg’s unavailability may be explained by his death in September 1936; the Perelman adventure perhaps occurred in 1935-36.) The anecdote is capped by a materialization of the mogul: he addresses an angry posse of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights whose heels are similarly freon-cool, and by evening the Perelmans are again unemployed.

Sid and Laura weren’t in L.A. because they liked it. He quipped that studio bosses “had foreheads only by dint of electrolysis” and called Hollywood “A dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched.” Decades later, standing at Hollywood and Vine a year before his death, Perelman took a misanthrope’s pleasure in realizing that “The human tide flowing sluggishly by me was unchanged. If many were Hare Krishnas, a sect of loafers undreamt of in the thirties, most of the pedestrians were the same old screwballs — losers of beauty contests, Texas gigolos, nature fakers, shoe salesmen and similar voyeurs, absconding bank cashiers, unemployed flagellants, religious messiahs, and jail bait. Did there exist anywhere, I wondered, a Hogarth or a Hieronymus Bosch who could do justice to these satanic troglodyte faces preoccupied with unimaginable larcenies and Schweinerei?”


In his later comments on the Marx Brothers, Perelman vacillated between generosity and steely contempt. In 1967 he told interviewer Roy Newquist: “My particular friend was Groucho, and I’ve happily been able to remain great friends with him ever since. I have great esteem for Groucho Marx. He has a very quick and civilized mind.” A decade later he had sharpened his recollection, or his razor: “The Marxes were boorish; they were ungrateful. It was a very uneasy combination. Harpo was the nicest brother.”

Though Groucho and Perelman are sometimes seen as half of one character — the id and the brain — they are more opposites than siblings. Groucho was ever a-prowl, a predatory creature whose mission was mischief. The Perelman character, on the page, didn’t seek trouble; he stumbled into it. Skeptical but hapless, too weathered in the ways of chicanery to be gulled again, yet fated to suffer more indignities, he was typically the victim of characters like Groucho.

Groucho’s comedy was aggressive, given to breaking things. Perelman’s wit was reactive, observational, contemplative. A famous Hirschfeld sketch has the writer lounging on a divan, in the languid, Cheshire Cat mode of the young Truman Capote, or Mme. Recamier, the salon keeper immortalized in oils by Jacques Louis David. From his Manhattan couch, Bucks County porch swing or ocean-liner deck chair, he watches the world’s folly and his own. The Perelman persona is a clod who won’t admit it. The writer Perelman was a craftsman who agonized over his linguistic conceits. He knew what the millions who see a comic piece or a script or film and think they could do as well don’t know: making art look easy is hard work.

His mouthpiece on this subject was Goddard Quagmeyer, the middle-rung painter in “The Beauty Part.” Asked how aspiring artists might know “whether they really have the creative spark,” he snaps, “If it sets fire to your pants” — a definition as poetic as it is cynical. Quagmeyer lays out the Perelman theory of conspicuous presumption: “Every housewife in the country’s got a novel under her apron.... And the dentists are even worse. Do you realize there are twice as many dentists painting in their spare time as there are painters practicing dentistry?” All this amateur competition makes it rough on the professionals (like Perelman), who have these words of advice, born of painful experience: “Lay off the Muses — it’s a very tough dollar.”

On his 100th birthday week, I want to thank S.J. Perelman for being a role model in the crafting of words, the creating of a comic world. A half-century ago, and today, he set fire to my pants.

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