Two days ago, we lost one of the last surviving writers of not only Radio’s Golden Age but the era of classic movies as well. Irving Brecher has gone on to his rich reward at the age of 94.
I’m saddened at the news of Brecher’s passing for many reasons. First off, I was fortunate enough to recently receive a galley copy of Brecher’s autobiography (as told to Hank Rosenfeld), The Wicked Wit of the West—due to be published by Ben Yehuda Press on January 17, 2009. The date would have marked the observance of Irv’s 95th birthday, so it’s devastating that he won’t be around to enjoy the fruits of his labor—a very funny book (I’m reading it now) containing scores of anecdotes about Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, Jackie Gleason, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jack Benny and many more (even Arch Oboler!).
Secondly, the influence of Brecher’s Silver Screen contributions is simply immeasurable. He was the only screenwriter to receive solo credit for two Marx Brothers films: At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). He scripted two of Lucille Ball’s best MGM features (and speaks very highly of her in Wicked Wit), Best Foot Forward (1943) and DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). But his crowning achievement is probably the 1944 musical classic (for which he received a Best Screenplay Oscar nom), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)—a film beloved by so many that it’s become an annual event around Christmas time in the same vein as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). (Among his other notable screenplays: Shadow of the Thin Man , Yolanda and the Thief , and Bye Bye Birdie …he was also responsible for much of the comic dialogue of Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz .)
But lastly—being an OTR fan—I revere Brecher for taking a failed audition program (The Flotsam Family) for Groucho Marx and revamping it into one of the all-time great radio sitcoms: The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix. I have never made any secret of the fact that I’m a huge fan of this series, from its radio days to feature film (written and directed by Brecher, and one of the best radio-to-movie transplants ever) to television pioneer. Brecher adapted Riley—at his own expense—for TV in 1949 and gave audiences a quick glimpse at a future star on the tube by casting a then-unknown Jackie Gleason in the title role (Bendix was under contract to Hal Roach at the time, and Roach forbid him to do any TV). The series lasted only a season (despite winning an Emmy for Best Comedy Series) but later turned up again in 1953 on NBC when Brecher leased the show’s rights to the network (and that version succeeded, due to Bendix’s participation). (Brecher also tasted a brief bit of television success as the creator-producer of The People’s Choice, a 1955-58 dom-com starring Jackie Cooper and a basset hound named Cleo.)
R.I.P, Irv. You’ll never know how much you’ll be missed.