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Happy Birthday, George S. Kaufman!

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915

George S. Kaufman, circa 1915.

George S. Kaufman was born on this day, November 16, one hundred and twenty-five years ago. Kaufman has been a hero of mine since my Sophomore year in high school. During a run-through of a school production of “Born Yesterday,” I changed the wording of one line I’d been struggling with. The director/drama teacher, Mr H[orton]. B[urbank]. Rideout, objected: “Speak the author’s words, not your own.” “But I can’t make it sound natural the way it’s written. Why can’t I say it my way?” Mr Rideout replied, “For several excellent reasons, which you’ll find in Moss Hart’s ‘Act One.’ That’s your homework assignment: read ‘Act One’ by next Friday. Then we’ll talk.” I was indignant: he was totally unreasonable; I was damned if I’d read it. We had a copy of the book at home, but what of that? The following Friday, he asked if I had finished reading it. I gave him a choice piece of air: “Haven’t even started.” The way I remember it, steam shot from his ears. “Do you think I’m playing games with you? I demand that you read that book! If you don’t, as God is my witness, I’ll flunk you! That’s not a threat: that’s a promise.” When I got home that afternoon, I snatched my mother’s paperback copy from the bookshelf and, feeling every inch the martyr, began to read. After three pages, I was engrossed; halfway through, when George S. Kaufman made his first appearance, I became completely besotted. By the last page, Kaufman had become my idol. In my Senior year, Mr Rideout told me he had predicted my reaction: “I didn’t know how you’d feel about Hart, but I knew in my bones that Kaufman was the fellow for you.” After “Act One,” I read everything I could find about George S. Kaufman — to the exclusion of everything else, I’m afraid — until about five years later, when I decided to check out William Shakespeare, to see if he was up to anything.

Though George S. Kaufman is not a household name, his plays are still regularly performed all over the world (his Pulitzer Prize winning collaboration with Moss Hart, “You Can’t Take It with You,” is currently on Broadway), and his influence on the Broadway theatre and American comedy cannot be overstated. His first hit, “Dulcy,” opened in 1921; his last hit, “Silk Stockings” (music and lyrics by Cole Porter), closed in 1956. In the intervening thirty-five years, Kaufman wrote seventeen hit shows, won two Pulitzer Prizes, and directed many more, including the original “Of Mice and Men” and “Guys and Dolls” (for which he won the Tony Award). Yet the sad fact is that little of his work has aged well. Today, his craftsmanship and wit continue to be held in the highest regard, but many of his best jokes require a fairly intimate knowledge of the personalities and events of a long ago era. Unless you’re a student of the social, political and entertainment history of New York City from the years 1921 to 1955, you’re liable to miss at least half of the first-rate gags in Kaufman’s plays. Urbane, sophisticated comedy is nearly always loaded with topical humor; as a rule, it ages about as well as fish.

June Moon

Kaufman couldn’t bear to be praised, and I’ve no wish to offend his dust. I only want to remember him on his birthday. Perhaps another time, I’ll post a collection of his witty remarks (e.g., he hated to fly: “I like terra firma: the more firma, the less terra.”). For now, here are three clips from a 1974 television production of “June Moon,” which Kaufman wrote with Ring Lardner. The play opened on October 9, 1929, and was a solid enough hit to survive the stock market crash. It’s a satire about Tin Pan Alley (the term itself now belongs to antiquity). Both Kaufman and Lardner had a weakness for writing humorous verse; “June Moon” gave them plenty of opportunity to scratch that itch. Though not Kaufman’s best work, it’s a fine example of the sort of hit comedies he wrote. What it lacks in greatness, it makes up for in amiability.

These clips also let you see how Stephen Sondheim fares as an actor. Sondheim, apparently, was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing (he owed a favor to the producer, Burt Shevelove). Possibly a first-rate comic actor would do better, but Sondheim’s pretty damn good, certainly no worse than the other actors, including Jack Cassidy, Estelle Parsons, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy and Susan Sarandon. In the forties, Sondheim’s part would have been played by Oscar Levant; he’s much better than Levant; his deadpan delivery is often exactly right. The hero of the piece is a rube from Schenectady named Fred (Tom Fitzsimmons), who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of writing lyrics for hit songs. Fitzsimmons has a nice innocent face and a sweet manner, but he overplays the naïve saphead shtick; his over-emphatic delivery reminds me of Patty McCormack in “The Bad Seed,” and his gait, of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Had Kaufman been alive to direct this production, Fitzsimmons would have never been allowed to get up to such nonsense. When an actor goes this far overboard, I blame the director. Here Fred meets Maxie (Sondheim), a professional pianist, at the home of Fred’s collaborator, Paul (Jack Cassidy). When Fred begins to sing, see if you agree that Maxie’s accompaniment sounds like about ninety percent of the tunes John Kander wrote for “Chicago.”

Every one of Maxie’s lines has Kaufman’s voice in it. Kaufman’s critics and admirers often refer to his humor as being cynical; to my ear, it’s a bit sterner, truer and less sunny than cynicism. Cynicism has an element of hope cringing within it, it’s a way of lowering one’s expectations, while secretly hoping for the best. Cynics are usually optimists who try to forestall misfortune by predicting it, like the sort of people who superstitiously carry an umbrella so that it won’t rain. Kaufman’s wit isn’t cynical; it’s pessimistic: the weariness he expresses is not cynicism but gloom, based on hard experience; unlike a cynic, he’s sure to be right. When Fred says “I haven’t got the second verse yet,” Maxie’s gloomy prediction, “You won’t need one,” is funny not because it’s cynical, but because it’s true.

This next clip is from the beginning of Act II. Fred and Paul have completed “June Moon.” Fred is at the music publisher’s office with Maxie, waiting to audition the song for the head of the company, Mr Hart.

The short exchange about “Swanee River” is characteristically Kaufman — Sophie Tucker in “Strange Interlude” is unmistakably Kaufmanesque humor — and would have gotten a huge laugh back in 1929. (If the line hadn’t gotten a laugh, Kaufman would have replaced it with one that did.) But there are a few things you need to know for the joke to land. First, you have to know who Sophie Tucker was. (I heard a wag sum up Tucker’s career this way: “First she could no longer hit the high notes. Then she could no longer hit the low notes. Then she told dirty jokes. Then she waved the flag.”) You have to know that “the woman [girl, in the script] . . . that sits on the piano” refers to Helen Morgan, and you have to know who Helen Morgan was. You have to know that Helen Morgan played Julie in “Show Boat,” and sang “Bill” while sitting on a piano. You have to recognize that “Swanee River” is not from “Show Boat,” and consider it to be a preposterously stupid error to make. You have to know that “Strange Interlude” is an extremely long, serious, experimental psychological drama by Eugene O’Neill (the characters speak their subconscious thoughts aloud in long, disjointed monologues), and is therefore the last show that Sophie Tucker would ever appear in. The joke’s even better if you know that “Strange Interlude” was still running on Broadway when “June Moon” opened, and that it starred Lynn Fontanne, whose first big hit was in Kaufman’s first big hit, “Dulcy.” (The line is Kaufman’s way of kidding his old friend Fontanne; years later, “The Man Who Came to Dinner” made an entire evening out of such inside gags.) It also helps to know that “Strange Interlude” was treated with enormous respect in 1928-1929 (even though it must have bored the brains out of nearly everyone); everyone, between yawns, hailed it as a milestone in American Drama. It’s entirely possible that “June Moon” was the first time anyone poked fun at “Strange Interlude,” which would have given a lot of bite to the gag. One year later, when Scribners published “June Moon,” the line had already been changed — it was too topical. Nobody in the hinterlands knew anything about “Strange Interlude” and audiences in New York had long since forgotten about it. In the Scribners’ edition, the line reads “You’re thinking of Ruby Keeler in ‘The Wild Duck.’ ” Keeler and the Ibsen play are perhaps slightly more familiar to modern audiences, but the original gag is echt Kaufman and ten times funnier. The revision is probably Kaufman’s, but I’d say his heart wasn’t in it.

Now we hear the result of the first collaboration between Paul the tunesmith and Fred the saphead lyricist. Lardner wrote the music; Kaufman collaborated on the lyrics. I think you’ll agree that Fitzsimmons is better when he’s singing, because he stops overdoing the yokel bit.

The tune is decidedly second-rate, and the lyrics are idiotic, almost brutally awkward, but their ineptitude is matched by their earnestness, which is a nice touch, and surely not accidental. It allows us to have little respect for the songwriters’ abilities, but to be beguiled by their ambition and sincerity. Unlike the appalling stuff that the rival composer (played by Austin Pendleton) writes, “June Moon” is not beneath contempt. And when it becomes a huge hit, it’s easy to think of hit songs that have been much worse.

In this next clip, the music publisher, Mr Hart (Kevin McCarthy), is about to hear “June Moon” for the first time, but there’s one interruption after another. This clip begins after the second or third interruption.

A Night at the Opera

Kaufman is not well represented in Hollywood. He directed one picture, “The Senator Was Indiscreet,” but it’s not good: Kaufman didn’t know enough about pictures to do a first class job. The screen adaptations of his stage plays are almost without exception terrible. “A Night at the Opera” must certainly be Kaufman’s best Hollywood effort, but it’s not adapted from a stage show. I selected the three short clips below for two basic reasons: (1) they strike me as being the most representative of Kaufman’s sense of humor; and (2) they contain some of my favorite lines in the picture. You won’t find the famous stateroom scene below. Kaufman didn’t write it, but he whole-heartedly approved. Al Boasberg wrote it, without credit.

Otis B. Driftwood Doesn’t Quite Dine with Mrs Claypool


Mrs Claypool is Margaret Dumont, of course. My favorite line in the scene is Groucho’s: “Waiter, have you got any milk-fed chicken? Well, squeeze the milk out of one and bring me a glass.”

Otis B. Driftwood Asks il Signor Lassparri a Friendly Question


Walter Woolf King plays the swinish tenor, Rodolfo Lassparri (which name was lifted, many years later, for comic purposes in the Matthew Broderick/Marlon Brando vehicle “The Freshman”). Favorite line: “Can you sleep on your stomach with such big buttons on your pajamas?”

Otis B. Driftwood Speaks with Mr Henderson


Henderson is played by Robert Emmett O’Connor. Favorite line (in answer to “I’m Henderson, plainclothesman”): “You look more like an old clothesman to me.”

All three of these lines are exemplars of Kaufman’s style of humor. The adjective most frequently used to describe Kaufman’s wit is acerbic. He certainly said many acerbic things, but I don’t think it’s the most distinguishing characteristic of his style. It’s his ability to inject absurdity in places where you least expect it. He had a long, rancorous feud with producer/director Jed Harris, of whom he once said “When I die, I want to be cremated and have my ashes thrown in Jed Harris’ face.” That’s an acerbic remark, but the more interesting aspect is the weirdness of the image. It’s an acerbic remark to tell Henderson he dresses badly, but to call him an “old clothesman” puts language to an eccentric use — that’s what makes it sound like Kaufman. Of course, Morrie Ryskind may have written any one or all three of them: the point is they all sound like Kaufman; they don’t sound like anybody else (except Groucho, who idolized him); they match his personality and temperament. Kaufman never claimed authorship of any individual line or gag when he worked with collaborators. Partly, it was modesty; partly, it was because he was a true collaborator, which means that every line was likely to bear traces of Kaufman and his collaborator — except for love scenes, which Kaufman revised, but didn’t write. He was never at home with romantic scenes: he understood their importance, but hated to write them. It was one reason he nearly always worked with a collaborator.

Robert Wagner: Rico Suave

Ahoy, there! Robert Wagner in 1956.

Ahoy, there! Robert Wagner in 1956.

A few days ago, I came across the following exchange on YouTube — it’s from a video that features a Q&A session with Robert Wagner, during a TCM cruise. The clip begins with the off-screen voice of an elderly woman, identified as Aunt Helen, who is evidently in mid-sentence.

Aunt Helen: . . . well, number one . . .
Robert Wagner: Number One? I’m Number Two . . .
AH: Robert . . .
RW: Yes, dear.
AH: I fell in love with you when I was thirteen years old . . .
RW: What stateroom are you in?

Classic Robert Wagner — affable, polite, amused, likeable and slightly naughty.

Nobody can accuse Robert Wagner of having appeared in too many great pictures, but he has been in plenty of good ones; he’s unfailingly an agreeable presence, and he always, always holds his own against all comers. He’s often better than the material he appears in, and is never worse. Like many stars from the era that immediately preceded his own, his voice is immediately recognizable — it’s melodious and as easy on the ear as the rest of him is easy on the eye. Anyhow, I’ve always liked the guy: when he turns up in a picture, I’m always delighted to see him. He’s a first-rate light comedian — he’s one of the best and most graceful comic actors in the business — and he handles drama with considerable skill. But he’s best in sophisticated comedy. What’s not to like? He’s a dreamboat with a sunny disposition and a heart of gold.

In his early pictures at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he was first under contract, he was either getting killed in battle (e.g., “What Price Glory?”), or, at the very least, taking an awful beating, as in these two examples:

With a Song in My Heart

Original Poster.

Original poster.

In “With a Song in My Heart,” from 1952, Wagner appears briefly as a sweet-faced soldier whom we meet only twice. First, we see him as a fresh recruit at a performance of the recently crippled pop singer, Jane Froman (Susan Hayward). In his memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner points out that he hadn’t yet learnt to act, and that his reactions are genuine. Naturalness has always been the hallmark of Wagner’s style. His entire performance is contained in the next three clips; it’s the performance that started his whole career.

Embraceable You

It’s just possible that Susan Hayward is the biggest ham in pictures. Everything about her is phony. Here she is, painted like the Whore of Babylon, and lip-syncing to Jane Froman’s recording of “Embraceable You.” She sings/mouths much of it directly to the fantastically handsome Robert Wagner — and, ham that she is, instead of just having a good time, she “indicates” it — acts it out — like in a game of charades. Aw, fer Chrissakes, honey, stop acting! And yet, I can’t get mad at her: without her, there’d be no Charles Busch. Her brand of terrible doesn’t make me mad: it makes me laugh.

Those two gentlemen at the end of the clip are Rory Calhoun and David Wayne. Calhoun’s career was derailed by a scandal in the mid-fifties. Robert Wagner writes about it in his memoir, and in “You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age.” (Both books were co-authored by Scott Eyman; both are great fun to read.) According to Wagner, when “Confidential” (a fifties scandal magazine) was about to print a tell-all exposé of Rock Hudson’s private life, Hudson’s agent, Harry Willson, bought their silence by selling out one of his less popular clients: Rory Calhoun. Willson let them know that Calhoun had been busted on a robbery beef when he was a teenager. As Wagner puts it, “It was a simple calculation on Willson’s part — 10 percent of Rock’s salary meant a lot more than 10 percent of Calhoun’s.” The scandal ruined Calhoun’s career. Wagner also mentions that Willson died broke.

Tea for Two

Awww, he’s bashful . . . ! Look at this handsome bastard go into his innocent act. Great stuff.

“Joe . . . May we have a soft, soulful light, please?” God, look at that phony broad act . . . ! It’s remarkable how many different ways Susan Hayward finds to be artificial. Oh, I beg your pardon, this is supposed to be about Robert Wagner.

Every major studio during the fifties had a dozen or more handsome young contract players competing for the same small number of small parts, but Robert Wagner is the only real looker from that era who is still going strong. His contemporary, Tony Curtis, achieved major stardom more quickly and, at his peak, was a much bigger star than Wagner ever was, but Wagner’s career never took the nose-dives that Curtis’ did, nor did Wagner ever have to make a fool of himself in any sword and sandals epics. (“Prince Valiant” was a serious embarrassment early on, but the wig took most of blame for that one.) And Wagner is still alive and hard at it (except that he never allows it to look hard).

I’ll Walk Alone

Wagner shows up a little later in the picture, after the War has done terrible things to him. Just look at the Kabuki makeup they used to make him look ill and shell-shocked, and you know the poor boy is doomed. In those days, the more pancake makeup that was visible on an actor’s face, the closer his character was to death. In this clip, Wagner is clearly at the very gateway of the Great Divide, a victim of Hollywood’s favorite disease, pancake poisoning.

In “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner writes:

I’m embarrassed to say that I read the script and didn’t see it. “This isn’t very much,” I told Darryl [Zanuck, head of the studio]. And with great patience, he told me, “This will be the biggest break you will have had in your career. You will be on the screen for three minutes. When people come out of the theater, they will want to know who you are.”

That was the last time I questioned Darryl Zanuck’s judgment about the movies. I was too young to realize that Darryl was placing me, sculpting moments for me that would compel the audience’s attention. He was taking very good care of me.

After “With a Song in My Heart” was released, Wagner began to receive thousands of fan letters a week and his career was on its way.

For the record, Wagner also has nothing but praise for Susan Hayward: he gives her most of the credit for his effectiveness in the scene. His loyalty to the actress does him credit, but still I beg to differ. His performance still looks real today; hers is one hundred percent baloney. (She was nominated for an Oscar, of course, but lost to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”)

Stars and Stripes Forever

Original poster.

Original Poster.

Prim, swishy, desiccated Clifton Webb was an early mentor to Wagner; characteristically, Wagner has only good things to say about him. They made two pictures together (“Titanic” was the other), but I find it especially funny to see Webb in his John Philip Sousa whiskers and suffering agonies of desire for Wagner in “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952). Musical biopics are almost without exception spectacularly terrible, but “Stars and Stripes Forever” is among the worst of the lot; “bottom of the barrel” doesn’t begin to describe it: it’s the slime underneath the barrel. It is remarkably, hilariously, memorably bad. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Clifton Webb is less dreadful than usual (bad material agrees with him better than good stuff), but it’s Robert Wagner who really holds my interest. He is so outrageously handsome that every time he’s onscreen I begin to laugh: how can anyone look that good? Debra Paget is the sex-kitten, but Wagner’s a whole lot prettier than she is. The role he’s playing is impossible, but he’s funny and charming in it.

This clip should give you a fair idea of what the whole picture is like:

Well, you can see for yourself that the material is atrocious, but Wagner’s self-possession is pretty remarkable, considering his inexperience. And I enjoy watching poor old Clifton eating him with his eyes (this is more apparent in other scenes than in the clip above). Later on in the picture, Wagner’s character loses a leg — a rum go for a fellow whose chief desire is to be in a marching band. I’ve uploaded a longish clip of the last scene on YouTube (it’s called “Wagner lo Zoppo”), but I’ve decided not to offer it here. It really is too crummy, even for here, where lousiness has often been celebrated. But there are limits.

The Pink Panther

Re-release poster.

Re-release Poster. The artwork is by Mad Magazine cartoonist, Jack Rickard.

“The Pink Panther” (Mirisch Company, 1963) is the first Robert Wagner picture I ever saw. I was just a little kid at the time, but he made an indelible impression on me: I thought he was the swellest guy I’d ever seen. He doesn’t have to do much in this next clip except be debonair, get the lighter to work on the first try, and keep a straight face — he does each to perfection.

Meglio Stasera

He has even less to do in this clip. He only has to sit next to David Niven and listen to gorgeous Fran Jeffries sing “Meglio Stasera,” but I like how well he does it. He gives her his full attention and never takes his eyes off her. Peter Sellers never stops trying to steal scenes; he often succeeds, but not always — anyhow, as far as Sellers is concerned, every scene he’s in is about him. Wagner is content to put the focus where it belongs. Sellers is funny, all right, but I constantly find myself wishing he’d do less. I prefer Capucine and Wagner.

Shwing Time

I love this brief clip of Wagner and Capucine. She needs to find a way to make him keep his trap shut, so she uses the age-old, time-honored, sure-fire method of securing silence and cooperation: she gives him a boner.

In the Clink with Niven

Here he is near the end of the picture, completely holding his own in the presence of David Niven and Peter Sellers.

Harper

Original poster.

Original poster.

“Harper” (Warner Bros, 1966) has what is generally regarded as Wagner’s best performance. He rarely has had the opportunity to play so many different emotions as he does in this one.

Here’s how we first meet him. That’s Pamela Tiffin on the diving board. On William Goldman’s amusing, often cantankerous commentary track, the first sight of Miss Tiffin all but knocks the wind out of him: “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” he says almost incredulously. Yes she is.

How many actors are able to say “Top o’ the morning” and sound hip? Not even Paul Newman sounds right saying it. But Wagner . . . well, as Brando once said of John Gielgud, “That cat is down!”

Here he is in what is probably the most dramatic scene of his movie career. He’s perhaps a little bit of a lightweight for this sort of thing, but then again, Alan Taggart is supposed to be something of a lightweight. I don’t think anyone else could play it better than he does.

By the way, the girlfriend/singer in question, whom Newman calls “that Fraley broad,” is played by Julie Harris. Her singing must be heard to be believed: when Newman says she’s a no-talent, he’s not kidding. Lauren Bacall is also on hand in an amusing role — she’s the rich bitch who hires Newman to find her missing husband. We’re supposed to believe she’s paralyzed after a fall from a horse, but in one scene, we can see her easily move her fabulous legs. This would seem to be a clue to the mystery, but it turns out to be merely an error. But it’s never a mistake to have a good look at Bette Bacall’s sensational gams.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

Poster for Italian release.

Poster for Italian release.

This essay began with a reference to Wagner’s comic turn as Dr Evil’s henchman, Number Two, and that is where I’ll end. Number Two is a role Wagner was born to play. Here is his first entrance.

You get the idea. In “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (New Line, 1997) it’s a running gag to have the jokes go on far too long.

And here we see Number Two cheating at cards. You will note that the Soup Nazi (Larry Thomas) is the dealer — and he’s still in a bad mood.