Thursday, February 01, 2007


Friend and reader Jen wrote me an e-mail this morning to remind me that today would have been John Ford’s 112th birthday, and since it looks like I’ll have a free evening at home tonight, perhaps it’s finally time to dig into that Ford/Wayne box set—I’ve had my eye on The Long Voyage Home for a while now, and this could be the night. Happy birthday, Pappy.

But of even more interest, insofar as it is likely to be less noted, is that humorist and sometime screenwriter S.J. Perelman would have been 103 years old today. From today’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac, here’s Garrison Keillor on Perelman:

“It's the birthday of humorist S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman, born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He started working as a cartoonist when he was in college, but he eventually switched to writing humorous essays for various magazines, including The New Yorker. His friend Groucho Marx persuaded him to come to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but Perelman hated Hollywood. He called it, 'a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and a taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched.' And he said, '[Working there] was no worse than playing the piano in a whorehouse.'

He eventually went back to writing essays for
The New Yorker and published many collections, including The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966). Much of his work is collected in Most of the Most of S.J. Perelman (2000).

Perelman was famous for his bizarre, absurdist humor. One of his essays begins, 'I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws.'"

And here, just because Perelman may have had a hand in writing it, is Professor Wagstaff’s brilliantly nonsensical classroom lecture from Horsefeathers. Professor Wagstaff (Groucho) is “teaching” a class, and Baravelli (Chico) decides to engage the prof in a little back-and-forth:
Wagstaff: As you know, there is constant warfare between the red and white corpuscles. Now then, baboons, what is a corpuscle?

Baravelli: That's easy. First there's a captain. Then there's a lieutenant. Then there's a corpuscle.

Wagstaff: That's fine. Why don't you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out? We now find ourselves among the Alps. The Alps are a very simple people living on a diet of rice and old shoes. Beyond the Alps lies more Alps, and the Lord Alps those that Alps themselves. We then come to the bloodstream. The blood rushes from the head down to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again. This is known as auction pinochle. Now in studying your basic metabolism, we first listen to your heartsbeat. And if your hearts beat anything but diamonds and clubs, it's because your partner is cheating - or your wife...Now take this point for instance (He points to a horse's ass placed over an anatomy chart - a picture of Pinky's beloved horse that he placed there when Wagstaff wasn't looking) That reminds me, I haven't seen my son all day. Well, the human body takes many strange forms. Now here is a most unusual organ. The organ will play a solo immediately after the feature picture. Scientists make these deductions by examining a rat, or your landlord, who won't cut the rent. And what do they find? Asparagus! Now, on closer examination-- (Pinky—played by Harpo-- has now placed a picture of his ballerina beauty over Wagstaff's anatomy chart) Hmm! This needs closer examination. In fact, it needs a nightgown. Baravelli, who's responsible for this? Is this your picture?

Baravelli: I no think so. It doesn't look like me.

Happy birthday, S.J. Perelman. Say hello to Groucho, Chico, Harpo and, of course, Zeppo.

1 comment:

Peter Nellhaus said...

If you do a double feature of Horse Feathers with The Long Voyage Home, this can be followed by a discussion regarding Chico Marx's Italian accent versus John Wayne's Swedish accent.