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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Jan. 16, 2005 | 9:08 PM

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An Interview with Irving Brecher (Meet Me In St. Louis)

Just a little background before the interview…...
Irving Brecher is the last surviving screenwriter from MGM’s golden age.  He was born in Janurary of 1914 in New York City.  He began his career working at the Yonker’s Herald as a newspaper reporter.  He also wrote for radio working with stars such as Milton Berle and Al Jolson.  Writing At The Circus(1939) for the Marx Brothers was his big break in the feature film business.  He wrote for them again with the film Go West (1940).  During the 1940s Brecher was hard at work writing musicals for MGM such as Du Barry Was A Lady (1943), Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and Summer Holiday (1948).  He wrote and directed “The Life of Reilly” which played on the radio in 1943 and was a huge hit.  He also wrote the Betty Hutton musical Somebody Loves Me (1952) and adapted Bye Bye Birdie (1963). 
Due to time constaints our chat was brief, but it was a true honor to have met Mr. Brecher.  His work has left an indelible mark on the pages of Hollywood history. 
Note: These questions are from me and also Dennis Michael (formerly of CNN Showbiz today):
An Interview with IRVING BRECHER (Nov. 4, 2002)
What made you want to pursue a career in the film business?
Well, It?s hard to answer.  This goes way back.  I was trying to make a living and it happens I fell into comedy.  I wrote vaudeville, something that most people today have never seen.  Then beginning in 1933, when I was 19, I started to write for up and coming comedian named Milton Berle in NY.  That led to going to the coast with Berle because I was then writing his radio show and it had to emanate from the coast because he was making a movie.  While I was writing the radio show here in Hollywood, the producer of the movie insisted that I re-write the script of the movie because it wasn?t working.  So I did that job while I was writing radio.  When you are young, you can do anything.  You can work 22 hours a day.  It doesn?t matter.  So that was exciting.  Having written a movie, my agent came to me and said that a producer at Warner Bros. Liked the radio show and wanted to know if he could meet the writer.  My agent took me over.  His name was Mervyn Le Roy.  He had made some classic movies from way back like I’m a Fugitive From A Chain Gang.  He had discovered Lana Turner.  He signed me to a writing contract.  That led to here.  So to answer your question, what made me want to do it?there is no answer except that was my fate and I was lucky that I managed to get this far.
Are there any movies that influenced you as a child growing up?
No.  I can?t say that I was influenced by any movies.  I loved movies, but I didn?t find any particular movie that meant anything to me in terms of direction.  I didn?t try to write anything that I?d seen before. 
So you got started writing vaudeville?
Writing vaudeville, comedy for Milton Berle a stand up comedian who also went on to have a fantastic career.
You also wrote for Al Jolson.
I wrote a radio show for Al Jolson.  Al Jolson could make people sick.  He was the roughest guy I ever dealt with, but a great great talent.  He was the best on stage entertainer that we?ve ever had.  He could sing, he could act, he could be funny, BUT he was really NOT a nice fellow.
I just saw the restored print at UCLA of Mammy (starring Al Jolson).
That?s one of his lesser pictures.  The Jazz Singer of course is the classic.
What was it like working in radio vs. vaudeville vs. film? 
Well vaudeville?.you wrote your comedy, you gave it to the actor and he broke it in.  It worked or it didn?t work.  In radio there was a deadline.  It was a sweat to do a show every week.  I know because I started my own radio show called ?The Life of Reilly? in January 1944.  It is still running around the world, it?s on cassettes and it?s being sold in stores.  It was a great experience!  It was the first situation comedy.  I didn?t know that term at the time, but that?s what it was.  It was exciting to do. The deadline made it exciting.  You had to have a show that was 26 minutes exactly.  I want to say one more thing about radio.  My most fond memory of ?The Life of Reilly? radio show was the fact that one day at about the end of the first year, we were about to be cancelled.  The show that I was putting on?..this was at 3pm in the afternoon in New York at ABC and had practically no audience.  The show was short 2 minutes, and I was desperate to fill the 2 minutes.  To fill the two minutes, I lucked into a character.  The producer sitting there said ?You?re crazy!  The sponsor will go crazy!?  It was an undertaker, and I gave him a name?Igby O?Dell, the friendly undertaker.  I gave him a nickname-Digger.  So I wrote 2 minutes of Digger O?Dell the undertaker coming to the house, knocking on the door in his strange sepulchral voice (which I can?t mimic) was hilarious.  He scared the wits out of Mrs. Reilly.  His questions and his implications?.he became the reason why the show became successful and ran eight more years.  The audience in the studio screamed.  The next morning the advertising agency that handled the show called and said the sponsor was furious.  He does not want you to repeat the undertaker character-it?s too grim and sad.  Then he said, ?To heck with what the sponsor wants?I think you are on to something!?  So I did it the next Sunday and then mail started to come in from all the people thanking us for taking some of the grimness out of death.  Digger O?Dell became a national phenomenon and people would use terms like ?Well, I?d better be shoveling off,? or ?You?re looking fine, very natural.?  -Under taker clich?s.  All I can tell you is for the next eight years, it was a riot and the show was a hit. So it?s what happens when you are in the ballgame.  You never know what?s going to happen?.some good some bad.
Tell me about working on Meet Me In St. Louis.
When it came time and there was a date set for production?.Minelli was assigned and we sat down and went over the script day by day.  He was very good and forcing me to write better than I knew I could write.  He made me make certain improvements by suggestions or his challenges, and I found it to be a very good working relationship.  He directed the film beautifully. 
Were you involved during the actual production of the film at any level?
Were you assigned Yolanda and the Thief and Zigfield Follies based on how well you worked with Minelli on Meet Me In St. Louis?
No.  I was assigned to Yolanda and the Thief because I didn?t want to do it.  The studio begged me to do it, because they knew the picture was not right.  The story was not right.  They didn?t have any faith in it, but they did it as a favor to (Arthur) Freed the producer.  He had made a lot of hits and he was very much interested in an actress called Lucille Bremer who had been in Meet Me In St. Louis.  He had a thing about her.  Without going in to further detail?.I refused to write it.  The head of the division of the studio bribed me with a tremendous increase and a four year contract.  It was more money than I ever thought there was.  So I wrote the movie.  As I expected, it was good looking and didn?t sell.  It was a big hit in Europe.  I get royalties from Europe, but in America they didn?t buy it. 
Let?s get back to Meet Me In St. Louis.  In the beginning, there was not a great deal of enthusiasm for it.  Tell me about that??.
Well I had worked on a script?.four or five scripts?that Freed didn?t care about.  My friend and I started working on a love story.  After a while my friend had to leave, so I finished it.  Unlike most producers that I had worked with?.Freed was very difficult as far as I was concerned.  Arthur Freed was a giant son of a ?..and one of the best producers that MGM ever had.  He had a great talent for hiring musical people?songwriters, ect.  He was not happy with the ST. LOUIS script.  He said, ?There is NO story.?  They suddenly had a start date.  Now in 1944 I think there were 2 or maybe 3 Technicolor cameras in Hollywood.  They were very much in demand.  Before we made the movie is when the real trouble started.  The old man (Louis B. Mayer), a man I liked by the way, he was a tyrant, but not with me.  They said, ?The old man can?t do anything with Judy.?  She didn?t want to make the movie.  She thought Tootie (Margaret O?Brien) would steal it.  She was being advised by the man she was playing around with Joseph Mankiewicz .  He was a very talented writer/director on the lot.  He was an older man.  They were having an affair.  He had told her that Tootie would take the movie away.  Freed said to me, ?Will you read the script to Judy and convince her that she?s the star?? Freed locked me in a room with her.  Judy liked me, but she was very upset.  I read the script to her.  She sighed and said, ?I think I?ll be alright.?  I said, ?The will be the biggest hit you ever had.? 
The screenplay was originally based on some short stories.  Was there a lot to do to make it screen ready?
Well the characters were there.  Sally Benson wrote the characters.  I swear to you, I can?t remember what we used.  I have to tell you one other thing.  The day of the sneak preview, and in those days the sneak preview was REALLY a sneak preview, we went out of town.  We went to a theatre and not even the theatre manager knew the name of the movie.  Anyway, that morning Vincente Minnelli came to me frantic.  I thought he was going to have a stroke.  He said, ?You know what that son of a bitch as done??  I said, ?You mean son of a bitch, you mean Freed??  He said, ?He?s cut out of the sneak preview the Halloween sequence.  He said we don?t need it.  He?s demented!  It?s the most memorable scene in the movie! Will you go talk to him??  I said, ?Why me, you?re the director??  Minnelli said, ?HE WON?T TALK TO ME!?  I said, ?Well, I could use a fight.?  I went to Freed?s office.  We never got along.  He was arrogant.  He wasn?t my kind of guy and I wasn?t his.  We did seven pictures together.  I said, ?Arthur, I?ve heard that you are leaving out the Halloween sequence.?  He said, ?YEAH, what about it??  I said, ?I don?t know what your reason is, but you?re having a sneak preview.  Why don?t you let the audience see it and then if it?s no good take it out??  He said, ?Don?t tell me how to produce a movie!?  I said, ?I?m the son of a bitch who is telling you to leave it in!?  He said, WELL IT?S OUT!?  We went to the preview and the Halloween sequence stayed in the movie.  The MGM executives said, ?We were so wrong.  It was a great story.  It was wonderful.? 
I?d never seen a sycophant who operated like Freed did with L.B. Mayer.  Any minute that he could, he was with L.B.  They went to the races together.  They went to the toilet together.  When Mayer had a cold, Freed coughed.  They were absolutely inseparable.  He didn?t need to do that.  He had enough of his own.  He was a songwriter.  He wrote songs like ?Singing? in the Rain??.hit songs.  The guy had such insecurity.  One day a young writer said, ?I see them everywhere together.?  I said, ?I?ll tell you how close they are, if you want to shave Arthur Freed, you?d have to lather Mayer?s ass!?
Mayer found out I said this and called me into his office.  He said, ?I heard you made a dirty crack about Arthur Freed.?  He looked at me for a long time, and then he said, ?I thought it was funny.?

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