Irving Brecher: Prolific comedy writer who scripted two films for the Marx Brothers

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The Independent Online

Known in comedy circles as the "undisputed king of all gag men, living or dead", Irving Brecher was admired by such figures as S.J. Perelman and Groucho Marx for his lightning wit. A prolific writer for radio and television, he also worked on classic screen musicals including Meet Me in St Louis, and wrote, unaided, two films for the Marx Brothers.

Born in New York City in 1914, Brecher moonlighted as a reporter for the Yonkers Herald while at high school. After graduating, he worked as an usher at a small Manhattan cinema. He'd been sending one-liners to newspaper columnists including Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell, and when Bob Hope stole some of his gags, Brecher realised his material was good enough to sell. Soon he was writing for the comedian Milton Berle.

In 1937, RKO Radio Pictures, having decided to make an annual series of "New Faces" musicals, brought Berle west to star in New Faces of 1937. Brecher was one of the film's eight writers, but the production turned out to be the first in a series of one. Made 31 years before the Mel Brooks movie The Producers, it was the story of an unscrupulous Broadway impresario who sells more than 100 per cent of a carefully calculated flop musical, with a view to keeping all the surplus cash.

Despite the failure of the Berle film, Brecher was put under personal contract by the producer-director Mervyn LeRoy. Without credit, he wrote comedy sequences for The Wizard of Oz (1939), which LeRoy produced. His next assignments were the Marx Brothers films At the Circus (1939) and Go West (1940). "I'd written both of them by myself; nobody'd ever done that", he told Jordan R. Young in his book The Laugh Crafters (1999). "And I paid the price – I wound up with a tic."

Although he turned down the Marx Brothers' next film, The Big Store, Brecher created "The Flotsam Family", a radio vehicle for Groucho, casting him as a harried husband and father. When the audition recording was rejected, Brecher revamped the series for the character actor William Bendix, calling it The Life of Riley. In 1944 NBC began broadcasting the show, which was saved from cancellation during its first season when Brecher introduced a popular new character, Digger O'Dell, a friendly undertaker.

Played by the veteran radio actor John Brown, O'Dell spoke in a chilly, lugubrious voice, and his every utterance suggested his trade. He always greeted Bendix with "Hello, Riley. You're looking... very natural," and bade him goodbye with "Cheerio, Riley. I'd better be... shovelling off". The Life of Riley ran on radio from 1944 to 1951, and from 1949 to 1958 on television.

After supplying breezy dialogue for MGM's Shadow of the Thin Man (1941), Brecher joined the studio's prestigious Arthur Freed Unit, writing screen versions of the Broadway musicals Best Foot Forward and Du Barry was a Lady (both 1943). Next came a film based on Sally Benson's nostalgic New Yorker pieces about the Smith family of Missouri. Working closely with the director Vincente Minnelli, Brecher and Fred Finklehoffe divided the stories into four acts, representing the seasons of 1903 to 1904. The enchanting Meet Me in St Louis (1944) grossed more than $5m in the US alone, and its screenplay was nominated for an Oscar.

Brecher's MGM career ended anticlimactically. Against his will (he found the leading lady unappealing), he was assigned to Minnelli's stylish but fey musical Yolanda and the Thief (1945) which co-starred Freed's protégée Lucille Bremer and Fred Astaire. A merciful outlet for Brecher's wit was Yolanda's eccentric Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick), who had the film's best lines. (At one point, she tells a servant: "Do my fingernails immediately and bring them to my room." His next assignment was Summer Holiday (1948), an ill-fated musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play Ah, Wilderness!, and Brecher found it such an unhappy experience that he asked to be released from his contract.

After leaving MGM, he wrote for both the big and small screens: there were the sitcoms The People's Choice (1955-58) and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), and the films Cry for Happy (1961) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963). He directed three films: The Life of Riley (1949), Betty Hutton's last musical, Somebody Loves Me (1952), and Ernie Kovacs's last film, Sail a Crooked Ship (1961). In the late 1990s, Brecher was asked to attend a film festival where his first movie, New Faces of 1937, was being shown. "OK, I'll come," he replied, "but I'll bring a bodyguard".

Dick Vosburgh

Irving Brecher, writer, director and producer: born New York 17 January 1914; twice married (one son deceased, and one daughter deceased); died Los Angeles 17 November 2008.

Dick Vosburgh died 18 April 2007