FOR NEARLY 50 years, books of theatrical anecdotes have related the story about George S. Kaufman and the department-store millionaire Alfred Bloomingdale. You probably know it - Bloomingdale produced Allah Be Praised, a dire 1944 musical comedy about a search through the harems of Persia for a missing Texan who turns out to be a sultan. After a disastrous out-of-town opening, Bloomingdale called the play-doctor Kaufman, who sat through a performance then offered the advice: 'Close the show and keep the store open nights.' The story is true, except in one particular: the play doctor was not Kaufman, but the less well- known Cy Howard.
After attending the universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Howard worked as a salesman before entering show business. He tried acting, then switched to gag-writing. In 1943 he met Jack Benny in Chicago and so impressed him with his wit that the comedian added him to the writing staff of his radio series. Howard couldn't quite capture Benny's style, however, and was dropped after 13 weeks. While nursing his wounds, he began to develop radio projects. In 1947 he came up with My Friend Irma, a sitcom about a stereotypical dumb blonde. It was one of American radio's last hit shows, and in 1949 Paramount brought it to the screen, starring the original Irma, Marie Wilson. Howard co-wrote the screenplay, served as associate producer and even appeared in a cameo role. The film did so well it was followed by My Friend Irma Goes West (1950).
Playing supporting roles in both Irma films were the Hollywood newcomers Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and in 1951 Howard wrote what is considered their best movie. That's My Boy was the story of 'Jarring Jack' Jackson (Eddie Mayehoff), ex-All- American fooball hero, who tries to force his puny, hypochondriac son (Lewis) to follow in his footsteps. When the film was shown at the National Film Theatre, Peter Barnes wrote in his programme notes: 'That's My Boy is a freak: an American comedy based on character rather than gags or wisecracks.'
In 1970 Howard made an impressively assured directorial debut with Lovers and Other Strangers, a truly funny, semi-improvisational gem. Howard also directed Every Little Crook and Nanny (1972), a strained English-governess-vs-Mafia farce that was saved by a bright performance from Lynn Redgrave.
Nothing could save Won Ton Ton - The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), a doomed Rin-Tin-Tin spoof that Howard co-scripted. On his own he wrote the Frank Sinatra/Deborah Kerr vehicle Marriage on the Rocks (1965). A comedy about marital disharmony and divorce, it was surely written from experience; nine years earlier Howard had married Gloria Grahame, whose former husbands had been the actor Stanley Clements and the film director Nicholas Ray. When I interviewed Grahame in 1978, she told me that, on her third wedding night, she telephoned the writer Howard Teichmann, who had been Cy Howard's room-mate in college, and asked him 'What advice can you give me?' Teichmann shouted back: 'Reconsider.'
After her divorce from Howard (their stormy marriage had lasted only three years), Gloria Grahame married Tony Ray, her former stepson. 'If Gloria hadn't divorced me,' Cy Howard quipped, 'she might never have become her own daughter- in-law.'
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