Sunday, January 28, 2024

Insert Flap “A” and Throw Away

S. J. Perelman (1904–1979)
From Crazy Like a Fox: The Classic Comedy Collection

“Put new life in your closets with the E-Z-DO Closet Ensemble in the gay Hollywood pattern. . . . New, two-piece Set-0-Matic construction with Invisa-grippers assures quick, easy assembly.” 1947 advertisement for wardrobes and accessories of the type mocked by Perelman in his essay. (Flickr).
Whenever S. J. Perelman met with journalists—and he was interviewed hundreds of times over the course of his career—his work with the Marx Brothers inevitably came up. Many of his interviewers noted how little patience he had with the topic, and he would often change the subject or request that they talk about something else, but in 1978 British cartoonist Mel Calman convinced Perelman to trot out the story of how he got into show business:
I first went out to Hollywood in December 1930, as I recall, soon after Groucho had hired Will Johnstone and me to work on Monkey Business. It began when I went to a performance of Animal Crackers on Broadway, and I was so entranced that I went to see them after the show. Groucho explained to me that the group was interested in doing some radio. . . .

Johnstone and I got into a huddle in a room for three days and the only idea we came up with was the notion of the four Marxists as stowaways on a transatlantic liner—each one in his own barrel. Having thought of this, our inspiration completely gave out. On the third day the Marx Brothers rang up and asked us to lunch. We put forward this idea and to our complete stupefaction Groucho turned to Chico and said, ‘This isn’t a radio sketch, boys—this is our next picture.’ And before we had recovered our breath they took us by the hand and led us to the Paramount Building and introduced us to Jesse Lasky. We were both signed to six-week contracts at 500 dollars a week. For us this was big money. . . .

I went back to Hollywood whenever we were broke. Hollywood could absorb writers. . . . After the first novelty, working there quickly became very boring.
A read-through of the initial draft of Monkey Business was met with blank stares by the team (“Stinks,” was Groucho’s single-word verdict), but the heavily revised script nevertheless retained many of Perelman’s lines from the original. Perelman and Johnstone stayed to work on the next Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, and for the rest of his life Perelman would frequently boast about how he had accomplished the impossible: surviving two movies with the Marx Brothers.

Over the next decade, he and his wife, Laura, returned to Hollywood many times and worked together as screenwriters, jointly earning for each assignment as much as $1,000 a week—a handsome sum during the Depression. Most of the movies were never filmed, and they received little credit for several that did make it to the big screen. During the Second World War, however, two windfalls allowed the Perelmans to escape the drudgery of the studios.

The first triumph miraculously came together when Kurt Weill began shopping around for a new project after he had worked with Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart on the 1941 hit musical Lady in the Dark. Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford approached Weill with the idea of an adaptation of the 1885 novella The Tinted Venus by F. T. Anstey. Bella and Samuel Spewack were hired to write the book for the musical, titled One Touch of Venus, but nobody involved with the production liked the script they turned in. Ogden Nash suggested to Crawford that Perelman might be a good replacement; the two writers had worked together in 1936 to salvage an unfilmable screenplay based on, of all things, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Nothing came of that project, but the two became friends. Perelman accepted the opportunity to work with Nash again, and the Spewacks were fired. (Five years later, the Spewacks would receive the Tony Award for writing Kiss Me, Kate, which also won Best Musical.)

Perelman wrote to Groucho Marx in April 1943 with an update:
I have been tied up since mid-January on a musical with Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill, which we finished the end of this past week. Nash and I did the book (based on a short story by F. Anstey, who was the editor of Punch back in the Eighties), and Ogden’s now finishing up his lyrics for Weill’s music. It’s the story of a small schnuckel of a barber who accidentally brings a statue of Venus to life, and it has turned up a lot of pretty funny and dirty complications. The music and lyrics thus far (about ⅔ finished) are grand, and we’re dickering with several leading women currently.
Although One Touch of Venus had originally been created with Marlene Dietrich in mind, she decided Perelman and Nash’s script was too risqué, and she backed out. Mary Martin eventually stepped into the lead role, and the production was directed by Elia Kazan with choreography by Agnes de Mille. After a rocky trial run in Boston, the play opened on Broadway in October 1943 and ran for 567 performances before going successfully on the road.

The second stroke of fortune came unexpectedly from Perelman’s magazine work. He had been writing humor pieces for more than ten years, primarily for The New Yorker. Several dozen selections had been collected in three slow-selling books that barely earned out their advances. In 1944 he worked with Bennett Cerf, the publisher at Random House, to assemble Crazy Like a Fox, a greatest-hits assortment of forty-six pieces, most of them culled from the previous collections. The book became a best seller and sold 25,000 copies in a matter of months. Several hundred thousand were issued in a wildly popular Armed Services Edition and distributed free to American soldiers. (In the introduction to the new Library of America paperback reprint, the novelist Joshua Cohen imagines “some private first-class rereading the screenplay-pitch-meeting montage of ‘Scenario’ or the hard-boiled ‘Somewhere a Roscoe’ after digging some latrines in the Philippines or liberating Buchenwald.”) In 1947 the book was reprinted as a Modern Library edition under the title The Best of S. J. Perelman, with four new essays, including “Farewell My Lovely Appetizer,” his famous parody of Raymond Chandler’s prose style, and “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away,” which Joyce Carol Oates selected for The Best American Essays of the Century (2000). In 1973 Vintage, the paperback division of Random House, restored the original title when it reissued the expanded edition.

“Insert Flap ‘A’” employs one of Perelman’s signature techniques. A Perelman essay often opens with “a straight-man setup,” as Adam Gopnik describes it, of “eyebrow-raising citations from advertising copy or fashion magazines—or even an instruction manual for an electric blanket—whose inanities or fatuities Perelman would then satirize in a comic sketch.” In the blanket story, “To Sleep, Perchance to Steam,” the manual printed by General Electric intends to reassure a new owner about the product’s safety. Perelman is having none of it:
“The heart of the Comforter,” states the booklet, “is a web of 370 feet of fine flexible copper wire of low resistance arranged in a zigzag pattern.” Set me down as a dusty old eccentric, but frankly, there would seem to be some more ideal haven nowadays than a skein of copper wire, no matter how fine or flexible. Nor is it any more reassuring to learn that “six rubber molded safety thermostats are placed at intervals in this web of insulated wire (you can feel these thermostats with your fingers beneath the cover of the Comforter).” It needs no vivid imagination to imagine oneself lying in the dark with eyes protruding, endlessly tallying the thermostats and expecting at any moment to be converted into roast Long Island duckling.
Similarly, in “Counter-Revolution” (also included in Crazy Like a Fox), Perelman is alarmed by the tone of the sheet accompanying a bottle of Major’s Cement for china and glassware repair. Rather than merely instruct the consumer on its use, the writer has attempted to preempt any imagined disappointment with the product and ends with: “If, before doing as suggested, you tell others that the Cement is no good, you are saying an untruth and injuring the reputation of Major’s Cement.” Perelman then imagines a department store salesclerk applying the same attitude toward shoppers. In “Insert ‘Flap A,’” which we present below as this week’s selection, the instruction sheets for assembling household furniture and children’s toys prove to be Perelman’s undoing.
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Notes: Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, was the daughter of Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus; she is remembered for devotedly guiding the careers of her sons and for her interest in literature and writing. Zim’s School of Cartooning was a correspondence program operated in the 1910s by former Puck and Judge cartoonist Eugene Zimmerman, who had been dead for a decade when Perelman published this piece. A noted inventor, Charles F. Kettering was the head of research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947 and the founder of the Kettering Foundation. Robert Andrews Millikan was an American experimental physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1923 and served for 26 years as the founding president of the California Institute of Technology. Chili Williams was a pin-up girl famous for wearing a polka-dotted bikini for a Life magazine photo published in 1943.

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One stifling summer afternoon last August, in the attic of a tiny stone house in Pennsylvania, I made a most interesting discovery: the shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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