June 3, 2004
Most of the Best
Among the allergens being released this June is a remake of "Around the World in 80 Days," the Jules Verne novel that launched a thousand travel articles. Perhaps Jackie Chan will inhabit the role of Passepartout in a fashion that surpasses the achievements of Cantinflas, "the world's greatest comedian," according to Charlie Chaplin, a person of no small ego or talent himself. That remains to be seen -- or not seen, as the case may be.
Although this remake gives license to recall the 1956 Mike Todd extravaganza, my purpose is slightly different: I want to pay tribute to the man who won an Oscar for doing punch-up on that screenplay -- none other than that nonpareil, S.J. Perelman.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sydney Joseph Perelman ("Sid" to his friends, Mr. Perelman to me). I have been awaiting the coast-to-coast and worldwide celebrations, the star-studded readings, film festivals and parties -- the free food and booze to which all writers consecrate their art, but thus far, the silence has been deafening.
Perelman, who died in 1979, is little remembered today. Many of his works are out of print, and his films (with the exception of his work for the Brothers Marx) little seen. In 2000, the Modern Library issued an abridged collection of his greatest hits, "Most of the Most of S. J. Perelman."
Steve Martin's name appears on the cover for no apparent reason other than to convey hipness by association. It is my hope that as long as people need to laugh, Perelman will be read.
Although Perelman called himself a "miniaturist," he published 22 books, including collections of his short "embroidery," as well as book-length travel books, such as "Westward Ha!" and "The Swiss Family Perelman." He also wrote more than 10 produced screenplays and seven plays. Asked what the inspiration was for this prodigious output, Perelman replied: "The landlord."
During his lifetime, Perelman made six circumnavigations of the globe, driven not so much by wanderlust as the realization that inclement conditions often brought out the best in his writing. Or as Perelman put it so succinctly, "Misery breeds copy."
Perelman was born in Brooklyn, raised in Providence and matriculated from Brown University, where he was editor of The Brown Jug, the college humor magazine. Upon graduation, he started out as a cartoonist but quickly turned to the short form for which he would become famous. A brief stint writing for Judge, a humor magazine, was notable for Perelman meeting its editor, Harold Ross, who would publish Perelman at his next magazine, The New Yorker.
Perelman saw himself as working in a tradition of comic writing: He followed Stephen Leacock and George Ade, names long lost to us, and emulated Ring Lardner and H.L. Mencken. The mixture of Brooklyn and Brown gave Perelman both the education and the vantage point to observe, record and deflate pretension wherever he found it -- he could look down with equal aplomb at Hollywood moguls, intellectuals and/or society swells.
The Marx Brothers brought Perelman to Hollywood to write "Horsefeathers" and "Monkey Business." Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, Laura, became contract writers at MGM under Irving Thalberg, writing scripts for now forgotten films with such fragrant titles as "Sitting Pretty," "Ambush!" and "Boy Trouble."
Perelman spent much of the 1930s in Hollywood, and over the years it was a subject he attacked with splenetic glee -- of which we continue to be the beneficiaries.
"During that epoch, I made my living for the silver screen," Perelman wrote, "an occupation which, like herding swine, makes the vocabulary pungent but contributes little to one's prose style."
Or consider this billet-doux: "Hollywood is a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched."
But tell us, Mr. Perelman, what you really think.
Perelman's work was first published in The New Yorker in 1930, and it continued to appear there for more than four decades. Perelman described his writing style as "a mixture of all the trash I read as a child, all the clichés, criminal slang, liberal doses of Yiddish and some of what I learned in school from impatient teachers."
Perelman dressed British and talked Yiddish, literally. An Anglophile in matters of dress and manners, he didn't seem to have much truck with the faith of his fathers. Yet Yiddish was his lingua franca; it seasoned his every conversation. Perelman achieved in this manner an assimilation that brought Perelman into the mainstream and Yiddish into American letters and culture.
If The Streets or Eminem have done nothing to reassure you about the resilience of the English language, a trip on the SS Perelman may prove salutary. What makes Perelman so enthralling, so entertaining, so inspiring to read to this very day is his ability to make every word count (even if they are of his own invention) and every other word sing like some gin-soaked chantootsie.
For readers, students of the genre and imitators such as myself, a dose of Perelman is a powerful tonic, likely to make one fall off the couch laughing. But don't take my word for it. Here's what Groucho said in a letter to Perelman: "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. One day I intend to read it."
I recommend that you read it as well. "Most of the Most of Perelman" will certainly provide more entertainment than some of the remake of "Around the World," hands down, sight unseen.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
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