Morrie Riskin Essay, Research Paper
Morris (Morrie) Ryskind was born to Abraham and Ida (Etelson) Ryskind on October 20, 1895 in Brooklyn, New York. Ryskind graduated from Townsend Harris High School in 1912 and from there, went on to Columbia University School of Journalism. At Columbia, Ryskind was the editor of The Jester. This publication was (and still is) the campus’ humor magazine. In this publication, Ryskind had the ability to poke fun at issues and, also, people. However, a published editorial of his in 1917 post-poned his college graduation. Six weeks before he was to graduate, Ryskind wrote an editorial in which he referred to the then Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler as “Czar Nicholas.” Due to this, Ryskind was expelled. However, he was later awarded his degree in 1942 (The New York Public Library: Digital Library Collection).
Though expelled from Columbia, this did not hurt his career as a columnist. Soon after, Ryskind became a reporter for The World until 1921. The year 1921 also brought forth a published work of poetry by Ryskind entitled Unaccustomed As I Am. With this came many printings of his poetry in professional publications.
In 1922, Ryskind moved on to try his hand at theater. He was one of the playwrights to write sketches and lyrics for The 49er’s and, later, the Garrick Gaieties (1925). These shorts in the Gaieties are what drew the attention of George S. Kaufman. Kaufman asked Ryskind to collaborate on a musical written for the Marx Brothers, Cocoanuts. This 1925 show featured music by Irving Berlin. Ryskind and Kaufman’s work in this musical focused on the Florida real estate boom. Groucho portrayed a hotel owner and real estate developer who lacked in mores (Bordman, 408). This show would be the first of many that Ryskind would collaborate on with Kaufman for the Marx Brothers.
After Cocoanuts, Ryskind once again wrote sketches and lyrics for a summer review entitled Merry-Go-Round in 1927. On this project, he collaborated with songwriter Howard Dietz.
As mentioned above, Ryskind would go on to write again with Kaufman. The team wrote a new musical for the Marx Brothers, Animal Crackers, which premiered October, 1928. This musical comedy featured a stolen picture and an explorer (played by Groucho) who set out to find it (Bordman, 444).
Though the musicals for the Marx Brothers proved successful, Ryskind’s greatest accomplishments were yet to come. In the late 1920’s, Kaufman had teamed with George and Ira Gershwin. Together, they wrote a musical political satire entitled Strike Up the Band. This musical had originally made its debut in Philadelphia in 1927. However, this first version was short-lived. The musical centered around the Swiss protesting a tariff Americans had placed on Swiss Cheese. This tariff leads to war; an idea presented by a cheese manufacturer. The critics enjoyed the musical, but it did not get such response from the public. At the time, the audience favored “the farcical fripperies and pseudo-serious romance of the 20’s lyric stage” (Bordman, 457). Though the public did not favor the musical, Kaufman brought in Ryskind to adapt the original libretto. Ryskind changed the story into a dream from which the cheese manufacturer awakens, completely reformed. Ryskind also changed such simplicities as the Swiss Cheese into Swiss Chocolate. The Gershwins also added a few romantic ballads. Later, in 1930, the audience seemed ready to have the musical presented before them again. As Marion Geisinger suggested on the later success of Strike Up The Band in his book Plays, Players and Playwrights, “The stock market crash of 1929 brought an end to the innocence” ( 706).
This musical opened in early January of 1930 and, was not only the first musical of this new year, but of the 1930’s (Bordman, 457). The success of the musical was incredible and was the first in a set of three popular musical political satires brought forth by the collaboration of the Gershwins, Kaufman and Ryskind.
The second show of this musical political trio was Of Thee I Sing (1931). This musical was the most popular of the three shows. It poked fun at many different issues such as scandals, senseless debates, political parties, political campaigns and absurd bids for votes (Swain, 53). It starred William Gaxton as President Wintergreen whose own passions about love (as well as a love for corn muffins) landed him the presidency. In 1932, this show became the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The members of the Political Prize Committee explained their choice:
This award may seem unusual, but the play is unusual it is a biting and true satire on American politics and the public attitude toward them. Its effect on the stage promises to be very considerable, because musical plays are always popular and by injecting genuine satire and point into them a very large public is reached The play is genuine, and it is felt the prize could not serve a better purpose than to recognize such work (Toohey, 99).
The success of this musical also led Ryskind to write the book Diary of an Ex-President (1932). This book was written through the eyes of President Wintergreen, the character in the show.
Many years later, on October 24, 1972, Of Thee I Sing was shown on television. However, this newly-revised version cut down much of the script and focused on the musical numbers. The book was also “softened” to tone down the political humor. Another mishap of this presentation was that Ryskind and Ira Gershwin both were left out of the credits. This may have been because neither were as popular as Kaufman or George Gershwin (Williams, 100).
The last installment of the political satires was Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933). The show dealt with the politics of the Depression. This was a satire on revolution. However, Let ‘Em Eat Cake was not as successful as Of Thee I Sing and ran for only 90 performances; a great disappointment compared to its predecessor’s 441. However, the year 1933 did recognize Ryskind – this was the year he became a member of The Theatre Union’s Advisory Board.
In 1935, Ryskind headed for Hollywood where he became a screenwriter. Previously, he had adapted both (The) Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers for the screen (starring the Marx Brothers in 1929 and 1930). Now, he was ready to write more films. These include A Night at the Opera (1935), My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), Penny Serenade (1941), Claudia (1943) and Where Do We Go From Here (1945). He was recognized with Academy Award nominations for both My Man Godfrey and Stage Door.
Though he had left New York and began writing screenplays, Ryskind did not leave his musical theater career for good. He was soon to create yet another satirical success. He collaborated once again with Irving Berlin and, together, they wrote the 1940 musical The Louisiana Purchase. Ryskind had adapted this story about Louisiana politics in New Orleans.
After these successes, Ryskind removed himself from writing for the stage or the screen. In 1947, the belief in communism entering the Hollywood scene took a toll on Ryskind. He was called to testify before The House Un-American Committee. This testimony lead Ryskind to later state that he had been “professionally ostracized” (The New York Public Library: Digital Library Collection).
The following year, Kaufman approached Ryskind with the idea of reviving Of Thee I Sing. The musical had stayed popular with certain audiences and, with an election year approaching, Kaufman thought a revival would be successful. At this time, Ryskind “had swung far to the right politically (and) refused” (Boardman, 473). However, four years later, Ryskind changed his mind. On May 5, 1952 the revival opened on Broadway, but was not a success.
In the years that followed, Ryskind returned to writing for publications. He became a columnist in 1960 for the Los Angeles Time Syndicate. Five years later, he resigned and began writing for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He retired from this job in 1978.
In 1985, at the age of 89, Ryskind died in his Washington, D.C. home. His autobiography, which he wrote with John H.M. Roberts is entitled I Shot an Elephant in My Pajamas/The Morrie Ryskind Story. The title comes from a well-known line he wrote for Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers, “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
Boardman, Gerald. (1978). American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle. New
York: Oxford University Press.
Furia, Philip. (1990). The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great
Lyricists. New York: Oxford University Press.
Geisinginger, Marion. (1975). Plays, Players and Playwrights: An Illustrated
History of the Theatre. New York: Hart Publishing Company.
Himelstein, Morgan Y. (1963). Drama Was a Weapon. New Brunswick, NJ:
Rutgers University Press.
Marx, Groucho. (1976). The Groucho Phile. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
The New York Public Library: Digital Library Collection. www.digital.nypl.org.
Rigdon, Walter (Ed.). (1966). The Biographical Encyclopedia and Who’s Who
of the American Theater. New York: James H. Heineman Inc.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. www.rnh.com.
Swain, Joseph P. (1990). The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical
Survey. New York: Oxford University Press.
Williams, Jay. (1974). Stage Left. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.