delanceyplace.com 1/5/10 - george s. kaufman
In today's excerpt - the notorious wit of George S. Kaufman (1889-1961), one of America's most prolific and esteemed humorists and playwrights whose work included such plays as You Can't Take It With You and Of Thee I Sing:
"Unlike Dorothy Parker, who seems to have been credited with every witticism uttered by every woman in the United States between 1920 and 1970 but actually said only a few of them, George S. Kaufman was the genuine author of virtually all the funny, sardonic, and wise comments and bon mots attributed to him. ...
"It was Kaufman, for example, who deflated Raymond Massey when the actor had scored a huge success playing Abraham Lincoln and began to grow more and more Lincolnesque in his manner, speech, and clothing off the stage. 'Massey,' Kaufman said, 'won't be satisfied until somebody assassinates him.' It was Kaufman who deflated Charles Laughton when Laughton, commenting on his own performance as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty, said pompously that he was probably so effective in the role because he came from a long line of seafaring men. 'I presume,' Kaufman said, remembering Laughton's equally excellent performance as Quasimodo, 'that you also come from a long line of hunchbacks.' And it was also Kaufman who took care of an actor with the unfortunate name of Guido Nadzo by commenting, 'Guido Nadzo is nadzo guido.'
"Kaufman's comments were aimed with deadly accuracy, but he wanted them to make their point and nothing more, and he became upset and contrite if damage resulted and seemed to be growing permanent. When, for example, his line about Nadzo achieved such widespread currency that the actor began to find it difficult to get work, Kaufman went from friend to friend until he found a job for him, and he continued to get him jobs until Nadzo himself decided that Kaufman had been right in the first place and left the stage.
"Actors were a favorite target of Kaufman's, partially because they caused him constant agonies by forgetting, rewording, playing badly, or otherwise failing to do justice to the brilliant lines he wrote for them. The Marx Brothers, for whom he wrote two plays, Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts, and a movie, A Night at the Opera, were particularly painful to him because of their practice of changing lines at every performance and even trying to throw each other off balance by suddenly speaking lines which weren't in the play at all, stealing these from other plays or making them up on the spot. Once, in despair, Kaufman walked up onto the stage in the middle of a rehearsal of Animal Crackers. 'Excuse me for interrupting,' he said 'but I thought for a minute I actually heard a line I wrote.' ...
"He used humor all the time to bring his associates and others back into line when he felt they were straying too far, employing every device from notices on backstage bulletin boards—'11 a.m. rehearsal tomorrow morning,' he once noted on a call board, 'to remove all improvements inserted in the play since the last rehearsal'—to telegrams. Once he dropped in to view his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Of Thee I Sing—it was the first musical in history ever to win the prize—after it had been running for many months, and was depressed to observe that William Gaxton, who played the principal role of John P. Wintergreen, had grown bored and was speaking his lines routinely and mechanically. Kaufman left the theatre, went to a nearby Western Union Office and sent Gaxton a wire: WATCHING YOUR PERFORMANCE FROM THE LAST ROW. WISH YOU WERE HERE. ... But he needed no telegram to cool down an actor who kept blowing his lines and blaming the script. 'It doesn't flow,' the actor said. 'It flows, all right' Kaufman said. 'You don't.' "