Nat Perrin: The Man Who Put The Words In The Marx Brothers’ Mouths
interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
originally published in Tangents Magazine, September 1996 issue
Let’s face it. Although it’s been nearly fifty years since their last film, and nearly seventy years since they roamed the Broadway stages, the Marx Brothers are still cool. Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx were the original anarchists of comedy and film, railing against convention, conformity and whatever else got in the way.
Joined at various points of their careers by their younger brothers Gummo and Zeppo, the team was the first to mix highbrow verbal wit with lowbrow slapstick. They attracted luminaries ranging from George Bernard Shaw and James Joyce, to the Beatles and Alice Cooper.
Nat Perrin was witness to it all as both a writer and family friend. With only a few days’ notice, he left a burgeoning law career to leave with the Marxes for California, eventually contributing to their classic films “Monkey Business” (1931) and “Duck Soup” (1933), along with their later films “Go West” (1940) and “The Big Store” (1941). Perrin also holds the distinction of writing for the team’s lone radio series, “Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel” (1932).
Perrin later moved on to produce “The Addams Family” TV show (which we’ll feature next month), and to this day remains close to the Marx family, despite the brothers’ passing many years ago. Though 92 years of age, he still has a critical view of his work with the Marxes, but Perrin remembers the team with both warmth and affection.
Tangents: How did you first become associated with the Marx Brothers?
Perrin: One day when I was finishing [Fordham, N.Y.] law school, I happen to get an idear in the library, and I wrote in out as a sketch. The Marx Brothers... had already appeared in three Broadway shows, and they had done done two pictures, “Cocoanuts” , and “Animal Crackers” . I love those pictures, and when I wrote the sketch, I wrote it with Groucho and Chico in mind.
And some guy at law school said, “Jesus, that’s good. You oughta get that to the Marx Brothers.” I said, “I don’t know how to get to the Marx Brothers.” He said, “Well, I know a guy who works in an agent’s office, and maybe I can get a note for you introducing you to the Marxes.” They were appearing personally with “Animal Crackers” at the Keith-Albee Theater in Brooklyn. Well, he did. And I got to the stage door, and I gave the doorman the sketch, and he said, “Just wait here.” And he took it, and a few minutes later, he came out and said, “Mr. Marx will see you.”
So he ushered me into Groucho’s dressing room, and the first thing that he [Groucho] said to me was, “Well, we’re not going to do any more shows and sketches,” and my hear dropped. And then he said, “But we’re going to Hollywood to make moving pictures. Would you like to go to Hollywood? We’re leaving Wednesday.” And I don’t think I even let him finish his sentence before I said, “Would I? Wow!” The bar exam was scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. That gave a chance to take the bar exam, and Wednesday I met them at Grand Central Station.
Tangents: What did you think of Chico and Harpo?
Perrin: Harpo was a sheer delight, and Chico was a good-natured guy. Chico was a big gambler. They used to keep throwing him out of the Hillcrest Country Club for nonpayment of dues, and Groucho and Chico would pay up his back dues. He was always playing bridge there, he was a great bridge player. He [was considered] one of the expert non-professional bridge players.
Tangents: Groucho once said that he thought Chico was fascinating in that he was that he was tremendous gambler...
Perrin: ...and womanizer.
Tangents: But he was also this tremendous business person.
Perrin: He was the one who gave them the interest to go to Hollywood. He played cards with the skanks who were the real controllers of MGM, and Chico, through his contacts with them, got the Marx Brothers set up in Hollywood.
Tangents: Tell me about Gummo and Zeppo.
Perrin: Zeppo, he was the excess baggage when they first started, and he later quit. He was a sharp guy, and a tough guy from Chicago. He went into the ammunition business during the war, and he made a fortune in it.
Gummo quit the group in vaudeville. He said he thought that they didn’t have a future. He went into the dress business and he failed in six months. Gummo was the only snob in the family. The rest of the boys were fine, but Gummo was the soft-show snob. But he wasn’t a bad guy.
Tell me about “Monkey Business.” It’s one of my favorite Marx Brothers films.
Perrin: I was just brought out to add some gags. There were two guys already working on the script. Will B. Johnstone, who was a well-known cartoonist, and [famed writer] S. J. Perelman. When we came out there, there was gonna be a reading that night at the Roosevelt Hotel.
S. J. Perelman was a very nervous man, and the worst guy in the world to read the script that could’ve been picked to read this script that he and Will B. Johnstone had written. And while he was reading, let alone the fact that he was sweating profusely, Harpo had a little terrier dog that he didn’t have on a leash, and this dog would keep coming in and biting on the cuffs of [Perelman’s] pants. Anyway, he droned on and on, and there wasn’t a single snicker, and when he finished, all Groucho said was, “Well, now all we need is a script!”
We also had a Chicago newspaper man named Arthur Sheekman, who we’d picked up on the train on the way out here. He couldn’t get along with S. J. Perelman, and Sheekman and I wound up as partners. I threw him whatever gags I could.
Tangents: Was it tough presenting your work to the Marx Brothers?
Perrin: I didn’t think so. I got along great with them. They would interrupt a lot, ‘cause they were yakkers and talkers, especially Groucho. But they were basically such nice guys.
Tangents: What kind of input did the Marx Brothers have into their scripts?
Perrin: It was very hard to write for Harpo, because when you’re given dialogue, it’s very easy to read. But when you put that solid block of explanations of what happens with the action, nobody can make head or tail of it. And Harpo wasn’t getting anything from the writers. No one could write that shit anyway. So he used in bring in his own stuff, he’d think of things. He could do the little [scenes] with Chico, but most of the gadgets and gadgeteering, Harpo thought of himself.
Tangents: What about Groucho? Did he have input?
Perrin: Groucho always had input. He had input when [Pulitzer Prize Winners George S.’ Kaufman and [Morrie] Ryskind write their shows on Broadway. Apparently, [Kaufman] once was standing in the wings when the Marxes were on stage, and he was talking to somebody. And he suddenly stopped, and he said, “Oh just a minute. I thought I heard one of the lines from the original script.”
I gotta tell you a cute story I was just reminded of. The Marxes... were out [touring theaters previewing] scenes from “Go West,” and they thought they needed some work done on the script, so they called Louie B. Mayer and said they “needed help” there. “Send Perrin out.” A guy named Irving Brecher was there working with them, and he was going mad. So I was sent out to do what I could. I watched the show with Brecher, and then Brecher and I wrote some new material for them.
The Marx Brothers could never remember the stuff that they had. They had no desire to memorize, and that’s the way they were. They had to perform, so I was concealed behind the curtains to be the prompter, and they got lost in one of the new routines that Brecher prepared, and I whispered the line. And all I could hear was, “Huh?” So I whispered louder, and they said, “Huh?” So I whispered louder.
Anyway, we finally and mercifully got through with that performance, and as the Marx Brothers were heading up the iron staircase to the dressing rooms, I suddenly heard my name at the stage door. It was a friend of mine from the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. We were in Chicago, so I was surprised to see him. He said, “I was sitting in the back of the theater.” I said, “What did you think of the show?” And he said,”Well, the only one I could hear was you.”
Tangents: After “Monkey Business,” you wrote for Groucho and Chico in “Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel.”
Perrin: Perrin: Yes, I did that with Sheekman, and they weren’t very good. You had to see Groucho with his mustache and his slink walk. We used to try stuff with audiences first, and it would go very well in the studio, but when it got to the radio, it was still just talking and it was deadly.
Tangents: After “Flywheel” ended, you did “Duck Soup.”
Perrin: They had a decent director, Leo McCarey, but he and Groucho got carried away with joking around on the set. Very often you find a script, and before you finally get to performing you go over it so many times. So finally, everybody’s so familiar with it that it becomes stale in your mind. So anybody that ad-libs on the set, it sounds fresher and better than anything they’re familiar with. And very often, they put in the wrong things, but that’s just a personal opinion.
Tangents: MGM also took a story of yours from “Flywheel” and turned it into “The Big Store.” What happened with that film? It was apparently rewritten quite a bit.
Perrin: That was for a theater man-turned-producer at MGM, George K. Sidney. I think I got paid for the script, and Sidney brought in a couple of writers for it, and I didn’t think that they did anything for the script [to make it better]. It got all fucked up, but I was out of the [writing] scene by that time.
Tangents: What do you think are some things that people would be surprised to find out ab out the Marx Brothers personally?
Perrin: Groucho always used to say that he wasn’t an actor, he was a writer. He had great respect for writers, and all of his friends were writers. You’d go to his house for dinner, and all the people he had there were writers.
Once, a friend of mine was remarking about how Harpo, a guy with no education, how he fit in with the Algonquin Round Table, the wittiest crowd and smartest set in New York. This was Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woolcott. They wouldn’t accept Groucho because he was an insulting character. He would insult too much. And somebody said to Harpo, “How do you fit in with them?” And Harpo said, “Well, somebody’s gotta listen.”
Of all the interviews I’ve done since, this interview still inspires the most “You did what?” or “How did you get that?” questions. It all started with a TV show, and the Los Angeles phone directory.
I’ve been a big Marx Brothers fan since my early teens, and know their history backwards and forwards. When the Disney Channel aired “The Unknown Marx Brothers” in 1996, it was like they had raided my collection of rare Brothers footage, and they even had footage of the rare “Deputy Seraph,” a 1959 TV show that the Marxes never completed. In it, they used a good number of quotes from the then 92 year old Nat Perrin. Tangents was completing its first year of publication, and I was growing more confident in bringing whatever I was into to the magazine. So, I thought, these people interviewed Nat. Why couldn’t I?
I guessed from reading something (a book from the 1970s, I think) that Nat lived in the Los Angeles area. When I called the Los Angeles phone directory, I asked for Nat Perrin. “There is a Nathaniel Perrin,” the operator told me. “Would that do?” Looking back, it hadn’t even dawned on me that he might have had an unlisted number. But he didn’t, and I now had his phone number.
I called his number, half expecting to leave a message, and Nat answered the phone. When I recovered and told him that I’d like to interview him, he replied, “You don’t want to talk to me. Nobody cares about that stuff anymore.” Without pointing out to him that I was calling all the from North Carolina (darn right, I cared), I built up this belief that great work from the past is still great work, much like great painters. Despite my youth, I did an good job of pulling that answer out when it mattered. Finally, Nat said, “Okay, call me back on Saturday.”
I really enjoyed talking to Nat, although I kind of pushed it by calling him back a couple of times to ask him about other comedians I loved (the fist comedian he worked with after Monkey Business was Buster Keaton, and I got the impression that Keaton left Perrin cold). And the guy was 92, for crying out loud. But after I sent him the interview you see above, he told me, “You’re a great writer, and you should keep it up.” Despite the photography career I soon dived into, that comment still means a lot to me.
Perrin passed away in May 1998, less than a year after my interviews. I didn’t find out until 2008, when I looked him up on IMDB. My thanks to Nat, and his family. And when people ask me what world event I wished I’d been at the most, I still say that I wish I’d seen the Marx Brothers on Broadway. I once went to the theater that the Marxes performed “Cocoanuts” the same afternoon I sat in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, and I took at all in, and dreamed of what I would have seen.
-Daniel Coston, February 2010