Tuesday, January 05, 2010

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
'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

"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
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.' "

Scott Meredith, George S. Kaufman and his
Friends, Doubleday, Copyright 1974 by
Playboy, pp. 1-4.


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