Milking an Elk

A master of both insult and befuddlement, he was agreeably both a scamp and a dupe. And he rose to the fore of his eminence as an entertainer at a time in the history of popular culture, during the Twenties and Thirties in America, when it was still possible for quite ordinary folk—the small-town businessman, the churchgoing housewife—to accept that deep down they were—as he so frequently kept telling them—nothing but mean, dumb, and irredeemable. He spoke haughtily of Charlie Chaplin as “that ballet dancer,” testily of Walter Winchell as a “little schmuck,” and impolitically of Mae West as a “plumber’s idea of Cleopatra.” And on the subject of love, he was no less determinedly emphatic. “There was a woman who drove me to drink,” he conceded, “and I never had the sense to thank her.”

A devotee of Morpheus, he was prodigious in his ability to fall asleep on the top of a pool-hall table, in a barber-shop chair, or on the crowded floor of some Hotel Street saloon. In this, if in a more genteel vein, he was much emulated by Calvin Coolidge. To the sweet Rochelle Hudson, his adolescent daughter in Poppy, where he was that resonant pedant, Professor Eustace McGargle, he counseled endearingly: “Let me give you one word of advice. Never give a sucker an even break.” He was a mythomaniac. And it was long his Plutonic claim to have undergone a terrible childhood, that, for example, not only was he born, as he wrote, in some “old melodrama,” but, indeed, grew up in a hole stuck fast in the ground, from which he saw everything, and learned even more. As for the spectacle of life, he regarded it, in general, as a shabby affair, about as coarse as the flesh of the burbot, the only member of the cod family, he noted, ever to exist exclusively in fresh water—which in his eyes, at least, was yet another black mark against the esteemed virtue of sobriety.

Fanatical about everything, he was most fanatical about money. On tour in Johannesburg—he was a supreme juggler—he insisted on being paid his weight in gold. Often it was his fancy to keep a series of bank accounts in a series of foreign lands. And yet like the habits of the fellow countrymen he so affected to despise—“I am free of all prejudices,” he blandly asserted, “I hate everyone equally”—he would always be, “for the nonce” or beyond, proverbially short of dough. His signature on a contract in Hollywood—whenever he made a film there—would inevitably spell trouble. Once during the shooting of The Big Broadcast of 1938, Mitchell Leisen, the director of the film, suffered a heart attack. And once during the shooting of International House, on location at Long Beach, California, there was an earthquake.

He was mordantly averse to the bubble bath, Charlie McCarthy (whom he dubbed “a termite’s flophouse” or “an animated hitching post”), the Nativity Scene, the Brahms “Lullaby,” the Canis familiaris (if he were out…

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