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 for a stroll, a dog would obligingly cross over a street and take a bite out of him), and, of course, all displays of honesty.
He was Alfred Jarry for the common man. And his memory was merciless. In the old days of vaudeville, it was his sorry fate to encounter himself, one blithe afternoon at Columbus, Ohio, that great football town, on the same bill as the four Marx Brothers. He never forgave them for this. And he was a star on Broadway, in the Ziegfeld Follies or George White’s Scandals, when the venerable E.H. Sothern was still doing Shakespeare, or when the hefty Wallace Beery was still running around on stage in drag, or when even Sophie Tucker was yet the pert and calescent Sophie Tucker of the old speak-easy era, long before, as he cogently reminded us, “she got respectable and became Kate Smith.” He went far back.
Short of stature and portly in girth, puffed at the hips, he had a figure that often resembled the shape of an egg, much in the mode of a drawing by Tenniel of Tweedledum or Tweedledee. And his countenance bore, if cast in the proper light, an unmistakable affinity to the rumpled majesty or bovine serenity of Victoria Regina. (See the John Decker portrait of him.) He had, as well, a bulbous nose that was as red as a lollipop and exacerbated by eczema, and a capacious pate, set off, in solitary splendor, with the ghost of a cowlick. His voice, undoubtedly the most arresting aspect of his theatrical genius, was peevishly nasal or churlishly plaintive; often, too, it could reverberate like the sound of a creaking door. He wore, usually, spats and a cravat, kid gloves, polka-dot pants, and a wide bowler hat, accompanied, at times, by a large black morning coat, in the lapel of which there sprouted a carnation, which he would sniff at daintily. No matter. He always looked dumpy and déclassé—or as if ever on the alert for his next meal ticket.
His fingers, moreover, were the nervous and expressive fingers—however squat and thick—of a roadhouse card-sharp. And his smile, at best, was an amiable snarl. He smoked a stogie, and waddled as he walked, maneuvering, as he did so, a Malacca cane, much as the stentorian Dr. Samuel Johnson is said to have kept maneuvering a club along the rowdy streets of London, in order to stave off the pestiferous hooligan.
A misanthrope, commonly in the guise of some fly-by-night entrepreneur, he would characteristically preface each belligerent greeting with the cheery salutation: “My friend.” Or an inveterate tippler, the bane of the WCTU, he would lecture exhaustively across the footlights on many an Orpheum or Keiths circuit, or before the mike at the “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” about the evil of what he called “spiritus fermentus” or the devil’s brew. “Now don’t say you can’t swear off drinking,” he disarmingly protested. “It’s easy. I’ve done it a thousand times.” And a misogynist, he would duly celebrate the putative joys of domesticity. “A couple who intended to get married, which they did,” he recalled fondly, “but not to each other.”
Nothing that he said was ever, to be sure, particularly funny, and still less was it witty. And yet his distress at being a hostage to the more calamitous possibilities of our human condition was invariably uproarious. His fans could watch him engage patriotically, if disappointedly, in one get-rich-quick scheme after another to soften his passage on the via dolorosa. (See Fools for Luck.) Or frolic at a golf course or a Sunday picnic, in a paddle-boat race or a rickety automobile, in a marathon game of Ping-Pong at a fashionable society ball or in a swindler’s game of poker at an upright frontier bar, in a papier-mâché airplane high over the Bund of pre-war Shanghai or dubiously beneath the Big Top on a flying trapeze. Or even, in one redoubtable two-reeler, Mack Sennett’s The Fatal Glass of Beer, teach the hoi polloi, East or West, how to “milk an elk.” Still, it did not help much. He always knew that Philadelphia—his birthplace and the City of Brotherly Love (once described by him with superlative disdain as “the greatest cemetery in the world”)—would be lying in wait somewhere.
He was a bibliophile and autodidact, his grandiloquent turns of phrase—he might look up at a sky and deem it “Tyrian blue”—influenced (much as historians are loath to admit it) the noble rhetoric of Winston Churchill; and his attitude toward Mrs. Grundy and other civic ills—as the President of Klopstokia in Million Dollar Legs, he snapped: “Put yourself under arrest”—added immeasurably, we have no doubt, to the saturnine sparkle of H.L. Mencken.
In 1934 he portrayed that affable, if incorrigible, Piccadilly duffer, Mr. Micawber, with Freddie Bartholomew, in the George Cukor film version of David Copperfield (after Charles Laughton had rejected the part), as if he were also, mirabile dictu, that execrable homunculus, the notorious Mr. Quilp, in The Old Curiosity Shop—but it gave to his performance a touch of sclerotic impishness which many the world over were to find exquisitely poignant. And he held firm to the tautological belief that in life, style was everything and everything was style, so much so that when, late in his career, when he was already in his sixties, he appeared opposite Mae West (surely a near contemporary, give or take a decade or so), in the teasing mésalliance of My Little Chickadee, it was as if the Irresistible Force had finally met the Immovable Object. And yet, who among us will easily forget the two of them, tin-horn gambler and cow-town adventuress, strangers on a stagecoach or a wagon train, lolloping across the Old West, the Indians asseverating on the warpath nearby, and he musing sonorously over her: “Flower Belle! What a euphonious appellation! Easy on the ears and a banquet for the eyes!…Ah, what symmetrical digits!”
Dauntless as he was in the pursuit of the accoutrements of culture, he always wanted to play the eponymous hero of The Pickwick Papers. But though Orson Welles and Griffith, with whom he had made the old silent Sally of the Sawdust, twice sought to sell the property to the Hollywood studios, each time they failed. While over at Metro, once Frank Morgan was chosen over him, he lost out incarnating for posterity the fabulous Wizard to Judy Garland’s Dorothy; and then over at Fox, in a sequence from the all-star production of Tales of Manhattan, his tête-à-tête with the divine Margaret Dumont (on loan from Groucho) ended up, regrettably, on the cutting-room floor. Addicted as he was to innumerable aliases—“Every name I use is an actual name I’ve seen somewhere,” he admitted to Norman Taurog, “and if I think they’re funny I’ll remember them”—unquestionably the most resounding in that line of endeavor was the tripartite “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” (see The Bank Dick), closely followed by the somewhat more truncated glory of “Larson E. Whipsnade” (see You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man).
But either on screen or on stage, either gamboling in a drawing room or addressing a sweltering tribe of Watusi deep in the belly of the African veldt, or smashing a cue stick most ungallantly through Ed Wynn’s trick hat, he seemed to be—whatever the site, whatever the year—a citizen of a world that was almost entirely of his own invention. And yet he was pestered there by a nemesis he could never quite fathom or name, a world in typically Carrollian fashion that he would soon discover to be populated lamentably with the reverse of everything: feckless pimps, luckless gamblers, effete lion tamers, illiterate diplomats, venal magistrates, and a bevy of chorus girls who might on an instant become—as with Cora Witherspoon or ZaSu Pitts—harridan or frump. And if he could hear what no one else did, still he was assiduously deaf to what everyone else heard.