Oscar Artists: Ryskind, Morrie–Nominated Screenwriter (Stage Door,

Morrie Ryskind (October 20, 1895 – August 24, 1985)

Ryskind was born in New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Ida (Edelson) and Abraham Ryskind. He attended Columbia University but was suspended shortly before he was due to graduate after he called university president Nicholas Murray Butler “Czar Nicholas” in the pages of the humor magazine Jester in 1917. Ryskind was criticizing Butler for refusing to allow Count Nikolai Tolstoy, nephew of Leo Tolstoy, to speak on campus.

From 1927 to 1945, Ryskind was author of numerous scripts and musical lyrics for Broadway theatrical productions and Hollywood motion pictures, and, later, directed a number of such productions, as well. He collaborated with George S. Kaufman on several Broadway hits. In 1933, he earned the Pulitzer Prize (receiving the prize from the same Nicholas Murray Butler who had suspended him from Columbia University) for Drama for the Broadway production Of Thee I Sing, a musical written in collaboration with composer George Gershwin.

Ryskind wrote or co-wrote several Marx Brothers theatrical and motion picture screenplays, including the book for the Broadway musical Animal Crackers (1929) (with Kaufman), and he wrote the screenplays for the film versions of The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930).

He co-wrote, again with Kaufman, the screenplay for A Night at the Opera (1935), which helped revive interest in the Marx Brothers.  Ryskind was heavily involved in the “cleanup process,” watching the Brothers repeatedly perform sections of the play before live audiences to determine which lines worked and which did not.

Ryskind also rewrote the stage version of Room Service (1938), reworking the plot to make it suitable for the Marx Brothers.

Ryskind was also twice nominated for Best Screenplay Oscar: My Man Godfrey (starring Carole Lombard, 1936) and Stage Door (starring Katharine Hepburn, 1937).

He wrote the screenplay for the Penny Serenade, wrote the stage musical Louisiana Purchase (became a film starring Bob Hope) and supervised the production of The Lady Comes Across.

Political Activism

For many years he was a member of the Socialist Party of America, and during the 1930s he participated in Party-sponsored activities, even performing sketches at antiwar events, but split with the Party’s “Old Guard faction” led by Louis Waldman. His politics soon moved to the right. In 1940, Ryskind abandoned the Democratic Party, and he opposed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s pursuit of a third term, writing the campaign song for that year’s Republican Party presidential nominee Wendell Willkie.[8] He maintained some ties to the Socialist Party throughout the 1940s, serving as a Vice Chairman of the Keep America Out of War Congress.

He soon became a friend to writers Max Eastman, Ayn Rand, John Dos Passos,Suzanne La Follette, and Raymond Moley.

Later, he would become friend to William F. Buckley, Jr. and future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

In 1947, he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities as a “Friendly Witness.” Ryskind never sold another script after that appearance, and he believed that his appearance before HUAC was responsible, although there is no direct evidence of an organized campaign against the “Friendly Witnesses.”

He lent money to Buckley to help start The National Review, which began publication in 1955; he also wrote for it. Ryskind briefly joined the John Birch Society, but disassociated himself, when they claimed that Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were part of the Soviet conspiracy.

He was also a vocal sympathizer with the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.

In 1960, Ryskind began writing a feature column in the Los Angeles Times, which promoted conservative ideas for the next eleven years. His son, Allan H. Ryskind, was the longtime editor of the conservative Washington, D.C., weekly Human Events.

Ryskind’s autobiography, I Shot an Elephant in My Pajamas: The Morrie Ryskind Story, details his work on Broadway, in Hollywood, and his politics.

Select Filmography
The Cocoanuts (1929) (starring the Marx Brothers)
Animal Crackers (1930) (starring the Marx Brothers)
A Night at the Opera (1935) (starring the Marx Brothers)
My Man Godfrey (1936) – Oscar nomination
Stage Door (1937) – Oscar nomination
Room Service (1938) (starring the Marx Brothers)
His Girl Friday (1940) movie version of The Front Page
Penny Serenade (1941)
Where Do We Go From Here? (1945)
It’s in the Bag! (1945) starring Fred Allen

Bibliography

I Shot an Elephant in My Pajamas: the Morrie Ryskind Story (with John H. M. Roberts, Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1994.

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