October 20, 1895
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
|Died||August 24, 1985 (aged 89)|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Occupation||Dramatist, screenwriter, lyricist, newspaper columnist|
|Spouse||Mary House (1929-1985) (his death) (2 children)|
Morris "Morrie" Ryskind (October 20, 1895 - August 24, 1985) was an American dramatist, lyricist and writer of theatrical productions and motion pictures, who became a conservative political activist later in life.
Ryskind was born in Brooklyn, 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, the nephew of Leo Tolstoy, 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).
Later he co-wrote, again with Kaufman, the screenplay for A Night at the Opera (1935), which helped revive interest in the Marx Brothers and was selected by the American Film Institute as among the top 100 comedy films ever made. In working on that script, 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. In an interview with Richard J. Anobile in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook, Groucho said he was so appalled by an early draft of the script, which was reportedly written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, that he screamed, "Why fuck around with second-rate talent, get Kaufman and Ryskind [to write the screenplay]!"
Ryskind also rewrote the stage version of Room Service (1938), the original of which did not have the Marx Brothers, reworking the plot to make the movie suitable for the three distinctive performers.
During that period, Ryskind was also twice nominated for an Academy Award for his part in writing the films My Man Godfrey (starring Carole Lombard, 1936) and Stage Door (starring Katharine Hepburn, 1937). Later, he wrote the screenplay for the successful Penny Serenade, wrote the stage musical Louisiana Purchase (which soon became a film starring Bob Hope) and supervised the production of The Lady Comes Across.
For many years Ryskind had been 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 he 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. He maintained some ties to the Socialist Party throughout the 1940s and served as a Vice Chairman of the Keep America Out of War Congress.
Around then, he 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 US 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."
Later, he lent money to Buckley to help start The National Review, which began publication in 1955, another journal to which he was an early contributor. Ryskind briefly joined the John Birch Society but soon disassociated himself from the group after it began to claim that Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were part of the Soviet conspiracy. He was also a vocal sympathizer with the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism.
In 1960, Ryskind started to write a feature column in the Los Angeles Times that promoted conservative ideas for the next eleven years. His son, Allan H. Ryskind, was the longtime editor of the conservative Washington, DC, weekly Human Events.
The elder Ryskind's autobiography, I Shot an Elephant in My Pajamas: The Morrie Ryskind Story, details his adventures from Broadway to Hollywood as well as his conversion to conservative politics.