Long associated with the music of Harry Ruby, lyricist Bert Kalmar helped put songs into the mouths of such movie comedy teams as Wheeler & Woolsey and the Marx Brothers. Together Kalmar and Ruby authored several Broadway shows and helped bring some fairly illustrious musical talent to the fore through them, but it was as songwriters that they made their biggest mark. For Bert Kalmar, it was a long road, filled with unexpected career turns, from New York's Lower East Side to Hollywood.
He was born in New York in 1884 and grew up just a few blocks from where his somewhat younger contemporary Harry Ruby was born and raised. Kalmar's musical aspirations evolved only slowly and relatively late in life, in his late twenties. Initially, he was a magician. Kalmar left home while still a boy and in the course of exploring different means of survival, he discovered that he had a penchant for performing magic tricks; recognizing also that he had a quick hand and eye, he perfected his sleight-of-hand skills and became celebrated in his neighborhood for his ability to juggle, materialize playing cards, or pull rabbits out of his sleeve. This led him to the vaudeville stage in the first years of the 20th century; he soon discovered, however, that the competition with his rival magicians was potentially fierce and that there were long weeks of unemployment in between engagements.
Kalmar began thinking of becoming a comic and specifically catering to Hebrew-speaking audiences -- which was a significant population in New York in those days. Toward that end, he started devising Hebrew parodies of the popular songs of the period. It was a take-off on the George M. Cohan vehicle "Wine, Women and Song" that led him to begin a career in stage comedy in partnership with Jessie Brown (whom he later married and divorced), as Kalmar & Brown. It was at the suggestion of composer Ted Snyder that Kalmar turned to writing serious songs rather than parodies -- together, they wrote "I Want to Be in the Land of Harmony," which became a major hit and drew Kalmar into the music publishing business, where he crossed paths with a movie theater pianist turned song plugger named Harry Ruby. Kalmar, Snyder, and Ruby later co-authored "Who's Sorry Now," a song whose appeal transcended several generations, as a hit in the '10s and '20s and then, again, for Connie Francis three decades later.
Kalmar and Ruby, whose partnership began in 1918, were signed as a songwriting team to a major publishing company and over the next few years, they wrote songs that were turned into hits by the likes of Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, and Helen Kane, including "Three Little Words," "This Heart of Mine," "I Gave You Up Before You Turned Me Down," "My Sunny Tennessee," "I Want to Be Loved By You," and "Oh, What a Pal Was Mary." Their ambitions began transcending songs, however, and by the early '20s they were writing sketches that turned up in Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues and Earl Carroll's Vanities. The two wrote their first musical, Helen of Troy, N.Y., which opened the way for their work with the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers (which was later filmed) and other hit shows; Kalmar and Ruby's "Hooray for Captain Spaulding," from Animal Crackers, became Groucho Marx's signature tune for 40 years and was still generating royalties for its use on his television show in the 1980s; one irony surrounding the familiarity of the song is that the film version of Animal Crackers, which should have been one of the duo's bigger claims to screen immortality, was unseen for several decades as a result of a rights problem that wasn't cleared up until the early '70s. The team's own stage production of "Top Speed" also became notable the stage work in which future film star Ginger Rogers first achieved significant positive press. By the end of the 1920s and the dawn of the 1930s, their songs had also been picked up by members of the jazz community, including Henry "Red" Allen, and it seemed that Kalmar and Ruby were nearing the top of their profession.
Hollywood beckoned with the advent of talking pictures and the musical film and in 1930, Kalmar and Ruby took their show on the road, to RKO, where they were engaged to write songs for the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Their work also turned up in the studio's 1930 Amos and Andy feature film Check and Double Check. They also provided songs for Eddie Cantor in The Kid From Spain for Goldwyn, and for Fanny Brice in Everybody Sing, at MGM, but their most well-remembered contributions directly to the screen were in the anarchic Marx Brothers Paramount films Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, although at the time, neither of those movies was considered a success -- in more recent decades, however, both films (along with their songs, which include "I'm Against It") have come to be regarded as classics. The team was still contributing songs to Hollywood films as late as the mid-'40s, at 20th Century Fox, in Wake Up and Dream.
In 1947, shortly before Bert Kalmar's death, the duo signed a contract for MGM for the making of a musical/biography of their careers together. The resulting film, Three Little Words, depicting a productive but tempestuous partnership, was released in 1950 with Fred Astaire playing Kalmar and Red Skelton playing Ruby. The revival of interest in the Marx Brothers in the 1960s restored luster to a good deal of their Hollywood songbag, culminating with the reissue of Animal Crackers early in the next decade. A handful of their songs endure in popularity to this day, familiar across 80 years -- in the case of "Who's Sorry Now," through Connie Francis's multimillion selling rendition; and, in the case of the comedic numbers, by virtue of Kalmar's punning lyrics and their association with certain personalities such as Groucho Marx and Helen Kane.