Lou Breslow, who is 81 going on 16, hops out of a car in Santa Monica and starts searching through his pockets.
"Whoops, nothing in here," he says impishly, taking two strides back a la Fred Astaire, searching for the correct combination of pennies, nickels and dimes to place in a parking meter. He holds out his hand and stares at a penny with his eyebrows raised.
He looks quite natty in tinted aviator glasses, tweed jacket, a blue work shirt and . . . a silk ascot. "Very verpits," he says. Yiddish for polished. "My wife, Marion, a good girl, 47 years together, played opposite Keaton in 'Steamboat Bill, Jr.,' says to me, 'You're meeting people for lunch, Lou. You should look like a nice boy.'
"And believe me," he adds, with a perfect sense of comic timing, "you wouldn't want to see my neck. At my age . . . With a few recent deaths, I think I've written more movies than anybody. We're talking quantity, not quality."
By now someone else has come up with a quarter for the meter, and Breslow leaps to block its insertion:
"DON'T OVERFEED IT," he yells. "You'll spoil it for the next guy."
Breslow has been making jokes in Hollywood for a long time. He came west from Boston in 1908. While working as a paper boy, he landed a job in the first Fatty Arbuckle film and eventually reached the cinematic pinnacle of being a director.
But the course of history has altered Breslow's position in the celluloid pantheon:
It was he -- son of an immigrant Polish tailor, friend of the Marx brothers, master of monkey movies -- who wrote the now immortal "Bedtime for Bonzo." And while its star, Ronald Reagan, may have been born for greatness, Breslow now finds himself in the position of having had greatness thrust upon him.
"A lousy picture, a lousy actor," he says, tossing both off rather quickly. "I do not like to talk about Mr. Reagan. Let's just say this: Bonzo was a wonderful chimp. He died in a fire. I cried when Bonzo died. We all move on. The guy who directed the picture, Freddy de Cordova, is producing the Carson show. I've just written a script about a whorehouse in England. And Reagan . . . He used to be a liberal."
Much of Breslow's own life seems to have been like the screwball comedies he wrote and/or directed -- films like "You Never Can Tell," in which a murdered dog who stood to inherit a fortune returns to earth in the form of Dick Powell to track down his killer. Powell always has some kibble in his pocket, and every time he passes a hydrant his leg kicks up.
Breslow's father left Poland for England, where he got into what his son facetiously calls "the garment business, with a slight twist. You ever hear a Yiddish accent mixed up with a Cockney hint? He'd go up to somebody and say, 'Such nice goods. Must have cost a ha' penny.' We grew up speaking the king's English. Everybody in Boston thought my brother and I were fags. My father heard about this place -- southern California -- where it was always warm. So he loads us all on a train. They had something then called an excess baggage charge. You could only bring what you needed for the trip on the train. Now it might have cost my father $17 to put all his professional equipment in the bgaggage car, but OH NO! I walk on with an ironing board wrapped up in brown paper. My brother has a set of irons. My sister has a sack of material. My mother has a pair of scissors that must be a yard long. We could have opened a tailor shop in the dining car. If there was a second class, we were it. My Aunt Meema had this horrible schetl wig of horse's hair. You're not supposed to ride on Shabbes Saturday, Sabbath so she has her head out the window, covered with this wig, and she's saying her prayers. I have to sleep with my cousin Philip, a big zhlub. He stinks. He blew his brains out a few years back. If you saw his wife . . ."
He went to Polytechnic High and started selling papers. He used to win ribbons for getting new subscribers and he'd wear them to school. After graduating, he got a clerical job, "but I always wanted to be in the picture business, ever since Mabel Normand made me up for that Arbuckle film and I got paid $2 a day. There were two lawyers in the building and I knew they were friendly with Herbert Rawlinson, a big star at Universal. They told him about me and he called me up and said, 'How would you like to go to the circus?' He took me to my first Japanese restaurant afterwards. And the next day I got a job at Universal screening rushes. I worked up to become the guy who holds the slate. I was Karl Struss' assistant when he worked with F.W. Murnau. The guy was perspective crazy. He'd have a cafe' set with giant pots in the foreground and normal size people and have the scene graduated back to infants in tuxedos. When I finally became a first cameraman, they would give me a script, and I'd say, 'You're gonna spend money on this crap? Here's what I would do . . .' I wrote for the Marxes, Laurel and Hardy "A Haunting We Will Go" and "Great Guns" , Abbott and Costello, Red Skelton. I think maybe the first real picture I did was for George Marshall in 1945, 'Murder, He Says.' Fred MacMurray is a crazy insurance salesman. We had a thing in there, the Trotter Poll. Their motto was, 'We're not in such a hurry.' I also made a bunch of pictures that were spoofs of succesful movies, only using monkeys as all the actors. One was called 'Philo Pants,' a spoof of the William Powell-Philo Vance series. After a while you get tired of directing from your stomach. Bryan Foy produced them. Times were tough. He got me to take $50 a picture, and then he said, 'Lou, would you like a multi-picture deal?'
"I just finished a script called 'Year of the Ram.' It's set in 18th-century England, a 'Tom Jones' type about an orphan who's discovered to have amazing equipment. He falls in love with a madam. She does a 'My Fair Lady,' somebody comes up with the idea of a whorehouse for women. It's called the Royal Ladies Whist and Stitchery Club. And all of a sudden the men are having such a good time with their wives at home, what with all the new things they've learned, that the hookers are driven out of business. So they burn the place down."
But, Breslow admits, this is not like the old days, when pictures were made before they were even fully conceived. Nobody, he says, seems particularly interested in investing in a period comedy right now. Money is tight.
Well, fairly tight. Just a few days ago Breslow received a check in the mail from Bangladesh: a $2.80 residual for "Bedtime for Bonzo."
"I wanted to frame it," he says. "But Marion says to me, 'Lou, you'll screw up all their books if you don't cash it.' "