The Other Felix Adler
May 26, 2009 § 8 Comments
Felix Adler was a prodigious comedy writer whose career aligned brilliantly with the rise of the film industry. Coming out of vaudeville in the teens, Adler began as a title writer for Mack Sennett and wrote scripts for silent films throughout the 20’s. His first big hit as a screenwriter came in 1929, with Harold Lloyd’s “Welcome Danger.”
Working steadily through the 1950’s, Adler wrote for Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and–most famously–The Three Stooges. “Scrambled Brains,” Adler’s 1951 Stooges vehicle, was said to be Larry’s favorite. Adler worked at Columbia Pictures’ Short Subject Department from 1935 to1957, first as a staff writer and then as its head until the division was closed in ’57.
By his death in 1963, Adler’s career had spanned the film industry’s first 40 years as well as the first decade of television. Yet until I started doing interviews for my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I had never heard of him.
I began looking into Adler’s life when two of my interviewees spoke at length about him. The first was Marcella Meharg, who lives in his former house on Beachwood Drive. Apparently Adler’s retirement from Columbia, though brief, was far from golden. Marcella’s mother, who bought Adler’s house from probate, found a sheaf of sad job-hunting letters he had written to studios and apparently never mailed. The hillside behind the house was littered with the empty whiskey bottles that Adler had tossed there. Another interviewee, Harry Williams, told me about Adler’s remarkable memory for old songs, his role in founding the Friars Club and his consumption of a fifth of Scotch each night, which Harry delivered to his door.
Despite his unhappiness at leisure, Adler was a beloved Beachwood character. A jovial neighbor, he gave money to children and invited passing residents to stop in for a drink on their way to and from the market. Too gregarious to sit at home, he passed his days at the Village laundry, amusing the clientele as they washed their clothes. His poignant retirement ended when he died, of stomach cancer, in the Motion Picture Home in 1963.
The irony of sharing a name with two vastly more famous Felix Adlers–the Jewish intellectual who founded of the Society for Ethical Culture and “The King of Clowns”–probably wasn’t lost on the Felix Adler who wrote films called “Block-Heads” and “A Chump at Oxford,” and was a charter member of the Friars Club. But it did consign him to a curious posthumous obscurity. When I started searching for photos of him, I found nothing–not a single image of a man who had spent four decades in Hollywood, the mecca of headshots. It was incredible.
Finally a search of the photo archives at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences turned up two, both from the 20’s:
- Having no idea what Adler looked like, I was glad to be able to attach a face to the stories. Although I would have liked a photo of him as an older man, it’s fitting that the only two images I found are from the same era but so different. Like the Greek masks of comedy and tragedy, Adler shows his serious and comic sides. He also looks like someone you might like to know.