Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

S. J. Perelman was cynical about Hollywood and screenwriting as only a successful Hollywood screenwriter could be, and it is not surprising that he frequently burlesqued the cinema in his many sketches and stories.

Burlesque is a somewhat schizophrenic technique that lends itself nicely to a double view of things. On one hand, it represents a blatant travesty of the artistic form, or genre, that it mimics. On the other hand, it is a rather flattering tribute to its original. Just as Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha) shows both the Spaniard’s extreme exasperation with and his lingering love for the medieval romance, so Perelman’s “The Love Decoy” shows his ambivalence toward the zany, formless, slapstick Hollywood screen comedies of his day.

“The Love Decoy” is as farcical as anything that has been shown on the silver screen, yet it has a linguistic sophistication that argues persuasively against the militant simplicity of the Hollywood comedies of the 1920’s and the 1930’s. In his unfinished memoirs, The Hindsight Saga, published in The Last Laugh (1981), Perelman comments, much to the point, on his differences of opinion with Groucho Marx over the scripting of the enormously popular film Monkey Business (1931): Groucho “felt that some of the dialogue I wrote for him was ’too literary.’ He feared that many of my allusions would be incomprehensible to the ordinary moviegoer, whom he regarded as a wholly cretinous specimen.”

Whatever literary frustrations Perelman may have felt with his work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, he more than compensated for them in his sketches and short stories, whose lusty love for language and convoluted style remind one forcibly of James Joyce, Perelman’s favorite “comic writer.”