Forman Brown

Arne Adolfsen writes: I’d much rather talk about Lon Chaney, Jr. and Elsa Lanchester and Maria Ouspenskaya any day than boring old Freud.

If we talk about Elsa Lanchester, can we also talk about Forman Brown? Please?

For ten years — 1941 to 1951 — Elsa Lanchester performed a sort of music hall/cabaret act as part of the show at the Turnabout Theater in Hollywood. The shows there were half marionnette (the Yale Puppeteers) / half cabaret. Harry Burnett made the puppets, Roddy Brandon ran the business, and Forman Brown wrote the songs. The relationship among the three was more than a business partnership.

In 1933, Forman Brown, under the name Richard Meeker, wrote “Better Angel”, which is considered by some to be the first novel published in America to show homosexuality in a positive light. It was autobiographical, and described the beginnings of Forman’s relationship with Roddy — which became a lifetime partnership — and with Harry, with whom Forman and Roddy lived and worked for the rest of their lives (from what I’ve read and seen it’s not clear to me just how Harry fit in to the relationship, not that it matters how clear it is to me.)

The songs that Forman wrote for Elsa Lanchester are delightful, clever things. I once used this line from one in a sig file:

Since Mr. Badger-Butts gave me his hyphen
I’ve never, never, never been the same.
For I’ve found that when a lady has a hyphen
it changes more than just her name.

One delightful song he wrote and she sang concerns the newfangled electric vacuum cleaners. It’s called “It You Can’t Get in the Corners” and includes this immortal line:

Why fool around with electric cords or a bloomin’ billowin’ bag
When all you need is a bit of spit, your finger, and a rag?

That couplet speaks to me across the decades!

Mostly what I love about Forman Brown is his ability to convey so much in such simple, straightforward words. This from “I Shouldn’t Have Gone to that Matinee”:

I’d a seat in the box at the Empire
with a vacant one at my side.
They’d starated “East Lynne” when a fellow came in
and whispered, “Please, Miss, is this chair occupied?”
Well, I couldn’t say “yes” with conviction
so I said what he took to be “No.”
He shoved me in so tight that try as I might
I could not concentrate on the show.

Now, who else could write a line like “I couldn’t say ‘yes’ with conviction so I said what he took to be ‘no’.”? I think it’s brilliant.

Another line of simple richness, from Lackadaisy Masie:

The tinker he was a dashing man,
flashing his smile so splendid.
The women would flock around his van
and buy what they’d never intended.

“and buy what they’d never intended.” The line is perfection, and the rhyme astonishing.

I conclude this brief tribute to the undeservedly unsung Forman Brown with the first few lines of Lackadaisy Masie, ones I think we can all sink our sympathies in:

The lady named Masie lived all alone
in a ramshackle house by the river.
She lived in a world that was all her own,
and the village could never forgive her.
If she wanted to sweep by the light of the moon
she took her broom and swept;
if she wanted to stay in her bed till noon
she lay in her bed and slept.

Eat your heart out, Oscar Hammerstein.

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