What Makes You So Funny, Mischa Auer? (1938) 🇺🇸
Here’s what happened when Mischa, who usually laughs off questions about himself, couldn’t duck some very personal queries.
As is the inescapable fate of office girls, Jane and I were doing our shopping in the Saturday afternoon whirlpool of the Loop, buffeted by determined females with hats askew, and mad, bargain-hunting eyes. Above the roar of traffic, our trained ears discerned the harsh croaks of women with parched throats who had staggered from drug-store to drug-store in vain search of a stool and a coke.
Heads down, we rammed our way through the mob, until our eyes were caught by as soothing a sight as one could hope to see. It was a large poster of Mischa Auer in front of the Palace theatre. Above his high hat appeared the legend, “Today, In Person.”
Blessed Mischa Auer, who no matter how dry and cracked the creek of your spirits, can cause it to overflow with laughter like the Ohio river in floodtime! Mischa, the Thief, who steals every picture in which he appears!
“I think,” I said to Jane, “that I will drop around back-stage and interview Mischa Auer.”
“Why, hello, Louella Parsons,,” she said. “Fancy meeting you in on old lapin coat! Rehearsing for a character role, I presume?”
“Want to come with me?” I asked, shaking her shower of sarcasm off my back, like a dog.
“You’re not really going to interview him?” she asked. “Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but I phoned back-stage this morning. The man in the office said Mischa is a good guy; he’d probably talk to me if I caught him before his number. Come with me. If he won’t talk — at least we’ll see him.”
Jane looked down wistfully at her rubbers. “Mmm, I’d love to see him. But I only have a half hour, and Fields, has a sale on pique blouses — a dollar ninety-eight. And I want to return the cologne I bought last week.
Besides the sidewalks are bone dry and I am wearing rubbers. How can a girl embark on high adventure wearing rubbers? I’d quail before those great liquid orbs of Mischa’s. What would he think? ‘There’s a clod,’ he’d say to himself.”
“OK,” I said. “Get your pique blouse. I am going to see Mischa Auer.”
She hesitated uncertainly, as though to follow me, then glanced once more at her rubbers, and shook her head. “Report every detail. Don’t miss a twitch of his eyebrow,” she said, and waved goodby.
The doorman admitted me without question and waved me into a reception room overflowing with school children. Plump little girls in bowler hats and clean bright hair curling Deanna Durbin style, sat on the davenport. Their hands clenched autograph books and their eyes were tense and excited.
“When’s he coming?”
“Why doesn’t he hurry up?”
“Aw, this is nothing,” preened a child-about-town, evidently an old-timer at the autograph game. “Last summer the kids waited four hours for Martha Raye.” She looked disdainfully at me as though I were a big bully, waiting to snatch autographs from the hands of babes.
“Four hours?” exclaimed a small boy, striding up and down the room, his hands in his leather jacket pocket. “Then the kids were suckers. I like Mischa Auer, but I wouldn’t wait four hours for any man.”
And then Mischa appeared, tall, lively-eyed, and far more handsome than he is on the screen. The children loosed themselves against his knees, proffering autograph books. I managed to shout over their heads that I wanted an interview.
“I have no time now,” he said. “I tell you what. Go inside and see the show. When the acrobats appear, come back here again, and I will give you an interview.”
I cast a haughtily triumphant glance at the know-it-all child-about-town, whose mouth was agape, and disappeared into the movie palace via the “strictly-private” route.
As soon as the picture was over I returned back-stage. Four young and tender little girls — reporters for their school papers — sat patiently in the reception room. Mischa appeared, and beckoned to all of us with a wave of his long arm. “Follow me,” he said.
He led the procession, executing a few dance steps, and waving an imaginary baton. The four schoolgirls and I followed after him, single file, through the wings — pausing when he paused to chat to a stage-hand, and then onward, up the stairs to the dressing-room.
There were only three chairs in the room. He placed them all together and said, “Now, two of you can sit in the cracks. This is a mass interview, so fire away. But one question at a time, please.”
He began to divest himself of his shirt, and his broad chest gleamed before five pair of startled, quickly lowered eyes.
“Oh, Jane,” I thought, “what you missed!”
Silence answered him. Neither I, nor the four representatives of their school papers, pencils poised above notebooks, could think of a thing to say.
“What is it?” he demanded, his eyes widening in hurt surprise. “The chest? But you see the same on the bathing beaches, do you not? In a dressing-room, one undresses. That is logic, is it not? Ah, well!” He disappeared into the bathroom and poked his head around the door.
“We came to find out what makes you so funny, Mr. Auer,” said one of the little girls in a high, intense treble.
“Call me Mischa,” he shouted. “I do not like this business — ‘Mr. Auer.’ Even my little boy calls me Mischa. As soon as he sees me coming into the house he giggles, ‘Haw, here comes Mischa.’ He only calls me Mr. Auer when I have displeased him.”
“How old is your little boy?” asked the girls.
“Four years old.”
“Does he go to kindergarten?”
“Soon he will go.”
The little girls said oh and ah, and looked meaningfully at one another.
“We want to be kindergarten teachers when we grow up,” they explained.
“My son loses out by having been born too soon,” said Mischa gallantly, and reappeared in the room buttoning his white evening shirt. “But you have asked me what makes me so funny. I do not know. Personally, I do not think I am funny — it is just the situations the directors put me in. I am no Charlie Chaplin, no artiste. My wife has been married to me for seven years, and she still roars at me. I cannot understand it. I did not take her on this tour with me because I knew she would sit out front for every performance. The act is routine; it is all set; it bores me. I would not wish to bore her five times a day. So I would put new twists in the routine and mix it up and she would laugh but the audience would stare solemnly.”
“I bet when you were in school all the kids in your room had a circus,” said one of the little girls.
He lifted first one shoulder and then the other like a pulley. “I sat in class, lifting my shoulders, like so. Maybe, even then I was studying to be an ape. All the children tittered. The teacher looked at me over her glasses. She was a stern one; I was afraid of her. ‘What are you doing, Mischa?’ she asked. I told her I had wool underwear on and that it was scratching me. She couldn’t punish me for that.” He smiled with disarming innocence.
The four little reporters laughed delightedly.
“I never laughed at my own acting,” he continued, “until I saw the preview of My Man Godfrey. We had put the ape act into the picture because we were in high spirits while making it. I supposed it would be cut out. Well, at the preview, we were all sitting in a row — Powell, Lombard, and I. I saw myself swinging from the chandelier. To me, it was funny. But I did not dare laugh at my own acting. Then I looked to left and right, and saw that Powell and Lombard were roaring. So I let go, too. But understand,” he repeated, lifting a palm, “it was the situation that was funny — not me.
“We had a riot making that picture. Powell had sciatica, and was supposed to be in bed when he wasn’t in a scene. But he wouldn’t go home. He sat on the sidelines, haw-hawing. Some days, Lombard would not be due on the set until noon, but she would come there at nine, in her pajamas, afraid she might miss some of the fun.”
The four young reporters beamed and nodded their heads at the casual reference to Lombard and Powell.
Mischa picked his mascot stuffed ape off his dressing-table and patted its head. Then he swung like an ape about the room. It wasn’t a stingy act, done with limited movements. He loped and leaped and swung in generous mimicry while his interviewers held their sides and shook their chairs with merriment.
“But where were you born?” asked the most business-like little girl, when the private performance was over. “Where did you go to school and how did you get into pictures ?”
“Born Michael Simonowich Ounkowskoy,” chanted Mischa, running all his words together like a hungry monk running through his pater nosters. “St. Petersburg, November 17, 1905. Shipped to Siberia during the revolution, escaped, joined the British military mission as messenger boy ; troops evacuated at Constantinople; wandered to Florence, Italy, where I learned the address of my grandfather on a concert tour in America. He cabled me money, I came to America, attended the Ethical Culture School in New York, barnstormed ten years, landed in Hollywood, starved there for three, and ate well ever after.”
He cocked his ear toward the music rising from the orchestra pit downstairs. “Two minutes to go. I said the routine bores me. I lied, I always get stage-fright. I hope I won’t get bubbles between the teeth when I talk to them. Do you ever get bubbles before the teeth when you talk, excited? Any more questions?”
Adoringly, the little girls nodded their heads up and down, and shook them from side to side. Reluctantly they rose to go.
“Goodby,” bowed Mischa. “This has been a pleasure.”
He extended his hand. The first little girl extended hers, too, and dropped her notes on the floor. They both stooped to pick them up and their heads knocked. He extended his hand to the second one. She dropped her papers, too. Finally they all departed, blushing and beaming.
Mischa turned to me, mopping his brow with a handkerchief. “Ah, I am sorry,” he said. “I clown for the children, and you do not get your interview. Well, you must come back for your story — after this number.”
“There is only one question I would like to ask you,” I said. “You’re so much fun, and people always feel light-hearted around you. But don’t you ever get low like other people?”
All the comedy faded out of his face. “Low?” he asked quietly. “I am low all the time. I saw rape at the age of twelve. I buried my mother with my own hands. I am like all Russians, with the weight of the globe in the heart. But why sink your head in your hands in melancholy pose and make others sad, too? No, when you are with people, make fun, and their laughter brings fun back to you. That is why I surround myself with people. It is not good to be alone and think.”
And then the call boy came up to tell Mischa it was time for his number. With one hand on the boy’s shoulder he Susie-Q’d down the steps to tickle the thousands who already sat waiting with expectant laughter tugging at the corners of their lips.
Auer laughed at his own acting for the first time when he saw “My Man Godfrey.” Being funny when he grins, as at right, then in a close-up with Danielle Darrieux in “The Rage of Paris” — and finally, wide-eyed wonder as at lower right.
Source: Screenland Magazine, July 1938
Source: Photoplay Magazine, September 1939