Apparently a shortening of life is just a bowl of cherries, the phrase a bowl of cherries denotes a highly enjoyable situation or experience.
The earliest occurrence of life is just a bowl of cherries that I have found is from the column New York Life, by Grant Dixon, published in The Tampa Daily Times (Tampa, Florida) of Friday 11th May 1928:
Manicure Take on Nails of Seagoers.
Seagoing manicures are the latest rage. The pretty blondes and brunettes of the delicate touch system are besieging the service departments of steamship companies for opportunities to polish up the nails of seagoers. […]
“And why not?” asked the star manicurist of one of the big uptown hotels the other day. “The life of a manicurist on one of the big liners is just a bowl of cherries, my boy, just a bowl of cherries with whipped cream on the side.”
The meaning of life is a bowl of cherries is unclear in the review of Under Suspicion, a “Fox Movietone all-talking picture”, published in The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana) of Wednesday 31st December 1930—besides, George Jessel1 does not seem to have contributed to Under Suspicion:
The short subjects are good. George Jessel1, in his best Yiddish manner, shows that life is a bowl of cherries (with the implication that he picked a sour one for a wife).
1 George Jessel (1898-1981) was an American comedian.
What gave currency to the phrase was Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries, a 1931 song that the composer Ray Henderson (Raymond Brost – 1896-1970) and the lyricist Lew Brown (Louis Brownstein – 1893-1958) wrote for the eleventh edition of George White’s Scandals2.
2 Produced by George White (1891-1968), George White’s Scandals were a series of revues that ran from 1919 to 1939.
The gossip columnist Walter Winchell (1897-1972) either misquoted the song title or quoted a working title in his column On Broadway3, published in The Post-Star (Glens Falls, New York) of Tuesday 21st July 1931:
Recommended to diversion seekers: […] “That’s a Bowl o’ Cherries,” a Lew Brown clown chune [= tune] in the forthcoming “Scandals.”
3 Famous for its theatres, Broadway is a street traversing the length of Manhattan, in New York City.
The following from “Scandals” Win Praise in Opening at Shore, published in The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of Tuesday 11th August 1931, bears witness to the instant popularity of the song:
Special to The Inquirer.
Atlantic City, Aug. 10.—Replete with humorous skits, tuneful songs, clever dancing, pretty girls and gorgeous settings, the eleventh edition of George White’s “Scandals” was ushered in at the Garden Pier Theatre tonight before an audience that packed every seat and overflowed into the aisles.
[…] One of the big song hits of the revue, “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” was sung by the Loomis Sisters and most of the other favorites. It will linger in the memory of the audience more than any other, with the possible exception of “Beginning of Love” sung by Jane Alden.
The singer and bandleader Hubert Prior ‘Rudy’ Vallée (1901-86) recorded Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries that same year—as ‘Jiminy’ mentioned in the column Checked and Double-Checked, published in The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey) of Wednesday 26th August 1931:
We recommend to diversion seekers the new Victor disc by Rudy Vallee, rendering “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and “Meet the Missus” from the “Scandals.”
Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries, by Rudy Vallée
People are queer, they’re always crowding
Scrambling and rushing about
Why don’t they stop someday
Address themselves this way?
Why are we here? Where are we going?
It’s time that we found out
We’re not here to stay, we’re on a short holiday
Life is just a bowl of cherries
Don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious
You work, you save, you worry so
But you can’t take your dough when you go, go, go
Life is just a bowl of cherries
So live and laugh at it all
(An imitation of Willie Howard, singing his chorus in the show)
Life is just a bowl of cherries
Don’t take it serious, it’s too mysterious
At eight each morning I have got a date
To take my plunge ’round the Empire State
You’ll admit it’s not the berries
In a building that’s so tall
There’s a guy in the show, the girls love to kiss
Get thousands a week just for crooning like this
Life is just a bowl of, aw, nuts!
So live and laugh at it all!
The author of the column Cullings, published on the Woman’s Page of The Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) of Saturday 22nd August 1931 had a negative opinion of the song:
Rudy Valee [sic], who is crooning to that great class of Mr. and Mrs. Got Rocks, who are summering at Atlantic City, these day [sic], offers a very new sort of tune. It is called by the tart name of “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” The words go on philosophically about laughing and being gay with these cherries of life. That’s alright, Rudy, as long as the cherries are sweet, but what about it, when you reach way down in the bag and draw out a bitter sour one? What then?
The following anecdote is from the column The Once-Over, by H. I. Phillips, published in the Bergen Evening Record (Hackensack, New Jersey) of Thursday 1st October 1931:
“Persons who whistle are morons, devoid of moral stamina. No great or successful man ever whistles. Can you think of Einstein4, Edison or Mussolini tuning up to ‘When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain’? Can you imagine President Hoover whistling?”—From an address by Professor C. G. Shaw of New York University.
“Think of Einstein4 whistling?” demanded Frau Einstein today, when told of the professor’s speech. “Why, he has us all crazy with his whistling! He’s got a new tune now. I think it’s called ‘Love Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.’ He goes around the house whistling it all the time. I can always tell when he has a new theory coming on . . . he whistles the silliest airs!”
4 Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was a German-born American theoretical physicist, founder of the special and general theories of relativity.
The phrase life is just a bowl of cherries occurs in ‘Unpublished Author’ Plans Book on ‘Idiotic Decade Since 1920’, by H. Allen Smith, United Press Staff Correspondent, published in the Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Montana) of Monday 21st September 1931:
New York, Sept. 20.—(U.P.)—Benjamin Decasseres5, the cynic of Nineteenth street, who truly believes that life is just a bowl of cherries, let it be known today that he is contemplating a new book—a book dealing with the decade which ended on Jan. 1, 1930.
Decasseres has been meditating on the subject for some months and he has reached the conclusion that the 1920’s constitute “the most idiotic decade in the history of mankind.”
5 Benjamin De Casseres, or DeCasseres, (1873-1945) was an American journalist, critic, essayist and poet.
The phrase then occurs in Ready to Dance, by Nick Altrock, published in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) of Wednesday 23rd September 1931:
It’s been a great year for chain store baseball. Four different teams that the Cardinals’ management own won pennants. For the independent grocers and ball clubs these days, life is just a ball of cherries, followed by a pint of cream. In other words, just a stomach ache.
In the final of the unconnected paragraphs making up his column On Broadway, published in the Evening Courier (Camden, New Jersey) of Saturday 14th November 1931, Walter Winchell transferred the title of the song to Broadway, to which he added the notion of decay:
And that, if you want to argue about it—you might say that Broadway is Just a Bowl of Cherries—with worms in them!
The earliest instance that I have found of the shorter form a bowl of cherries is from the column The Man in the Street, by ‘A. T. S.’, published in the Port Huron Times Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) of Saturday 21st November 1931:
Merely Unusual Folks
Marriage to some folks is the real thing. And being the real thing to them they treat it with the dignity, seriousness, affection, and consistency to which it is entitled.
To other folks marriage is but a bowl of cherries. These folks believe that when the cherries are gone the bowl should be thrown away.
The second-earliest instance of the phrase a bowl of cherries that I have found is from Sport Tactic, by Dan Desmond, published in The Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa) of Sunday 13th December 1931:
There are more disagreeable features to the promotion of fights than are apparent on the surface. In fact, it is hard to resist the tagline that arranging a fistic production is not entirely a bowl of cherries.
EARLIER USES OF A BOWL OF CHERRIES
I: BROADWAY PHRASE MEANING EMPTY TALK
In his column New York Day by Day, published in the Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) of Friday 24th February 1928, O. O. McIntyre (1884-1938) wrote that a bowl of cherries was a Broadway phrase meaning hot air, empty talk:
At sea, Feb. 23.—[…]
Isolation from land and the uncertainty of the sea breed a close knit intimacy. A banker from Montreal in the smoking room today insisted I should not call him Mister. That, of course, in Broadway patter, is a bowl of cherries. He will probably wrinkle a brow to recall me a week hence in London or Paris.
Knute Rockne also specified that a bowl of cherries was a Broadway phrase in Campus Comment, about Stagg’s national interscholastic basketball tournament, published in the Nebraska State Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska) of Sunday 15th April 1928:
Being from Indiana the thing I missed most at Stagg’s tournament was a Hoosier basketball team. They call Indiana the cradle of high school basketball but here is a national meet fight next door and no Hoosier boys are competing. Must be that the cradle is a crib surrounded by iron bars with Tsar Trester as head nurse. I have never heard Mr. Trester give any reason for not allowing the Indiana champs to come to Chicago, except, “Too much basketball.”
In the vernacular of Broadway this excuse is just a bowl of cherries. In most of the Indiana high schools they begin basketball early in the fall. When the boys in other states are out playing in the fresh air and sunshine, all fall the Hoosier lads are practicing basketball indoors in a dusty gymnasium.
The phrase a bowl of cherries occurs again in the sense of empty talk in the column New York Day by Day, by O. O. McIntyre, published in the San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California) of Thursday 8th January 1931:
I had not yet met the type of flapper—1931 model—I encountered today. She phoned from a reception room downstairs: “I am coming up.” Just like that. And a few seconds later there was a vicious bang at the door. You know like a house detective.
In the first place I was not properly attired to greet strange ladies, wearing at the moment a set of pajamas, a flannel robe and house slippers. […]
[…] She abruptly interjected: “Say, you are not such an antique as I imagined. Let’s see you slip out your uppers.” Either she was stark mad or some one was playing a practical joke. Very patiently I told her it was a busy day and to state her business.
“That’s a bowl of cherries,” she cracked. “Turning out that chatter of yours doesn’t take five minutes. I could do it standing on one foot in a canoe. And don’t get arty on me—the slave to belles lettres and other heigh-ho.”
This was perhaps that phrase that Walter Winchell referred to in his column On Broadway, published in The Morning Post (Camden, New Jersey) of Thursday 16th July 1931:
Expressions certainly perish quickly. . . . “That’s a bowl of cherries!” frixample. . . . Wonder what became of “Makin’ Whoopee”?. . . . What a lotta fun it was arguing over that one. . . .
II: JUST A BOWL OF CHERRIES: SOMETHING OR SOMEONE OF LITTLE VALUE OR IMPORTANCE
I have also found two instances of just a bowl of cherries used in the sense of something, or someone, of little value or importance:
II.1: In the comic strip Barney Google, by the American cartoonist DeBeck (William Morgan DeBeck – 1890-1942), published in the Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) of Wednesday 10th March 1926:
– Yep! The old gent says he’ll put up $100.000⁰⁰ that Spark Plug can trim the fastest horse in Europe – Of course it’s family pride with the old gent
– My stars!!! $100.000! What a lot of money
– Just a bowl of cherries to the old gentleman What’s $100.000⁰⁰ to him? Nothing! He’s worth millions and millions
– You don’t say?
II.2: In All In a Day, by Mark Hellinger, published in the Nashville Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) of Monday 30th June 1930—about the first U.S. performance of Thea Morovska, a Polish music-hall artist:
The reviews popped up. They were bad. Unqualifiedly bad. Most of them said that, while Miss Morovska might have been very fine in Poland, she was just a bowl of cherries over here.
III: OBSCURE SIGNIFICATIONS OF A BOWL OF CHERRIES
The meaning of a bowl of cherries is obscure in the following from The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) of Monday 5th July 1926—I have found no record of any story by George Jessel entitled A Bowl of Cherries:
George Jessel Busy
[…] Not only is Georgie perspiring over his first picture efforts, but he is also in the throes of writing a comedy with music, which will later, if all goes well, serve as a picture.
The comedy is to be called “After Hours,” and has to do with vaudeville people of the kerosene circuit and barn storming players, and is adapted from a published story of Jessel’s called “A Bowl of Cherries.”
The meaning of a bowl of cherries is equally obscure in the following from the column On Broadway, by Walter Winchell, published in the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) of Friday 16th January 1931:
Have a Bowl of Cherries
“Some of these youngsters are but 14 or 15 when they break in. They are thrown in with older and harder ones, and brush against waiters, musicians, bouncers, bartenders and bootleggers on a footing of fellow workers, and in the main hall they run against magistrates, stews, chasers, elderly game-hunters, crooks, gangsters, newspapermen, columnists and other perilous and unsavory characters. It is surprising that any of them wriggle through and can sleep days with even a so-so conscience.”—Jack Lait in the N. Y. Sunday American.
Oh, don’t be so McIntyresome!