Archive for the Burns and Allen Category

W.C. Fields and Co. in “Six of a Kind”

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedians, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2016 by travsd

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Six of a Kind (1934), directed by Leo McCarey, captures a pivotal moment in W.C. Fields‘ career; the moment just before he became a star of his own feature-length talkies. In Six of a Kind and previous Paramount sound films, he was merely a member of a comic ensemble, despite having been at the center of silents and sound shorts in the past. But then and now, the part of Six of a Kind everyone remembers is Fields’ role — despite the fact that of the titular six, his is one of the smaller parts. In the film, Charlie Ruggles plays a mild mannered bank employee who is planning a second honeymoon with his bossy wife (Mary Boland). To save expenses on their corss-country motorcar trip, the wife advertises for passengers — who turn out to be George Burns, Gracie Allen and a Great Dane. The bulk of the film concerns the misadventures of this quartet and their canine antagonist. Only towards the end do they stop off in a western town where they encounter a Sheriff named “Honest John” (Fields) and his lady consort, an innkeep (Alison Skipworth, with whom he is paired here for the third and final time). The part of the film everyone remembers is the resurrection of Fields’ pool routine, where he does everything but hit a ball while he attempts to tell an onlooker, through a long and winding story, how he came to be called “Honest John”. Along the way, there is some scintilla of a plot involving a suitcase of stolen money, but one scarcely notices that amongst all the fol de rol. It’s just an excuse to wrap the picture up with a little bang-bang, shoot-shoot, and just in the nick of time, at just over an hour’s running time.

 

The Big Broadcast Films

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2015 by travsd

Since I gave them a mention this morning in a previous post, and I’m way overdue to do so, today I thought I’d do a post on Paramount’s series of Big Broadcast films (and one closely related movie). The Big Broadcast series comes under the category of revue films, usually with very flimsy excuses for a plot (in this case, generally, “we’ve got to save this radio station”). But because of the broadcasting setting, it becomes a very efficient showcase for variety acts, much like a vaudeville show. And THIS of course is the reason why I need to blog about it. In some cases, it’s the only chance you can get to see some performers do their old vaudeville material. In almost every case the Big Broadcast movies are terrible movies….but with terrific patches, much like a vaudeville show. There were many other revue films in the 30s and 40s of course. I’ve blogged about some, and I’ll undoubtedly blog about others. But because of their branding these all go together in a nice, organic clump.

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The Big Broadcast (1932)

The first in the series was actually based on a play, entitled Wild Waves, by William Ford Manley. As a consequence, it hangs together as more of a “real” movie than the later excursions. In this one Bing Crosby is a nonchalant, irresponsible radio crooner; George Burns the station owner (with Gracie Allen as his scatter-brained secretary), Stuart Erwin as a potential backer, and Leila Hyams (of Freaks) as the love interest. Radio acts include The Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra, and Arthur Tracy. Do an inventory. That is a LOT of singers.

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International House (1933)

Technically, this is not part of the Big Broadcast series. Paramount hadn’t yet stumbled on the idea of branding it as an annual revue. But….really this is a Big Broadcast movie in every way but the name. It has Stuart Erwin, Cab Calloway and Burns and Allen from the previous film. Burns and Allen would return in the next two Big Broadcast films; and W.C. Fields would return in the final one. Most importantly, The Big Broadcast of 1936 takes from International House the central premise of a prototypical television device as a pretext for presenting the vaudeville acts. This film also includes Bela Lugosi (as the villain of course), Rose Marie, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Franklin Pangborn, Rudy Vallee and Stoopnagle and Budd. Read more about International House in my earlier post here.

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The Big Broadcast of 1936

This one, the first to be presented as a declared annual revue, was directed by Norman Taurog. Here, Jack Oakie is the beleaguered station manager, with Lyda Roberti as a rich, eccentric radio fan who may be persuaded to back him and the fictional romantic poet/crooner he presents. Burns and Allen return as people hawking a new television device per International House. The Nicholas Brothers, in addition to their usual jaw-dropping dancing, actually have good comic roles, woven throughout the picture. Some of the acts presented include Bing Crosby (here just performing a number as opposed to being the star, as in the first Big Broadcast picture), Mary Boland and Charlie Ruggles (in a comedy sketch), Ethel Merman, and the terrific knockabout team of Willie, West and McGinty (whose turn suffers a little by being cut up into smaller segments)

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The Big Broadcast of 1937

Great talent abounds, but without a doubt this is the weakest in the series. Jack Benny plays the station manager, one “Jack Carson” (ha, but don’t let that confuse you). Burns and Allen return, Ray Milland plays his usual big stiff (he got better as a middle aged man, a time in life when you’re supposed to be a big stiff), and there’s also Bob Burns a.k.a The Arkansas Traveler, Bennie Fields (without Blossom Seeley — she had quit the act a year before and it’s a drag because she was the one with the electricity), Martha Raye, and Bennie Goodman and his Orchestra, featuring Gene Krupa. 

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The Big Broadcast of 1938

The series rebounded a little here, and it features many added bonuses. One is that takes place on a racing ocean liner, not just another radio station. Two is that W.C. Fields is in it and plays a pair of twins. This would be Fields’ last film for Paramount. He was in very bad shape at the time, and truly people at the time feared that it would be his last film, period. Still he is quite funny in it and even manages to squeeze in some of his popular routines. Three, the film features Bob Hope in one of his first roles, and he sings for the first time the song with which he would there ever after be identified: “Thanks for the Memory”. Martha Raye returns as an unlucky gal (she and Hope were always very funny together), and the movie also stars Dorothy Lamour (previous to any of the Road pictures), and Ben Blue.

One crucial missing element: Burns and Allen. The Big Broadcast series can be said to have been the closest thing to a series of Burns and Allen pictures (despite the fact that they were always in the ensemble). After Honolulu the following year, they moved away from film, concentrating on radio and television. And there’s something telling about that. Broadcasting is a medium with immediacy, a perfect platform for variety acts. Ironically, film — even a film story about radio — isn’t. There’s something mechanical and dinosaur-like about presenting variety acts in film. I can’t say I’m not grateful for it – -it’s often the only record we have of many performers. But radio and tv (and now the web)…they’re much closer to the in-your-face, exciting experience of live performance. Who needs a Big Broadcast movie when you have radio itself?

 

“Say Goodnight, Gracie” Tonight and Tomorrow

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, PLUGS with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2014 by travsd

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Tonight and tomorrow night, Alan Safier stars as George Burns in the one man show Say Goodnight, Gracie at the Queens Theatre. For info and tickets go here. 

An All-Star Comedy Cast in “International House” (1933)

Posted in Asian, Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Movies, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by travsd

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The presence of W.C. Fields is one of the highlights of the terrific all-star Paramount comedy International House (1933), directed by Eddie Sutherland.

I’ve probably seen this one two dozen times, and will no doubt watch it many more. It’s essentially a revue film showcasing many musical and comedy stars, spliced together with a parody of MGM’s Grand Hotel, which had been released the previous year. It’s all set at the titular International House hotel in Wuhu, China, where VIPS from all over the globe have come to see a demonstration of a new invention called a “radioscope”, which is essentially a prototype of television.

The flustered hotel manager is of course Franklin Pangborn; the hotel doctor and nurse are George Burns and Gracie Allen. Guests include W.C. Fields as a professor/explorer/ inventor not unlike Groucho’s Captain Spalding in Animal Crackers, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (as herself), Stuart Erwin and Bela Lugosi as an evil Russian spy. The radioscope itself is the devise that enables the revue portion. As the assembled parties watch, the device tunes into various parts of the globe where it just happens to capture great variety acts, among them, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie and Stoopnagle and Budd. There’s never a dull moment in this movie; there’s never time for one.

The most unfortunate aspect of the film of course is attitude towards the Chinese, which ranges (in the typical mode of the time) from stereotype to ignoring them completely. Anyway that’s how they used to make Hollywood movies. When we emulate them today, let’s choose only the good parts.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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The Ranconteurs: A Story of George Burns and Gracie Allen

Posted in Burns and Allen, Indie Theatre, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on November 6, 2013 by travsd

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I was delighted to see three different people, all of whom I met separately and through three entirely different connections, all collaborating in Lauren Milberger’s reading for her new play The Raconteurs, A Story of George Burns and Gracie Allen last night. Lauren I’d met because we both contributed essays to the book Playbills to Photoplays: Stage Performers Who Pioneered the Talkies. She is THE go-to person on the subject of Gracie — read her guest-post on the subject for Travalanche here. I was thrilled to see she also DOES an amazing Gracie impression, one of the show’s many highlights. Also in the cast was Jonathan Smith, whom I first met at the Cinema Arts Center in Huntington years ago at a book event for No Applause. His  Jack Benny impersonation (and his acting) are spot on. And the proceedings were directed by Allan Lewis Rickman, who had directed Shane Baker’s wonderful The Big Bupkis and appears in Lisa Ferber’s Sisters Plotz web series. I also really enjoyed Kevin Sebastian as George Burns, and Iris McQullian-Grace in several roles.

Small world??? Nah, read John Allan Paulos’s Innumeracy. We’re all old time show biz buffs….hardly a representative sampling of the public at large. So we were all bound to be in the same place at the same time SOME time. (Oh my God, have I become a nerd? Where’s my pocket protector?)

At any rate, this was a developmental reading not a production, so this is not a review, just a report, although I think I can freely say I really enjoyed it.

Stars of Vaudeville #38: Burns and Allen

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comediennes, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Irish, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stand Up, Television, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2013 by travsd

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Originally posted in 2009

Today is Gracie Allen’s birthday

Burns and Allen are the most successful “Dumb Dora” act (or male-female comedy team) of all time. Countless such acts came before them, and plenty after them, but none is as memorable as this pair, who were at the top of their game for forty years. The success of the act is most frequently chalked up to Gracie Allen’s unique artistry, but the fact is, George Burns was among the best straight men who ever walked the earth. He frequently protested that Gracie was the whole act and that he had no talent but this was just a public pose. Deep down he had to have known better. He wrote much of their material for one thing, and his material was consistently good, better than Bob Hope’s, for example. Furthermore, he proved himself a marvelous comedian on his own after Grace retired. Burns and Allen was a true partnership.

What set the act apart from all the other Dumb Dora acts was Gracie’s skill as a comic actress. Contrary to the tradition, which is to dress the Dumb Dora in loud, sexy, “funny” clothes, Gracie would dress tastefully in some fashionable, but normal, outfit from the sort of place where all the women in the audience shopped. She was not vulgar or burlesquy. There was no suggestion that she was “easy”. At 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, she was hardly the show-girl “babe” type. She was simply dumb, and a little bit crazy. Furthermore, she did not even play dumb, although her naturally high pitched voice helped reinforce the image that she was. As far as you knew it by watching her body language she was a perfectly intelligent woman, completely in the right and sincere about whatever she was talking about. The twist was, she was talking preposterous nonsense.

From their sketch “Dizzy”

A man comes out, puts his arms around Gracie, and kisses her, and she kisses him. They wave to each other as he backs offstage. Gracie returns to George center stage.

Gracie: Who was that?

George: You don’t know?

Gracie: No, my mother told me never to talk to strangers.

George: That makes sense.

Gracie: This always happens to me. On my way in, a man stopped me at the stage door and said, “Hi, you cutie, how about a bite tonight after the show?”

George: And you said?

Gracie: I said “I’ll be busy after the show, but I’m not doing anything right now, so I bit him.

George Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum in 1896, one of 12 kids from a poor family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His parents were orthodox Jews, the mother from Poland, the father from Austria. He started dancing on street corners at age seven for coins. His first real act,was the Pee Wee Quartet, a juvenile singing act. He performed with perhaps dozens of failed acts (under as many names) previous to teaming up with Allen: Comedy acts, song and dance acts, even a trained seal act. One of the most serious of his earlier partners was the dancer Hermosa Jose, who was also his first wife. He was teamed with Billy Lorraine in 1923 (the two did impressions), when Burns decided he want to do a Dumb Dora act instead, because he has just copped a bunch of good jokes from a college humor magazine of that sort.

As it happened, Gracie Allen was looking for an act herself at that very time. Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen was born to a show business family in San Francisco in 1906. Her father, a well-known Irish clog dancer, ran out on the family when Gracie was five. When she was a teenager she joined a song and dance act with her sisters Bessie, Pearl and Hazel – the Four Colleens.  She then joined a dramatic act owned by a man named Larry Reilly but he canned her for getting better reviews than he did.

This was the state of her career when she went to go see George Burns. Long before any romance had sparked between them, they decided to try working together, all done in a tidy, businesslike fashion. Burns frequently testified that she was the straightman at first, and that he had all the funny lines – but she got all the laughs anyway. So they had to adjust the act to make her the “funny” partner. The act was instantly popular, because Gracie’s approach was so fresh. She didn’t “act”, or play to the house. She always just simply and sincerely spoke to George in character (whom she was nothing like in real life, incidentally).

The act’s finish was also unique. They’d dance a bit, the music would stop, they’d do a joke, the music would resume, and the process would repeat.

By 1925, they had really made the big time with a tour of the Orpheum Circuit. Comedy writer Al Boasberg (who also wrote for Block and Sully, another Dumb Dora act, and later wrote for the Marx Brothers), wrote a sketch for them called “Lamb Chops” that was probably the best thing they ever did. A 1929 Vitaphone short of this act survives, and it is an eye-opener, to see the pair of them so young, so fresh, and at the peak of their powers. One can see why this is the act that put them over—that made them stars for decades to come.

In 1926, the two were married but not before Gracie put George through his paces. She had been dating Benny Ryan, but George forced her to choose, and she finally acquiesced. The next few decades of their career record triumph after triumph. In 1926, they signed a five year contract with Keith-Orpheum. In 1928, they made a successful tour of England. Also, in 1928 they played the Palace for the first time, which Burns described as the greatest night of his life. The team was a smash at the Palace, and Gracie was invited to m.c., the first female ever so distinguished at the Palace. In 1929, they make their first short for films for Paramount, and several features through the 1930s. Gracie frequently worked without George in films; her last role was in Mrs. North in 1941.

Eddie Cantor booked Gracie as a solo for radio in 1930. The team did lots of spots on other people’s shows over the months. In 1932, Burns and Allen  became regulars on Guy Lombardo’s program. When Lombardo left the next season, Burns and Allen took over, renaming the show “The Adventures of Gracie.” Their theme song, which they used through the remainder of their career was “Love Nest.”  Their popular radio show ran until 1950, at which point they made the transition to television.

Their television show, which ran for eight years, was a strange hybrid. Though there was a situation comedy element, with a typical “house” set, each show was framed by Burns doing a Brechtian style “direct address” – stand up material and confidential little conversations with the television audience. When Gracie, who had a bad heart (among numerous other conditions) retired in 1958, Burns concentrated on a number of other projects. His production company, McCadden productions, was responsible for bring Mr. Ed to the screen. A George Burns Show bit the dust after a single season, suffering the same fate, for many of the same reasons, as Sonny Bono’s The Sonny Comedy Revue would ten years later.  With Gracie in retirement, Burns seemed to be floundering for quite some time. A solo act was tried in Vegas, and then he teamed up with Carol Channing as a sort of substitute for Gracie, a strange instinct to say the least. In 1964, he did a short lived sit com with Connie Stevens called Wendy and Me. That was the year, Gracie finally succumbed to her heart condition, ironically one of the youngest of her generation of vaudevillians to pass into the hereafter.

After a decade of grieving (and who wouldn’t take so long after the loss of such a partner?) Burns began to emerge from his cocoon. With a gentleman named Irving Fein as his manager, he made one of the most astounding comebacks in show business. In fact, it was more than a comeback, for Burns as a solo act had never been a success. The turnaround began with a role in the 1975 Neil Simon film The Sunshine Boys, a part originally intended for Jack Benny, who had just passed away. Burns had been slated to deliver the eulogy at Benny’s funeral, but was too emotionally distraught, and so passed the grim duty on to Bob Hope.

For the next twenty years, Burns was a first class star, sort of Hollywood’s token old guy.

For a whole generation of fans (the author included) George Burns was just George Burns – we had never known him with Gracie, and could discover her only through detective work. But George Burns – there he was in films, such as “Oh, God” (1978) and “Going in Style” (1979), countless TV appearances, and humor books (practically one a year, it seemed). He was at his best on talk shows, in conversation with people like Larry King or Johnny Carson, where he could tell his seemingly endless supply of show business anecdotes and ad libs, and reveal that he was, indeed, a very funny man, in his own right.  Burns died in 1996, stubbornly holding out for 100. At the point, he had been a performer for 93 years.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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The Underrated George Burns

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Stand Up, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on January 20, 2013 by travsd

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Celebrates 99th Birthday

Today is the  birthday of Nathan Birnbaum, a.k.a George Burns. For more on him and the legendary act he had with his wife Gracie Allen go here. I usually re-post it on Gracie’s birthday, but I did want to say a few words about him separately.

I actually got to see him live once a few years before he died, and I have a couple of his autographed books. The man did not stop plugging, right up until he died (soon after his 100th birthday.) In person he looked startling, sort of skeletal and chimp-like, about what you’d expect a 100 year old man to look like. They usually doctored his photos; above is one of the few I could find that convey the impression he made in person at that stage. But still, walking, talking, telling jokes, reminisicing and writing books.

I always feel like giving him props because he seemed to have an inferiority complex, a sort of loser psychology that had him living in the shadow of his “more talented” wife. Gracie was groundbreaking, and a huge star. If I were to make a list of the greatest and most influential comediennes of all time she’d definitely be in the top five, maybe even the verymost top of the list. In their day, she was the one who was in demand (in fact on occasion she was even asked to make appearances without Burns.)

Burns, on the other hand, was roughly equivalent to most of the other comedian/ perfomers of his generation…a George Jessel, a Benny Fields, a Lou Holtz. He struggled without success before he met Gracie. It was natural for him to think of her as the star, with himself as just a very lucky man. (Or, I sometimes wonder, was that just an act? Humility plays very well. And talking about Gracie after her death gave him material to dine out on for 30 years). Either way, he wasn’t a slouch. The idea for the act had been his. The idea to cast her was his. He wrote most of their material (and as a jokewriter he was one of the best in the business, up there with Al Boasberg, who also wrote for Burns and Allen). And he was one the best straight men in the business, a much under-rated skill). And he was very funny and charming as a solo act. As I said in my inital post, I (and I bet most people my own age) just knew him as the old guy in comedy movies the 1970s and early 80s — we had no idea Gracie even existed, until we saw him on talk shows reminiscing about her. If he wanted to, he could have gone ahead without ever mentioning her name and been just as popular, which leads me to believe his sentiments were genuine.

Here’s a nice little thing; George accepting his best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in The Sunshine Boys (1974) (surreally presented to him by Ben Johnson and Linda Blair):

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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