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?

 

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 W.C. Fields and classic comedy film don’t miss my 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

 

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.

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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Gracie Allen: Truth in Comedy

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comediennes, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , on March 15, 2012 by travsd

For Women’s History Month, Travelanche is hosting several posts by several guest bloggers about various female vaudevillians and other performing artists. This is the second in our series, by guest blogger Lauren Milberger.

They say the great ones never truly know how great they are -that the great ones do it without effort, without the knowledge of doing it any other way – doing what comes naturally.  Gracie Allen was that kind of woman, that kind of comedian.  But of course she wasn’t as black and white as the medium in which she played.  Gracie Allen never gave the same performance twice; she had no conception of it.  If she had to eat on camera she ate on camera; if she had to darn a sock she’d darn a sock.  Being truthful in her work was a given to Gracie long before the phrase “Method Acting” became part of our lexicon.  She unknowingly went against convention in her Vaudeville days, wearing whatever she liked on stage (always a nice dress) at a time when performers wore the same outfit each night – costume was as much a part of the act as the lines or moves themselves.  When asked by her husband and comedy partner, George Burns, one night why she brought her purse on stage when the previous night she had not, she replied simply, “A lady always carries a purse.” When asked by a director of a Burns & Allen feature film if she could “cheat” towards the camera while eating, she answered, “But this is how I eat breakfast.” Everything Gracie Allen the character said on stage, Gracie Allen the woman believed, and so in turn did the audience.

 

 Gracie Allen’s onstage persona was that of a scatterbrained woman with her own sense of logic – her mind was an open book.  In real life, Gracie Allen almost never gave an interview as herself; to find an interview, usually very early in her career, where she speaks as herself, is rare.  Gracie Allen was a very private and humble woman.  She believed her own personality was not at all interesting and that the public cared only for her on stage persona, so why do interviews as herself.  This kept Gracie Allen’s real life shrouded in mystery and -whether she knew it or not – gave her a final vestige of privacy.

And who would have blamed Gracie’s audience for being fooled into thinking she was her fictional persona?  After all , Gracie Allen, wife of George Burns, mother and Vaudeville/Radio/TV/movie star, was playing a woman named Gracie Allen, wife of George Burns, mother and Vaudeville/Radio/TV/movie star; even in almost all of Gracie’s movies her character had the first name Gracie and/or last name Allen. Not to mention Burns and Allen used many of the real-life names of Gracie’s family members in the Burns and Allen comedy act.  Even her real age is a mystery, as she never revealed it even to her husband and family.  It was only after the 1900 census as well as her high school yearbook were discovered that her true age came to light.  What is mostly known about Gracie, beyond her ditzy character, is from second hand sources, such as George Burns himself as well as her friends and family.  Therefore, reconstructing the real Gracie Allen is more complicated than her character’s sense of logic.

She was kind, giving, fiercely loyal and fought for what she felt was fair and just in the world. Her motto was simply, “To be professional; on time and don’t push me around because I’m small.”(Burns 1988) The 5’1″ slip of a woman had that Irish passion and never let anyone forget it.  Once in a Vaudeville act, after George refused to take a joke out of the act she didn’t think was funny, Gracie refused to answer George’s straight line – each and every time until George took the joke out of the act.  Another time, in New Orleans, a local dry cleaner ruined an expensive dress of Gracie’s and refused to reimburse her for the damage; Gracie stepped out of the act in different intervals each night in the middle of a joke, to let the audience know of her dissatisfaction, until the dry cleaner paid her back.  Once, outside the Brown Derby, Gracie literally kicked George in the ass for not opening a door for her.

She helped her friends (and enemies) out with money when Vaudeville died, adopted two children including a son whom most would have considered sickly at the time, and made sure her sisters had everything they needed when they both were lost in a sea of dementia (Something she feared would happen to herself) She did all this while remaining, as Gracie would refer to herself, “a lady.”  She was embarrassed by the large burn scars on her left arm from a childhood accident (She always wore long sleeves because of it), and the fact that she had two differently-colored eyes, but according to George she never complained about either flaw.  In fact, if she did complain about something one knew it was a big deal – she was a Vaudeville trooper on-and off-stage.  This made her appearance very important to her; something she was proud of. George remarked she never left the house with a hair out of place or her make-up less than perfect.

Gracie had unresolved issues with her father, also a Vaudeville hoofer, who had abandoned her family when Gracie was a child – so much so that when Gracie’s father came backstage to see his now-famous daughter, Gracie’s only comment on the matter was: he had nothing to say to her when she was growing up and therefore she had nothing to say to him now. She was however very close to the rest of her family, her mother and sisters, and she loved her children fiercely.

She didn’t think she was funny, even though American considered her its comedy sweetheart, stating that she knew funny, but wasn’t funny. When asked to say something funny her response was, “Charlie Chaplin.” George Burns says the only real joke he ever heard Gracie tell, after being egged on by friends was, “An Irishman walked out of a bar.” She hated her feet, loved gossip and her only wish was be able to wear a strapless, sleeveless, evening gown – the one thing her money and fame could not provide her.

In August 1932 The World Telegraph interviewed George and Gracie in their NY hotel room; it’s one of the rare interviews where Gracie speaks as herself.  She remarks, in the interview, how she is not looking to play Shakespeare and someday hopes to have enough money to retire and never work again. The reporter even mentions how during the interview Miss Allen kept staring out the window, waiting for her daughter and nanny to come back from a stroll in the park. This would be in direct parallel to her husband George Burns, who felt performing was his life and performed well into his 90’s – one might say that after Gracie’s passing, show business was what gave him the reason to live so long.

It is a lovely interview and a rare glimpse into Gracie’s personality and her dynamic with George. Her excitement about their travels around Europe lifts off the page with the same enthusiasm George had talking about show-business.  At one point, George, ever the raconteur, exuberantly tells the interviewer that he can’t sit still when he talks: “I have to walk around and act out everything,” to which Gracie mutters, “But perhaps you noticed that,” looking on him lovingly before sharing an admiring smile (The New York World Telegraph 1932).

The love between George and Gracie is well-documented; he adored her and lauded her as the genesis of all his success, which was half-true. They were both responsible for each other’s successes and they each referred to the other as the talented one. The difference was George lived longer to tell the tale.  But after all, being the literal brains behind their act as the writer, storytelling was George’s talent. Their love story sounds like something out of a storybook.  He loved her, and pursued her, in Vaudeville while Gracie claimed she loved another.  And like a great act one finish, after giving Gracie an ultimatum to marry him and drop her fiancé, or break up the act, Gracie called him early Christmas morning and agreed to marry him.

Together his sense of humor and her rare talent for the stage brought them great success as a team in real life as well as show business.  And although their Dumb Dora act – the girl/boy double act with a nitwit woman and smart straight man – wasn’t anything new for the time, Burns and Allen brought their originality – themselves -to their work, making it something new and innovative.  But that wasn’t how it started.  When Gracie first met George he was doing an act that was just imitations of other, more established Big Time acts. But his act was breaking up and George needed a new partner.  Enter Gracie Allen, stage right, an out-of-work hoofer whose short respite from show business in stenography classes was a bust. They both needed new partners and George’s act was cheaper so they agreed to do his “new” act.  Only just like George’s old act his “new” act was neither new nor innovative.  The act consisted of jokes straight out of joke books – safe material – material that was sure to keep the fearful Burns employed, as new untested material was far too risky.  George would later admit he had spent so much time in Small Time Vaudeville he was fearful of being more; he was happy coasting–he just couldn’t admit it.  But the more George and Gracie worked together the more confidence he seemed to get and the more new material he wrote – until it was the whole act.  George went from a twenty-eight-year-old playing it safe to a confident star that played The Big Time, The Palace. They were each other’s loves and muses – each encouraging the other.

And although Gracie Allen spoke of retirement as early as 1932, and not too long after she had the money to do so, Gracie didn’t retire until her heart become too weak to continue in 1958. Gracie Allen’s heart perhaps had loved too much to go on.  She loved her husband George so much that she stayed in show business longer than she would have wanted to for his sake.  She knew that show business was the breath of life to her husband – “He needs it for his metabolism,” She told Carol Channing on teaching Carol her old Burns and Allen act, when Carol appeared with George in Gracie’s place. (Burns 1988)  And once George ventured out on his own she reminded him of the lessons she had taught him when they first met- truthfulness. If he didn’t believe what he was saying, how could the audience? “All you need in acting is honesty, and if you can fake that you’ve got it made, “George would always joke later in his life. But George believed as early as the 1940’s that, according to his biography on Gracie, “a joke just isn’t funny unless it has some truth in it;” he just needed to learn how to incorporated that into his deliver.  (Burns 1988) George said he learned a lot from Gracie, but the most important was, “She taught me that you’ve got to make it sound like you’ve never said it before …A lot of Gracie rubbed off on me.” (People October 31, 1988 Vol. 30 No. 18)

*George Burns won the academy award for Best Supporting Actor in 1976.

Lauren Milberger is an actor/writer who resides in NYC. Her essay “George Burns and Gracie Allen: Double Act” is a part of the essay book “Playbills to Photoplays: Stage Performers Who Pioneered Talkies” and her play The Onion: First Dates was produced, co-starring herself, at The Warehouse Theatre in SC, as part of the Southern Slam Festival.  She is currently working on her play The Raconteurs: The Story of Burns and Allen.  Information and workshop enquires can be made to www.laurenmilberger.com. For updates and news please like Burnsallenproject on Facebook –  follow @BurnsAllenplay on Twitter.

Burns and Allen: The Most Successful of the “Dumb Dora” Acts

Posted in Burns and Allen, Comediennes, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Irish, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Sit Coms, Stars of Vaudeville, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2009 by travsd

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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.

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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