Thursday, 13 October 2011

Jimmy Durante and His Bed

The mark of really good entertainment is not only whether it stands up over time, but continues to attract appreciative new generations, something that delights the fans that came before them.

I’ve been watching old cartoons for as long as I can remember, and listening to old radio shows for about as long. Just like the best cartoons, the best network radio shows of the ’30s, ‘40s and ‘50s still have a huge fan base of all ages.

My favourites are in the comedy, variety and musical genres (with the occasional quiz show tossed in). Jack Benny had an almost perfect show of casting and timing. Fred Allen’s at his best when he suddenly blurts out a cutting analogy (despite his endless, health-sapping labour to write each week’s broadcast).

And then there’s Jimmy Durante.

I grew up near the end of Durante’s life when he wasn’t treated as a comedian so much as a living piece of nostalgia. Talk about Durante inevitably included talk about a time that had passed long ago. Of course, Durante traded on the past even during his peak (as did Cantor and Jolson, but with less sentimentality at the time), belting out his old vaudeville tunes and peppering shows with references of the era when the Palace was The Top.

Durante had been in a bit of a career slump, partly due to his wife’s illness, until he was hired to be the comedian opposite a rising young comedian named Garry Moore in a restructured version of ‘The Camel Caravan’ that debuted March 25, 1943. Newspaper stories of the day strongly suggest the programme was actually supposed to be Moore’s with Durante as a kind of permanent special guest comedian. But the unlikely combination clicked.

I defy you not to love Durante. You can’t help it. He has an infectious enthusiasm. He really wants to entertain you; you can hear it right on the air. He butchers the English language and realises that’s funny (and it’s never contrived). He seems completely devoid of ego, which can’t be said about some others on the air then. Jimmy Durante’s the kind of guy you’d like to hang out with, even if it’s just for a half hour via a piece of “furniture that talks” (as Fred Allen put it), which was fine as far as the Camel cigarette people and their ad agency were concerned.

It was from radio’s Durante that we heard “Dat’s my boy who said dat”, “I gotta a million of ‘em,” and what eventually became a poignant good night to Mrs. Calabash.

There are always great stories about Durante out there, and here’s one from January 5, 1942. It’s a syndicated newspaper column in conjunction with a publicity tour for a movie he shot with Phil Silvers called ‘You’re in the Army Now.’

One Brass Bed Has Jinx On Durante

NEW YORK — There’s an old brass bed to storage in the basement of the Astor hotel. When Jimmy Durante heaves his funnybones to town, this bed is resurrected, with many a sigh by the hired hands, and set up in a room that looks straight down Broadway. It’s the only bed and the only room the Schnoz will sleep in.
He told me this seven or eight years ago, and I set it down as the genial palaver of a guy who felt like talking. I was wrong. Durante has a standing order for that bed to be resurrected and sheeted for his benefit whenever he is in town.
Jimmy is in town now. And this hideous token of a vanished elegance is in its place at the hotel.
“I love it,” the clown says. “Best sleepin’ bed in town.”
* * *
James Durante, who came to fame through the open door of the lower East Side, with an assist from his nose, is a funnyman who is indulging in the serious business of a professional comeback. His appearance in the city at this time was dictated by the opening of “You’re In the Army Now,” a film, and said to be a very funny film. I haven’t seen it
On the way to New York he stopped off in Chicago to do a benefit that was witnessed by 28,000 people. His reception was so enthusiastic that Jim reverted to his form of other days and began breaking the furniture. During the process he broke off the legs of an expensive Steinway piano. Next day Ashton Stevens, noted drama critic, commented on the breakage editorially; it was well worth it, said Stevens. What’s a few pianos when the crowd got such a laugh.
Mr. Stevens is a man after Jimmy Durante’s own heart. Only, Jimmy would say it this way,
“What’s ANYTHING matter . . . when you can get a few laughs.”

‘You’re in the Army Now’ wasn’t really a great success, surprising to us today considering Silvers went on to do a wonderful army sitcom on television. But critics were lukewarm, at best, about the script. And the star combination doesn’t strike me as a good one. Silvers’ delivery is just too brash against the old-corn pitching of Durante. They don’t complement each other, not like a Hope and Crosby. Or a Durante and Moore, for that matter. Garry Moore’s humour just smart enough to befuddle and bemuse former street-kid Durante. Moore’s known today as being little more than a genial host; Goodson-Todman TV game shows never gave him a chance to display all his talent.

You’ll see Jack Benny posts along the way on the blog and a few about Fred Allen. And I hope some about Durante, too. I don’t gotta million of ‘em. But one or two should be just fine.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that Durante and Moore clicked, because Moore's low-key hosting style on radio (and later TV) was similar in a way to what MGM had tried to do a decade earlier, pairing Durante with Buster Keaton, a match few people would call one of the studio's better brainstorms.

    (Moore in a way was the radio/TV equivalent of Mickey Mouse or Porky Pig, in that his laid-back style allowed his co-stars to step forward and shine. Durante was a known quantity, of course, but Moore's CBS show 20 years later would make a national star of Carol Burnett, as well as highlighting other actors would would go on to greater fame (including on this blog...)