Sunday, 29 April 2012

Jack Benny, 39 (1939, That Is)

Could Jack Benny’s character on radio somehow get snookered by a conman, then end up on the losing end as a result? Anyone familiar with the Benny show would say “sure.” And that’s probably why Jack emerged with no permanent damage to his reputation when it happened in real life.

Jack was fined $10,000 and given a dressing-down by the judge after being indicted in January 1939 and pleading guilty the following April in a case that was front-page news. (Who says being obsessed with celebrity court cases is new?)

In the middle of it all, the National Enterprise Association did a profile on Jack and made a reference to the smuggling case. The story didn’t seem to take it all that seriously and, ultimately, neither did radio fans. This version was published February 2, 1939. The photo came with the story.

Jack Benny Has Lots of Luck—But It’s Bad Most of the Time
(NEA Service)
HOLLYWOOD— Jack Benny usually is a fall-guy—on or off the screen, on or off the air, in or out of court. He accepted his indictment on charges of buying smuggled jewelry with about the same spirit that he displays when somebody gives him the hotfoot, and with the same remark: “That’s VERY funny.”
Unhappy things are always happening to Mr. Benny, who is Hollywood’s champion worrier and deadest-pan comedian when he isn’t performing. He is dead-pan because he actually does not see or hear what is going on about him. He just stalks around, rolling his cigar in his mouth and worrying about some imminent crisis which may be nothing more than a 30-second scene in “Man About Town.” Not even an appearance in federal court can be more terrifying to Mr. Benny than those first few moments when he faces a camera or a microphone.
Pants in Flames
In spite of the actor’s preoccupation and grim mien, nobody takes him very seriously. While he was wearing cowboy costume during the filming of his last picture, someone set fire to his chaps. When he was being lowered from a window, a costly watch dropped from a pocket and was smashed to bits. He has a large entourage of stooges who by all the Hollywood rules should behave in an obsequious manner and say, “Yes, Mr. Benny.” Instead, they argue with him until, exhausted, he sits down in a chair that has been fixed to collapse.
When such things happen, Benny says, “That's VERY funny.” Occasionally there is the ghost of a smile behind his cigar.
There are some who say that Benny is a thrifty man who will go out of his way to save a dollar here and there, but his closer friends declare this idea is engendered by the ribbings he gives himself on the radio. Last year, on the first day of his return from New York after an absence of months, Benny was touched for $1,200 by numerous needy pals. He is a generous player of benefits. He and Mary Livingstone entertain handsomely in a large house in Beverly Hills, and their swimming pool is so big that it has a skiff on it. Benny and his wife have large wardrobes, and he undoubtedly is the world's best dressed comedian.
Jokes are Cash to Him
Whether pinch-penny or prodigal, he is no waster of gags. A joke is the most precious thing in the world to a man in Benny’s business, and he almost never says anything funny in informal conversation. His companion in smuggling trouble, George Burns, lets quips fall where they may. But Benny mumbles through a newspaper like a small boy in juvenile court.
When Benny is not working in a picture, and has time to go to private parties or his golf club, he is almost as gay as anybody. During picture production, though, he works all the time. Two gag writers. Eddie Beloin and Bill Morrow, and Secretary Harry Baldwin are always with him at the studio. During every spare minute they work on the radio program for the following Sunday.
Benny never appears in the Paramount cafe; he has gags and coffee in his dressing room. The three employes all talk at once. Benny sits back and listens. Occasionally he seizes a suggestion and rises and paces as he elaborates on it. He never petulantly says that a lousy idea is lousy; he says, “Maybe we could switch it around like this—” His writers believe that he is the most kindly fellow who ever lived.
He’s Good, That’s All
Beloin and Morrow are on his personal payroll, and he often uses them on movie dialogue. “That doesn’t play right,” he’ll say, tossing away a few pages of script. He and his writers then will work out some new lines. The result always is an improvement, or he would not be allowed such liberties.
His perpetual cigar is not a posed trademark: he smokes about 15 25-centers a day. Never smoked in his life until 10 years ago when he took a part in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities” which required him to puff stogies.
His devotion to Miss Livingstone (who was Sadye Marks) and their 5-year-old adopted daughter Joan is one of Hollywood’s special prides.
He and his wife call each other “Doll.” Benny never has attended a preview of one of his pictures. He goes to boxing matches, if there are any, and is on tenterhooks until Miss Livingstone finds him and says that the picture was a success.
And They Still Speak
Besides golf, Benny likes bridge but is poor at poker. He owns a race horse, Buck Benny, bought at a Saratoga auction. Before Buck Benny’s first race under his new colors, the actor gave Hillard Marks, his brother-in-law, $300 to bet on the nag across the board. Marks didn’t know how to bet and couldn’t find a bookie anyway, so he held the money. Buck Benny won, paid a big price, and cost its owner some $7,000 by the unplaced wager.
Marks remains one of Benny’s closest cohorts. Another is Harry Lee, his former Broadway manager, who now is his stand-in although he has to wear 4-inch cork stilts.

Much has been written about the smuggling case. Even portions of the FBI files on it are even on-line. However, we’ll try to give you a contemporary look at it in a future post.


  1. I heard that NBC hired the guy who prosecuted Benny as their lawyer when he was renegotiating his contract in the 1940s and that drove him to switch to CBS.

  2. It makes a nice story, Anon; I think Robert Metz's book speculates about it. But the fact is the change in networks meant Benny would save a small fortune in taxes. Money was the sole driving factor.