Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Catastrophobe

Everyone laughed at how Jimmy Durante butchered the English language, Durante included. It wasn’t an act. Radio listeners and TV viewers knew it. Durante’s genuineness was one of the reasons for his lasting popularity.

Journalists, on the other hand, are proponents of correctness in language, mocking misplaced modifiers and decrying dangling participles (and ridiculing the kind of alliteration you’ve just read). But even journalists liked Durante’s meat-grinder effect on the vernacular. And one grouchy newspaper radio critic in particular.

The New York Herald Tribune’s John Crosby took advantage of the Durante-Moore show 1946-47 season opener to wax Durante’s occasional failure to maintain any resemblance of command of the King’s English. Or any other English but his own. This column is from October 12, 1946, one of several he wrote about the Durante show over the next seven or eight years.

Radio Review
LANGUAGE A LA DURANTE

By JOHN CROSBY
One of the distinguishing characteristics of American English, says H. L. Mencken in “The American Language,” “is its impatient disregard for grammatical, syntactical and phonological rule and precedent.” Possibly the most impatient breaker of new ground and old precedents is that amiable, fuzz-topped, snaggle-tooth, elephant-beaked, philological explosion known as Jimmy Durante. Durante has violated the language so mercilessly and for so many years that Mrs. Malaprop may yet lose her title and a mangled word may well become a Durante, just as a telephone became an Ameche. The lovable Schnozzle, it seems to me, has established a far more convincing claim to the title than Mrs. Malaprop. Offhand, I can think of only one true malapropism—“You go first and I’ll precede”— whereas I can muster up a dozen Durantes, all of which are far more inventive than anything conceived by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
Maybe it’s wrong even to mention Mrs. Malaprop in the same breath with Durante, who improves the old words rather than misues them. Jimmy, in fact, assaults the language with such dignity and self-confidence that it is sometimes a question whether he is not right and every one else wrong. A “catastrophobe,” for instance, seems a more plausible and descriptive word than catastrophe. A catastrophobe would be a more calamitous calamity than a mere catastrophe, just as anything “colossial” is far larger than the merely colossal. An “exhilirator” certainly sounds as if it would make an automobile go faster than an accelerator.
VIOLENT LANGUAGE
Under Jimmy’s editing, language assumes a violence it never had before. Chiefly because the Durante personality requires expression beyond the reach of ordinary English. Nothing routine ever happens to Jimmy. On one of his recent broadcasts, Durante told of stoppin’ his town and country jeep for a red light. And what did he find in front of him—a lady driver! That would be only a mild irritant to anyone but Jimmy, who lives in an atmosphere composed of one-third oxygen and two-thirds exclamation points. By the time the lady finished powdering her nose, the light had changed from red to green three times, and Jimmy had a terrible time “keepin’ my impatience from runnin’ amuck.”
There is no such thing as a stock phrase in Jimmy's vocabulary, and if he lives long enough there may not be a stock phrase in anyone else’s. "Woman the lifeboats! "Woman the lifeboats!” He roared on one of his programs. “You mean man the lifeboats,” said his partner, Garry Moore. “You stick to your hobby and I’ll stick to mine!” howled Durante.
KIDDING THE LANGUAGE
On another occasion, in a duet with Moore, the pair sang the following couplet:
“You’re going to the dogs, that’s easy to see.
“That’s too much like work. The dogs’ll have to come to me.”
Jimmy is really kidding the language, particularly the trite and pompous sections of it. On his new and considerably revitalized program (C.B.S., 6:30 p.m. Pacific Time, Fridays), Durante pricks many other pretensions besides those of language. On one broadcast Jimmy made a shambles of the whole decorating profession when he came to grips with “the upholstered mind” of a decorator named Heathcliff.
“I told him I didn’t want a naughty pine wardrobe, Chippydale chairs and drunken Fife furniture,” yowled Schnozzle. He was explaining at the time about his living room: “When you step on the carpet you sink six feet—no floor.
“My house,” boasted Jimmy, “is composed entirely of rooms.”
IT’S SHARP-TOOTHED
The new Durante show is far more sharp-toothed than last season’s. On it, Durante has been letting his impatience run amuck at radio quiz shows.
"Which would you rather have—Lauren Bacall or a box of palmettos?”—“How many in the box?”; the men of distinction series—“He’s a ‘seven up’ man—he can count up to seven”; and “Queen For a Day.”
There are possibly a few too many straight gags, which put constrictions on the Durante personality, but not enough to be bothersome. Jimmy still has trouble with his pianist. “Stabbed in my obbligato by a fortissimo!” he’ll howl when asked for that note (“what a note!” and get the wrong one. And he still sings those dizzy songs in that foghorn of a voice.
If you're tired of those same old words day after day, you might try the Durante-Moore show. To put it in Jimmy’s own phraseology, dere’s a million guys on the radio who speak English, but Jimmy’s a novelty.


I must confess I’m puzzled by Crosby’s reference to “the new Durante show,” mainly because so few of Durante’s shows with Garry Moore are in circulation to see what he means. I’ve found nothing to indicate anything about the show was new. It had the same sponsor, announcer and vocalist as the previous season. The only change had been made in March and that was in time slots. The real change was the following season. Moore left the programme voluntarily and Durante went through a ridiculously large number of sidekicks over the next three years—Arthur Treacher, Victor Moore, Don Ameche and Alan Young.

It’s a shame Garry Moore didn’t stay. Working with Durante showed off his talent far better than anything he did afterward. And the Schnozz never found a radio partner as good as The Haircut; Victor Moore’s whiny little voice just grates after a while. But both Durante and Moore moved into television and carried on with great success. Separating them, as the Durante dictionary would say, was no “catastrophobe.”

6 comments:

  1. I always thought the word was "catastrostrofe", at least that's how it sounds to my ears.
    Mark Kausler

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  2. Victor Moore not only co-starred with The Schnozz, but with The Bill as well(Daffy Duck, "Ain't That Ducky"). Career pinnacle.

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  3. Same here, Mark. Maybe Crosby's ears hear with an accent.

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  4. I think the reference here may have been the change of networks and sponsors from NBC and Camel's to CBS and Rexall.

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  5. I think the reference here may have been the change of networks and sponsors from NBC and Camel's to CBS and Rexall.

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  6. That happened at the end of March 1945. Crosby says "last season's." The previous season was 1945-46 when he was on CBS for Camel (in the same time slot).

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