Sunday, 9 June 2013

Marilyn and the Power of Television

If there’s any doubt that Jack Benny was a huge star in his day, it can be erased by the fact that he landed Marilyn Monroe for his TV show. True, she didn’t have the legendary status that came with her death, but she had become a movie star of the first realm by the time she appeared with Jack in 1953. But even more significantly, her appearance came in the days when movie studios were absolutely paranoid they would be killed by TV and forbade their stars from appearing on it. Jack Benny’s huge stardom and reputation as someone who makes his guest stars look good overcame that. And, in the process, 20th Century Fox likely learned there was free publicity for the studio in a Monroe guest shot (she was on screens at the time in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and about to appear in “How To Marry a Millionaire”).

Monroe’s casting was perfection as far as the Benny TV/radio character was concerned. He considered himself a suave ladies’ man. Who better to appear opposite him than filmdom’s reigning sexpot?

The show was the season premiere and aired on September 13, 1953, live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Fox wouldn’t allow her to be paid for appearing, so Benny sent her a black Cadillac convertible with a red interior. I suspect that’s slightly above union scale.

Radio-TV columnist John Crosby was a Benny fan and seems to have reviewed Jack’s show at least once a season. Here he is on the Monroe show, in a column that appeared in papers starting a week after the broadcast.

Radio and Television
By John Crosby
The Last TV First
It’s always a pleasure to welcome Jack Benny back. Naturally I was right there, waiting. I didn’t know Marilyn Monroe was going to be on Honest! I was just sitting there enjoying Mr. Benny and suddenly this blonde shows up. Quite a lot of blonde.
It may have been the best kept secret of the year. Oh, there were a couple of press releases and maybe a quarter page ad here and there but, in general, they kept her under wraps. Then just before she marched out in front of the cameras, they removed the wraps—most of them, anyhow.
This was a television first of some dimension. I remember way back when they first linked New York and Philadelphia. Then Chicago swam into view. Finally came Los Angeles, throwing open the Far West to Milton Berle. Gads, historic moments on TV we’ve all shared—Kefauver, Virginia Hill, J. Fred Muggs, Queen Elizabeth II, the bonfire at the Democratic National Convention, Arthur Godfrey in four colors, Truman playing Mozart.
AND NOW THAT WE’VE seen Marilyn, live and in the flesh—as much flesh as the law allows—I don't know what we’ve got to look forward to. This may be the last of all television firsts. It’s going to take an awful lot to surprise me from now on.
It would have been interesting to have been in on the story conference when the Benny crowd found out they had Marilyn Monroe on then hands. After all these years, I think I know how the mind of a gagwriter works and it's my guess that at least one of them, leaped in with the suggestion: “We’ll put the girl in a Mother Hubbard.” A gagwriter’s mind runs strongly toward the old Switcheroo and veiling the Monroe shape would have been about the biggest switcheroo of all time.
IF SUCH A SUGGESTION was made, it was overruled, conceivably by Miss Monroe. She came aboard in a white dress so tight-fitting that it must have taken all four of Benny’s gagwriters to hook her into it.
From there on she was pure Marilyn Monroe, a girl who has made a very good thing out of sex and isn’t going to be talked out of it by any gagwriters. She batted her sleepy eyelids at Benny, pawed him in a way that made me very nervous, spoke in that babyish, almost European whisper which she must have invented because it has no real reason for existing, and sang at him.
In short she behaved just exactly as you’d expect Marilyn Monroe to behave. You may think it odd for me to be so surprised about this, but I am. The trend is all the other way. The usual thing is to take Helen Traubel and make a clown of her. Or you take some big muscle man like Buddy Baer and make him mince around the stage with his hands on his hips. Or make Margaret Truman do bumps and grinds.
Never, never do you allow them to be themselves. In that regard, Miss Monroe’s appearance was a triumph. Or perhaps that’s the only way she can act.
THE JACK BENNY show — I knew Mr. Benny would get in here eventually if you’d just be patient — was not the funniest one I’d ever seen, possibly because our minds were elsewhere. But it was the usual smooth, relaxed, professional job. On radio, Benny relied heavily on his very expert stooges and sometimes almost vanished from the show entirely. On television, more and more, he’s doing most of the work himself with surprising ease.
If memory serves, he was on this show for the entire half hour, sometimes entirely alone. It was quite a tour de force. He’ll do a show every three weeks this year and there’ll be 12 more.

Toward the end of the show, after Monroe has said her goodbyes, Jack looks at the audience and begins a little dissertation about how much he loves radio. Without warning, strings play the sponsor’s theme “Be Happy, Go Lucky” and interrupt the clearly surprised Benny, who looks at his director, realises the show is over, then suddenly gets off the air. Radio, the formerly powerful medium that made Benny a star, is given short shrift. And it’s significant that Crosby has reviewed Jack’s television season premiere, not his radio one. By 1953, attitudes of film studios toward television were changing. Attitudes toward radio already had.

1 comment:

  1. The Monroe and Humphrey Bogart shows are probably the two best-known (or at least most widely viewed) episodes of the Jack Benny Show on the Internet now, due to the guests' continued star power.

    Both are from the fall of 1953, and both are only available via kinescope, which -- along with Mary's mike fright -- may have been an impetus for Jack to start filming some of his shows for future syndication just after these shows aired (by the time Jack got around to doing the filmed version of the cruise skit Marilyn had been dead for a year and Jayne Mansfield served as her stand-in. Jayne had some decent comedy skills, but star power-wise, it just wasn't the same -- the return of Sam Hearn's Schlepperman character after a 20-year absence was probably the highlight of the show).