Sunday, 8 October 2017

Jack Benny's 1935 Television Trauma

In 1935, television in North America was still in the test stage. NBC in New York was still four years away from attempting a regular schedule. On the West Coast, W6XAO, the Don Lee station, had been occasionally broadcasting to a handful of sets for a few years. Standards for transmission had still not been fixed. But newspaper stories kept giving the impression that television was not far away (and had been saying that since the late ‘20s). So it was that in 1935, Jack Benny became anxious about television—at least if a story in Hollywood magazine is to be believed.

When network television did finally come along, Benny did extremely well. After a guest appearance on a local station in 1949, Jack began his network TV series in 1950. He finally ended weekly shows in 1965, but wasn’t through with the media. He stayed on the small screen on specials until he died in 1974; in fact, a third “Farewell” special had been written and filming was postponed solely because Jack was ill.

Here’s what Hollywood had to say in its September 1935 edition as it also gave a plug to Jack’s latest film.

Jack Benny’s Television Blues
He Has A Date every Sunday night with five million girls, but this does not make Jack Benny a gay Lothario. He can't see them and he certainly can't count their noses, yet we have it on the authority of NBC studios that Benny is the No. 1 date buster of the nation. When he's on the air the boy friends must shush.
What bothers Jack Benny about all this is not what the impatient boy friends think of their rival, but the fact that it won't be long before those girls will not only hear him, but SEE him.
You guessed it — television is rearing its ugly head in the peace of Benny's existence. He had it on his mind when we went to see him the other day at Metro, where he is in the spotlight as the main attraction of their super-feature, Broadway Melody of 1936.
When Mr. Benny of the Jell-O Benny's is troubled, a few wisps of pepper gray hair stand askew from where he habitually scratches his scalp a little NE of his right ear.
Television is bothering him, no question about it. He's been reading about the three big new television stations now building in Canada, not to mention the stations already going in this country.
"Believe it or not," says Jack, a semi-smile playing over his face, "but this television business has more angles in it than a geometry book. Some of the angles offer a lot of swell possibilities. For instance, there is an excellent chance of improving on radio comedy. Up to now we have had to depend on innate humor and catchy delivery to get the laughs. Pretty soon we will have our faces to help us. At least, we hope they'll be of some help."
● Benny Leans over his chair and scrutinizes himself in a nearby mirror. He shakes his head sadly.
"I dunno," he says, "doesn't seem like my face should do me much good. Unless it comes to making faces. I used to be pretty good at that when I was on the stage."
He glances at the mirror again and makes a couple of experimental stabs at face making. It is quite apparent that our radio hero is rusty along these lines with the sole exception of Face No. 4 which resembles nothing so well as a nicked Idaho potato. This No. 4 face should go well over any medium, but we have a strong suspicion that Mr. Benny's exhibition is strictly a private matter. No. 4 face is probably not destined for radio consumption.

Jack's role in The Broadway Melody (1936 version — Time marches on and on in Hollywood) should be convincing proofs that he would be good in television broadcasts. He does a Winchell role in this new film. He reminds you just a little bit of Winchell. You have a hunch that he might have been a newspaper columnist if things had happened differently. Instead, he just play-acts at being a gossip chaser and the result is very pleasant indeed.
Benny's chief business in the film is to take raps at a young Broadway producer, played by Robert Taylor. Verbal raps, of course. Eleanor Powell is the producer's onetime college sweetheart who comes to town and takes advantage of Benny's heckling by pretending to be a famous French dancer that Taylor hasn't been able to locate or sign up. Benny helps her out with frequent remarks about her in his column, and of course things work around to the ultimate clinch between Taylor and Miss Powell.
● It's All Very happy business, and sort of goes to prove that Mr. Benny might have television presence, just as he has had stage presence in the past and radio presence in the present.
At the same time, this radio plus vision business is adding a few gray hairs prematurely to Benny's head.
"When I went from the stage to radio," Jack moans, "I thought I was giving up memorizing of lines forever. Now they're dragging television to the front, and we soon won't be able to read script over the radio.
"And another thing. Think of the costumes we will have to wear. Why, every radio station will have to add a tier of dressing rooms. Instead of being able to toss our manuscripts aside and walk happily off to the night club, we'll "have to fight grease paint and uncomfortable clothes! We'll be back of the footlights again, but without an audience. Gosh — every broadcast will seem like a dress rehearsal. What an inspiration! I think I need an aspirin."
And when television does come along, Hollywood probably will be the radio center and maybe Mr. Benny and a lot of others will have to kiss New York good-by. Mr. Benny, indeed has the television blues!
—Ted Magee.


  1. I think you mean "CBS" for the 1950 TV series, since by then he'd moved from NBC as part of the Paley Raids, and wouldn't move back until the post Jim Aubrey era at CBS.

  2. Pretty star studded cast with Benny in that photo. I can never see Francis Langford without thinking of " The Bickersons ". She and Don Ameche had me laughing so hard, I almost ran off the interstate one night.