Sunday 23 October 2011

Jack Benny and Ronald Colman

A perfect blend of characters was one of the things that made Jack Benny’s radio show as great as it became. And all the characters were perfectly cast.

When you think about it, Ronald Colman seems to have been an odd choice to put in a comedy show. He certainly wasn’t known for laughs on the cinematic screen; costume dramas and romance come to mind. But it turns out he was absolutely perfect for the show and showed a flair (as did his wife, Benita Hume) for dry comedy along the way.

Benny needed someone to show that his radio persona was looked down upon as somewhat of a gauche simpleton by Hollywood’s upper-crust. But Benny knew they couldn’t be too upper-crust that you couldn’t sympathise with them as they tried to cope with or avoid Jack’s character. Colman’s English theatrical tones were just right. And his nationality allowed the writers to add another layer in the form of gentle ribbing of English culture stereotypes, including a somewhat severe butler delightfully played by Eric Snowden.

The Nebraska State Journal of March 6, 1949 revealed the genesis of Colman’s appearances on the show, which began December 9, 1945.

Radio In Review

RONALD Colman and his wife are the comedy profession's busiest non-comedians these days. They make another visit to the Jack Benny show tonight, their 15th within the past three years.
It all dates back to one night in 1946 when Colman had an engagement on another comedy program. His jokes went over like a mother-in-law’s advice. Colman, ever the conscientious performer, took his failure to heart.
He discussed the matter with friend Benny, who suggested the material might not have been up his alley. Shortly afterwards, Benny concocted an idea on paper and presented it to Colman.
Needless to say, his first appearance with Jack was a riot. He explained later that he took direction from Benny as he would from a top-flight screen director, remarking “Jack Benny is the greatest comedy director in America.”

A couple of other columns in 1949 made note of the funny Benny-Colman relationship. There’s a brief reference to the end of it in this syndicated column from September 14.

In Hollywood

Hollywood—Hollywood has joined the FCC and Fred Allen in the war on radio give-away shows with, the $43,000,000 question.
The whole giveaway business is being crucified in a movie, now before the cameras, titled “Champagne for Caesar.”
Ronald Colman is the star playing the role of an adult Quiz Kid who knows the answer to everything but who can’t get a job.
So he turns up as a contestant on one of those double-or-nothing shows with a legal loophole—as long as he can answer the questions correctly the sponsor has to go on doubling the money.
By the time Colman gets to the $43,000,000 question, the show’s sponsor—penny-pinching soap tycoon Vincent Price—is ready to blow his brains out.
But there’s a trick ending, too good to reveal here.
All I’ll tell you is that there’s a girl in the plot. Her name is Celeste Holm. And you know how attractive Celeste is.
Who’s Caesar?
That’s Colman’s pet parrot, who loves champagne. Colman found him in a gutter one night and the parrot drinks more in the picture than Ray Milland did in “The Lost Weekend.”
As you can see, it’s whamsy whimsy.
Colman is doing the picture, as usual on a percentage basis with a small token salary. When Hollywood producers scream that star salaries are too high, they’re not yelling about Colman.
If a Colman picture makes money, he makes money. If it lays an egg, he gets the shell.
I asked him if he and Jack Benny had ever thought of co-starring in movie, along with Mrs. Colman and Mary, as a result of all the Colman guest appearances on the Benny airshow.
“Many times,” he said. “But we haven’t been able to find the right story. If we find the right story, we’ll do it.”

One of Broadway’s most famous celebrity writers found Colman’s dry humour on the Benny show came naturally, and the Oscar winner showed an either mischievous or not-suffering-fools-gladly side, depending on your viewpoint. This is from December 2.

It Happened Last Night
By Earl Wilson

Just to give the women a break, I interviewed Ronald Colman.
In the elevator going up to his suite, I thought. “How tired this guy must be of us bums and our interviews, after 25 years.
“Yes,” admitted the handsome Colman, of the thin gray mustache and the gray hair, when I asked him about it “Because there comes a time when you’ve been interviewed so often you’ve nothing more to say.
“Do you ever make up things?” I asked.
“Yes”—I noticed he had on a black thin sweater under his jacket, and also wore garters (no slob, he)—“when I was on the market, before I was married, they were always getting me engaged.
“Now and again,” he said, “I hadn’t even met the lady.
"So a reporter phoned to ask who I’d been sitting next to at a theater, and I made up a name.
“Lady Somebody,” I called her. I said, “Of course, I don’t want too much made of it, as I’m very fond of her,” “Well,” he laughed, “I got a lot of space on THAT!”
“Who are better interviewers . . . men or women?”
Colman’s wife, the former Benita Hume, spoke up:
“Women are very nervous interviewers. They have the bends as they come through the door.”
Colman said, “Another trick is to interview THEM.”
“Ask her how she got in the newspaper business, etc., etc.
“She leaves thinking you’re a splendid fellow . . . and of course hasn’t a thing to write about.”
I now asked Colman—who became a screen lover in 1922 playing opposite Lillian Gish in “The White Sister”—and who must now be 56—what is the most common question asked him.
“Oh, the standard question is ‘Is it true that you live next door to Jack Benny’?”
(Benny’s built up this idea on the radio.)
“Well, I was going to ask you that,” I said, “Do you?”
Colman looked at me disappointedly, seeming a little like a college president, which is what he plays in his latest film, “Champagne for Caesar.”
“I wish you hadn’t asked me. Well, you can say I’m his neighbor. I live around the corner. Put it that way. Around the corner.”
“Recently,” he said, hurrying on,” “I was to take the Bennys to dinner. It was understood that I was to pay for the dinner.
“It was a crowded restaurant and everybody was looking at Jack. When the check came I reached, and Jack said, ‘No, no, no! People are standing on their toes, looking into this booth, to see if I’m going to outfumble you. I’ve GOT to take it.’
“He did, too. To be cheap on the radio, costs him a fortune in real life.”

Apparently he really was weary about the constant Benny queries. Or maybe he his ego thought he was under Jack’s shadow. Johnson’s Hollywood column of April 1, 1949 was a roundup of the Oscar ceremony. He included this short paragraph:

Only sour note was Ronald Colman’s scowl when he walked on stage to present the best actress award and Johnny Green’s orchestra struck up “Love in Bloom,” the Jack Benny theme. I don’t think Colman appreciated the humor.

Green would certainly appreciate the humour, if he wasn’t responsible for it. He became Jack’s band leader in 1935 after Benny had adopted the song.

It’s notable that Colman played a college president in ‘Champagne for Caesar,’ considering he soon took on the same role about a month after the column was written on ‘The Halls of Ivy,’ which strove to be a little above middle-brow entertainment. Colman was at his best ‘Ivy’ when engaged in a philosphical soliloquy, echoing his rhapsodic monologue in ‘If I were King’ (1938). But he really was no better on radio than when he suffered at the hands, and violin, of Jack Benny.

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