Wednesday 28 June 2017

Another Look at Phil Harris

Phil Harris enjoyed life. If you believed his character on the Jack Benny radio show and later, he loved partying, boozing it up, charming the ladies (and perhaps more), corny one-liners, and didn’t care what people thought about him. (In many ways, he was the proto-Dean Martin).

Another element was added to that after a very well-publicised marriage to Alice Faye—doting husband and father (although one suspects his eye wandered whenever there was a feminine form that he appreciated). All of this was heaped together when Harris landed his own radio show. He and Alice replaced Cass Daley on the Fitch Bandwagon in the 1946-47 season. It basically carried on with the Harris character invented for the Benny show; the fact Harris had a son by a previous marriage living with him was completely ignored because, in the Benny world, he had never been married before. So it was that on the air, Philsy had a patient wife, two somewhat-precocious daughters and a classless buddy named Frank Remley.

Some critics cringed at the domesticity of the Harrises. Patient wives and somewhat-precious children were not unheard of in radio. One of those critics was John Crosby of the New York Herald Tribune. We reprinted his first review of the show in 1946 here. By 1950, he was praising it; you can read that here. Crosby insisted the show had changed, not him.

After his first review, he looked back on November 5, 1946:
Second Time Around: The Phil Harris show (NBC 7:30 p.m., Sundays), which took a pretty severe lacing from everyone when it started, is gradually groping toward the light. The painful domesticity of the opening program has been sharply reduced and Mr. Harris, a pretty fair comedian when he isn't kissing his wife, has been turned loose with his boys in the band. When he's discussing horses or trying to understand what M-I-L-K stands for, Mr. H. is a robust comedian and may turn into a good one.
The show which occupies one of the most coveted spots on the air still suffers from schizophrenia. Alice Faye doesn't seem to know what she's doing there and Baby Alice, a stand-in for the Harris child, is getting no wittier as she goes along. To keep you abreast of Baby Alice, I pass along the following snatch of dialogue:
"Was Daddy ever a dog, Mummy?"
"Of course not."
"Well, I heard him say before he married you he knew plenty of cute little tricks."
Crosby revised the show again when it was still being broadcast for Fitch. He pretty well picks out what’s good and what’s bad. Alice Faye was the reality anchor in the show but there wasn’t much for her to do. She’d warn Phil and Frank not to do something, they’d do it anyway, and Alice would show up at the end. In between, she’d do a song. The byplay between Phil and Frank (played by Elliott Lewis) carried the show (though they sometimes stretched credibility with their ignorance) and Walter Tetley as the sneering, over-the-top Julius Abruzzio was the best part. I didn’t mind the daughters but I suspect Crosby was a little tired of yet more world-weary kids on the radio.

This column ran February 16, 1948.
Radio in Review
Phil Harris Show: Mystifying Success
By John Crosby

NEW YORK—EVERY so often in a spirit of morbid curiosity I feel impelled to return to the Phil Harris how (N.B.C., 7:30 p.m. E.S.T. Sundays), one of the most mystifying successes in all radio. It is easily the crudest and least inhibited comedy show in the first 15 of the Hooper ratings and my only explanation for its persistently large audience is the fact that it reposes comfortably between Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen. It is a triumph of N. B. C. voltage which is high and the personal voltage of the average listener which on a Sunday evening is too low to turn the darn thing off.
The Harris show is a particularly irritating example of radio's exasperating immutability, because Harris is a very funny fellow indeed and could quite easily be head man in a good comedy show. As I guess everyone knows by now, Harris is refreshingly innocent of all textbook knowledge and scandalously well-informed on the lamentable but pleasant aspects of civilization blondes, horses and pool rooms. He's brash, breezy and wolfish.
WITH SUCH a collection of qualities, it seems totally implausible that he should be married at all. Nevertheless, on this show he is not only married but imbedded in matrimony to the ears. There is nothing implicit about the connubial bliss of Alice Faye and Phil Harris either; it is all too vividly explicit. Their love affair is easily the most public romance since Douglas Fairbanks married Mary Pickford in 1920 as newsreel cameras turned and millions wept happy tears.
"You blonde, beautiful bundle of dynamite," shouts Harris to Miss Faye, "put your arms around me and tell me how much you love me!" This is followed by a kiss excruciatingly audible to millions and millions of married listeners who must stare at their loudspeakers in some disbelief, wondering how this flame of intense though licit carnality could possibly have continued to burn so brightly after seven long years of marriage.
MOST MARRIED FOLKS of my acquaintance pause occasionally in their love-making to discuss the kitchen screen door that sticks or the leaky faucet in the upstairs bathroom, or the radiator that bangs. Not the Harrises. They can't leave off clutching one another for so much as an instant. It's nice to know that such a passion exists undiminished by the routine activities of matrimony, but it's a little unnerving to find it in your living room. I feel uncomfortably like an eavesdropper.
The writers don't seem to know what to do with Miss Faye. She's mild, low-voiced, colorless and if this phrase is permissible in radio almost invisible. Occasionally she is required to be sarcastic and she performs this unpleasant chore almost apologetically. She sings innocuously, not unpleasantly but not, on the other hand, with any distinction at all.
THERE WAS a time when the Harrises spent much of their half hour each Sunday with their two email girls (or rather two small actresses who impersonated the Harris children) and this interlude was even more painful than the love-making already noted. Fortunately these dear children have been shoved lovingly into the background. Harris seems happiest and his own carefree self only when he gets out of the house away from the embraces of Miss Faye and in the company of Frankie Remley, a character as uncouth and untrammeled by formal education as himself. These two are wonderfully funny together and I wish they spent more time out of doors.
AS A SINGER, Phil Harris has possibly the most limited repertoire in concert circles, consisting, as I figure it, of about three songs. One is his classic about poker; another is his paean of praise to the South, and the third, a recent addition, concerns the disadvantages of civilization. Within this narrow field, he is all by himself. No one else can spit out so many words so rapidly and with such menacing self-confidence. Robert Taylor, substituting recently for Harris, tried it and broke down, panting, after about four phrases.
The level of taste on the Harris show is not high. ("My sister is very distinguished looking. She has a mustache.") If I had the management of the Harris show, a number of changes would be made. Miss Faye would be returned with thanks to the motion picture industry, where at least you could look at her. The locale of the show would be switched from Hollywood to Broadway, where Harris indisputably belongs. And some intimations of good taste would be interjected here and there. Not enough to extinguish Harris. Just enough to curb him.
The Harris-Faye sitcom didn’t make the transition to television, despite NBC locking up Phil in an expensive, long-term contract. He must have had some kind of right-of-refusal clause because about all he did for the network was guest appearances on variety shows. As for the radio show that caused all that cringing in 1946, it expired in 1954, but not because of a lack of popularity. Blame TV. That’s where the big advertising dollars were going. Sponsors—even the corporate parent of NBC—weren’t willing to pump in the large amounts of cash needed for big radio comedy shows. Variety reported on June 18, 1954:
Phil Harris Fading Off NBC After 15 Years
Phil Harris and Alice Faye close out their season on NBC for RCA tonight and it may be the last of the singing comic on the radio network. He started more than 15 years ago on NBC with Jack Benny and for the past seven years headed his own show with his wife.
Harris is still under exclusive contract to NBC and will confine his guest shots to tv until NBC comes up with a format for his own show. For next season RCA will split its sponsorship on NBC's "three-plan" with alternating bankrolling of "Fibber and Molly," "It Pays to Be Married" and "One Man's Family," all quarter-hour strips.
All of this meant more time for Phil to go hunting, fishing and golfing with Bing Crosby and other pals. Just as his character did on the air, Phil Harris enjoyed life. He had 91 years of it.


  1. Phil's decision not to transition to television even with the rest of the cast on the Benny show and the decision not to take his own show to TV may have just been an overall aversion to the stricter demands that television had (let alone the possible need to re-cast the supporting cast, since audiences would now have to see all the people they had been listening to on radio).

  2. I don't think Phil had an aversion to appearing on tv, but he certainly couldn't be a regular cast member on Benny's tv show on CBS if he was under contract to NBC. I think you're correct about having to recast everyone except Alice and Phil for a tv show, but I also think that after seven radio seasons the show had pretty much played itself out, and listening to the final radio season the show had become repetative and formulaic.

    I don't care what any critic says, the first four seasons of "The Phil Harris Alice Faye Show" (before Phil had to leave the Benny program and Elliot Lewis had to start using his real name instead of Frank Remley's) were the funniest thing on radio. Outlandish, bizarre, surreal, sarcastic, never not funny, BUT not for everyone either. My all time favorite, along with the Benny show and Our Miss Brooks, another overlooked classic.

    Fantastic trivia: most all Phil Harris Alice Faye episodes were written by Ray Singer and Dick Chevillat. Most all Green Acres episodes were written by Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. Yes, the humor in both are very similar.

    1. Singer and Chevillat (the announcer, Bill Forman, pronounced it "Chevrolet" though it would probably be more like "shev-ee-yah") also created and wrote a mid-50s sitcom, "It'a a Great Life," with James Dunn and Michael O'Shea.

      Ray Singer was quoted by Leonard Maltin in his "Great American Broadcast" book:
      "The six years on the Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show were six of the happiest years of my life. They're wonderful people, and it was a writer's paradise, because Phil was the kind of guy who loved living, and didn't want to be bothered with work or anything else. And he left us alone. We never had to report to him. Dick and I would work out the premise and write the script. Phil and Alice lived in Palm Springs; they'd come in on Friday. And we rehearsed, we'd do a rewriting on Saturday, and do the show Sunday and they'd go back to Palm Springs. He never knew what was gonna happen. And it was left in our hands, which is a wonderful thing to do; and it spoiled us for everybody else."

    2. I meant to type "It's a Great Life" (and if it's half as funny as the Phil-Alice show, I'd like to see it).

      The last season of Harris-Faye did have a noticeable decline - Robert North was no longer playing Alice's nerdy brother Willie; Walter Scharf's orchestra sounded a bit leaner (no strings anymore - seems like the violinists were always the first to go; did they make that much more than, say, horn players or pianists? I haven't checked the AFM scales) and there was more of a reliance on what could be called "idiot plots"- situations that would only work if every character was an idiot.

    3. I agree with Greg, the first four years of the show are tremendous. Walter Tetley is wonderful and the interplay between Phil and "Remley" is always good. I think it ages better than most of the comedies of its time because of the writing and the pace of the show.

  3. Aw, c'mon, Johnathan, lighten up, baby. We all know it was the sponsor who demanded Phil have a family foundation to keep ol' Wonga from becoming too much of a rascal for post-war America. I mean if Alice is the weakest link in your show, daddy you ain't doin' too bad.

    I read somewhere that NBC paid Harris a lot of money to not be on television. Now it you had the choice between going on the TV treadmill or playing golf... Hell, where's my putter?

  4. They were a little coy about the identities of the three songs that were mentioned. I know the middle one is "That's What I Like About The South", but what were the other two? Might the last one have been the song called "Civilization" a/k/a Bongo Bongo Bongo?

  5. Loved Benny's line in " George Washington Slept Here " when he and Ann Sheridan are in a antique shop listening to a music box from the 1700's. " Sounds like Phil Harris and his orchestra ".

  6. It's worth noting that both Phil Harris and Bob Crosby, who replaced him, were only "front" bandleaders on the Benny show, and players in the comedy situations. The guy who actually did all the heavy lifting music-wise was Mahlon Merrick, who continued as Benny's off-camera "real" bandleader through the end of his TV show.

    Merrick was so busy on radio and TV that he worked other shows under aliases; the most frequent one being "Gene Le Grande," his wife's first name (Jean) re-spelled and coupled with his own middle name (Le Grande.) He also worked as "Claude Sweeten" and "Lou Kosloff."

    In addition to his work on shows, Merrick also wrote commercial jingles, the best-known being the "Look Sharp!" march for Gillette razor blades.