Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Mr. Wilson Wears a Dress

Network radio in the 1940s had a small group of actors constantly in demand for both dramatic and comedy shows. One of them was Joe Kearns.

The dramatic show he may have been best known for, at least on the West Coast, was The Whistler. He was a regular on Suspense and showed up frequently on Lux Radio Theatre and Hollywood Star Time.

Kearns was a fine comedic actor, too. He had regular roles on The Mel Blanc Show and The Judy Canova Show and the short-lived Harold Peary Show. He’s remembered fondly by fans of the Jack Benny radio show as Ed, the man who had guarded Jack Benny’s underground vault seemingly since the Revolutionary War, but Benny found other parts for him to play.

An early starring role was in a 1939 NBC Blue network show called Parents on Trial where he played a judge. Bea Benaderet and Elliott Lewis, two other A-list supporting actors, also appeared.

Those shows are just a very small sample.

When television came along, Kearns finally got audience recognition; such is the nature of seeing someone every week instead of hearing him. Kearns was cast as Mr. Wilson on the Dennis the Menace series and played the part until his sudden death in 1962.

This only scratched the proverbial surface of Kearns’ talents. Here’s a story from the Salt Lake Telegram of January 20, 1924. The paper had a columnist in New York who reported on people from back home.
Utahns In New York

NEW YORK, Jan 19.—"Miss" Kearns of Salt Lake advanced gracefully to center front of the big stage, cavernous without its customary scenery. The eminent critics stopped talking golf to take a look and lend an ear to this latest and prodigy of Ned Wayburn. Ned's proteges generally were worth looking at. "Miss" Kearns proved no exception.
"Her" appealing blue eyes, round girlish face and golden curls rivaled those of the fair Lillian Gish. "Her" plaintive soprano voice evoked forgotten memories. "Her" dainty feet and neat ankles repictured memories more vivid. And "she" certainly could dance! Imagine, then, their surprise when this vision of feminine pulchritude snatched the blond tresses from a most masculine haircut and commenced singing in a tenor a la McCormack. Ned Wayburn then steps to the front. "Beg pardon, gentlemen, my mistake. Let me introduce you to Mr. Joe Kearns of Salt Lake."
The critics applaud. "Where did you find him?" "When are you going to present him to the public?" "Another Julian Eltinge . . . and like comment. Joe Kearns had "gone over" with the critics, whose opinions shadow the taste of the theatre-goers.
Backstage, Joe Kearns was modestly accepting tribute from those most interested—mother, sister, grandmother and Ned Wayburn.
Joe is the son of Joseph Albert Kearns, who is in the wool business in Salt Lake. He is only 17 years old but his remarkable aptitude for female impersonation, as well as decided ability in stage and costume designing, led him to New York some six months ago. C. Clyde Squires, the Utah artist, was instrumental in bringing him to the attention of Ned Wayburn, stage director and producer of Ziegfeld Follies, who immediately became interested in the lad.
Joe commenced his professional stage training under Mr. Wayburn's direction last September. He receives ballet instruction from Alexander Yakoloff, formerly Anna Pavlova's dancing partner. Soft shoe and toe dancing he is learning from Robert Connely, the late Bert Savoy's manager. His vocal lessons are under the care of Vere Richards. On January 5, Mr. Wayburn arranged a tryout to see if his belief in the boy's genius was justified. Apparently it was, for Joe is to go on with his studies until such time as Mr. Wayburn thinks it advisable to place him on the stage.
The other night Joe Kearns was presented to a number of Utah people at an informal gathering in the Kearns apartment. The guests were enthusiastic and predicted a most successful future. They were greatly interested also in a miniature stage designed by this talented Utahn. It was an exact reproduction of a big stage with a special lighting effect and scenery of unusual coloring devised by young Kearns. Costumes for a complete revue of his designing were also exhibited. Among the guests were Mrs. Ella Squires and her son Harold.
Mrs. Kearns and her mother, Mrs. Lehl Peterson, are to return to Utah within the week via the Panama canal. The daughter Beth precedes them by train.
Kearns did not become the next Julian Eltinge (perhaps vaudeville’s top female impersonator of the 1920s). His career didn’t take off in New York. He went across the country to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Marta Oatman School of Theater, co-starring in a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s “Diff’rent,” mounted at the Sum-Toy-Sho Theatre on March 6, 1926. His professional debut occurred at the Pasadena Playhouse in “What Price Glory” in February 1927, with Clark Gable in the cast. The Los Angeles Times of February 13th gave a summary of Kearns’ brief career, pointing out he first appeared on stage at the age of 5 in Salt Lake City playing a little girl.

Kearns continued writing plays and returned to Salt Lake to announce at KSL. He was back in Los Angeles in 1936, appearing in the title role of Peer Gynt in a serialised version of the Isben play broadcast starting in mid-November on KECA. He returned to KSL in July 1937 but was back in the air in Los Angeles by October.

Since we’ve talked about some of the high points of Kearns’ radio career, let’s jump ahead to July 30, 1961. Kearns had been on Dennis the Menace for two seasons and it seems there was a bit of friction on the set as certain adults who thought they were going to be featured found themselves watching Kearns’ Mr. Wilson take up piles of screen time. He explains why in this Associated Press column.
Child Stars Don't Worry Joe Kearns

HOLLYWOOD (AP)—The late W. C. Fields once observed that a man who hates kids and dogs can't be all bad.
Applied to child actors, the first half of that epigram has plenty of private subscribers in show business. But publicly, of course, few have dared to evince anything less than loving deviation to moppets, fearing that failure to do so meant theatrical disaster.
Thus show folks have been slightly startled in the last couple of years by the success of amiable, bespectacled Joe Kearns as a sort of every boy's curmudgeon next door, the fusty, perpetually exasperated Mr. Wilson of CBS' “Dennis the Menace” series.
Actually, two men scarcely could be less similar than the bumbling, bombastic Wilson, and Kearns, a gentle-mannered, 54 year old bachelor whose favorite hobby is playing his enormous, theater-type pipe organ.
“In fact,” he admitted with a shrug, “I really didn't want to do the part at first. I just couldn't see myself as Wilson at all because in the cartoons he's an old guy with a paunch and no hair.”
Kearns has none of the former and plenty of the latter. “Then, when I got into it, I gave the show a year at the most,” he went on. “I figured: How far can you go with a kid getting into mischief? It's surprised me. I guess it's surprised everyone.”
More surprising to Kearns and to the rest of the cast has been his emergence as the No. 2 personality in the company. Neither he nor anyone else imagined at the outset that the unfriendly neighbor who spent most of his time chasing Dennis (Jay North) home would become the star's leading foil.
“I know it's caused some . . . well, sensitivity among the rest of the cast,” he said. “But it certainly wasn't my idea. It wasn't planned that way. “I guess the writers just found it easier to create situations for Dennis and Mr. Wilson than anything else.”
Kearns, who says he “only wants to be a good actor, that's all,” has never been troubled by the thought that the series could make him a childhood symbol of the neighborhood meanie.
“It hasn't worked out that way,” he adds. “People often ask me if I'm getting a stigma. I'll never live down, but I don't see it. A lot of children ask for my autograph, and they're never less than very friendly.
“I think one reason is that Wilson has been pasteled down from the cartoon character. He still has his rough edges. He's an old fraud, really, but he's very fond of Dennis down deep inside.”
Kearns doesn't share the common theatrical loathing for working with children. Having started his own career at the age of six, he understands and sympathizes with child actors.
“Working with kids isn't nearly as bad as it's cracked up to be,” he demurred. “Sure, some are . . . Oh, you know. But the kids on our show are good children, and they get in there and work, too.”
And Kearns candidly concedes that it's a bit late for him to be concerned about being “typed” by his role.
“At my age,” he sighed, “the only way a character actor can be a success is playing a neighbor.”
The article mentions Kearns’ theatre pipe organ in his home. Kearns lived for years at 6122 Carlos Avenue, not too far from Hollywood and Vine. In the 1950s, he designed and built another house behind the first one and had it constructed around his organ. The organ was featured on an album on Liberty Records; a picture of the second home shows the exterior hasn’t changed a lot from what’s on the property today. One Robert F. Robertson, who lived with Kearns since the mid ‘40s, occupied the “organ” home.

In February 1962, Kearns had a cerebral haemorrhage and fell into a coma. He died in hospital almost a week later at the age of 55. United Press International quoted someone at CBS saying “That’s the end of that show. He was the whole show.” That wasn’t quite the case. Gale Gordon was quickly brought in to fill the nemesis role. But the calendar isn’t kind to youth. The boy who played Dennis, Jay North, was outgrowing the role. The series lasted one more season. Gale Gordon toddled off to work with Lucille Ball. North found other work. Kearns remained a fond memory for TV and radio fans.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019


Everyone knows about the almost-instantly huge eye takes that Tex Avery loved smacking the audience with. There’s a great one at the end of Droopy’s Double Trouble (1951). At the beginning, though, there’s a far more subtle piece of eye animation.

Droopy brings his twin brother to see the snooty butler. You can see the butler’s eye opening and then getting larger.

Avery and writer Rich Hogan now decide to have the butler leap into the air. The scene follows standard animation principles—anticipation then action. Here are the drawings (on twos) Avery uses to get to the anticipation part.

And away he goes!

Mike Lah, Walt Clinton and Grant Simmons are the credited animators.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Mouth in Minnie the Moocher

A witch comes flying at the theatre audience in Minnie the Moocher, a 1932 Fleischer short that exists to highlight the title song as sung by a rotoscoped Cab Calloway as a walrus. (At least, I think it’s a witch. I don’t think it’s Minnie).

Disney for a year or so on either side of 1930 had characters swallowing the camera. It kind of happens in this Fleischer short, except in this case, the mouth has two uvulas that wail before the pictures vanishes into blackness.

The camera pulls back to reveal the blackness is now a cave from which Betty and Bimbo emerge.

Willard Bowsky and Ralph Somerville receive animation screen credits on this one.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Plain Speaking About Plainfield

Plainfield, New Jersey got almost as much publicity on the Jack Benny radio show as Waukegan, Illinois.

Waukegan was Benny’s home town. Plainfield was Mary Livingstone’s home town.

Well, that depends on which Mary Livingstone you’re talking about.

The character Mary Livingstone was from Plainfield. She was played by Sadye Marks, who then legally changed her name to her character’s name. Miss Marks wasn’t from Plainfield. She was born in Seattle and grew up in Vancouver in Canada.

Benny liked blurring lines between reality and show biz on his show; when the Benny show was broadcast from Vancouver in 1944, he threw out 12 years of Plainfield and admitted Mary was back in her hometown. It was never mentioned again; it was back to Plainfield for the radio version of Mary.

The confusion encouraged some false memories, as revealed in this story from June 2, 1959 in the Courier-News of Bridgewater, New Jersey.
Millions Think So, But ...
Jack Benny's Wife Not from Plainfield
Millions of Americans have heard of the Queen City through a woman who never lived here. She's Mary Livingstone, Jack Benny's "fan from Plainfield, N. J." The whole thing is a 27-year-old radio and television gag that has been popping up periodically ever since Benny, the popular comedian, first used it in 1932.
The story goes this way:
In 1932, his first year in radio Benny had a sketch with a part in it for a fictional fan named Mary Livingstone from Plainfield, N. J. She was supposed to ask the comedian for his autograph.
"It was just a couple of lines," Benny recalled. "But we couldn't find a girl to read it right. I asked Mary (her real name was Sadye Marks, and he had married her in 1927) to help out. She did. Then she wasn't on the next week, and the fans started writing like crazy wanting to know when that girl from Plainfield, N.J. was coming back on the show."
So Mary came back. And from then on she and Jack—born Benjamin Kubelsky—built up by occasional mention the legend that she was a former department store clerk from Plainfield.
She was a department clerk. But in Los Angeles, not in Plainfield.
"In fact," Benny once said, the Plainfield gag "is one of the very few things on our program that isn't basically true. Once in a while," he added, "we get a letter from someone in Plainfield claiming they remember Mary's folks and where she lived."
(Although there are several Livingston—without the "e"—families in the area, only one lives in Plainfield, according to the telephone directory. And Dr. and Mrs. S. R. Livingston of 650 W. Seventh St. have occasionally received phone calls from persons who want to talk with Mary Livingstone.)
Why did Benny choose Plainfield for his bit part?
"We used Plainfield," he said, "because it is close to New York and the name of the seemed just right for this particular character.
There’s no false memory when it comes to Mary’s first appearance, though it was more than “a couple” of lines. It’s quite true that the character was not on the following show (Jack was doing two a week when Canada Dry sponsored him in 1932-33) but returned the following week. Other than Mary when developed “a sore throat” or “the flu,” which seemed to happen more often than anyone else in radio, she continued to be a regular character until she finally told Jack in the early ‘50s to let her stop appearing. She missed some weeks and the rest of the time she pre-recorded her lines, at times in an unenthusiastic monotone. The fake Mary may have been a fan. The real one was a very reluctant star.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Why We Like Cartoons

Cartoons make me happy. I’m sure they make you happy, too (well, good ones, anyway). I don’t need some professorial psychoanalysis to tell me this.

However, I guess someone did. Here’s an unbylined article that appeared in newspapers starting on December 24, 1930. I wonder if this didn’t come from the Warner Bros. PR department. The first Looney Tunes cartoon had been released about eight months before this story appeared.

“Bosco” was the character’s preferred spelling by the studio into 1931.

Psychological Appeal Of Cartoon Comedies Explained
Antics Of Characters Contrary To Established Laws Of Reality.

The appeal of the cartoon type of comedy has become so universal that it has piqued the curiosity of psychologists as well as of motion picture producers. The explanation of the public liking for cartoon comedies is of an unusual nature.
Leading psychologists declare that people are always interested in anything that acts contrary to the established laws of nature and their own sense of reality. The mystic tricks of magicians always find a ready audience. One must remember that the average layman attends the theatre to enjoy the things that take him away, for the time being from the humdrum happenings of everyday life. By means of animated cartoons, which have become so popular, the artist is able to present situations which by the very nature of their unusualness, enable the audience to lift itself for the moment, out of this life into the land of make-believe.
A good example of this is evidenced in the "Looney Tunes" series of Vitaphone song cartoons. In one of the releases, Bosco, the central cartoon figure, whistles for his auto which comes running to him to the tune of a popular song. In still another of the series is shown a brute of a hippopotamus rendering popular selections on a guitar. The "Looney Tunes" cartoons are devised by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising with a special musical arrangement by Frank Marsales.
The cartoonist is allowed great opportunity for imaginative skill. The more fantastic, the more unusual the antics of his characters, the better chance for success the attraction has. The element of impossibility and surprise in animated cartoons is a feature greatly appreciated by audiences. Added to the highly amusing though impossible situations, the use of music and sound effects, well synchronized, have probably done more to popularize the cartoons than any other factor.
The increasing popularity of the "Looney Tunes" series as well as other animated cartoons of like nature, bears out the contention of psychologists and the experience of exhibitors that the antics of cartoon characters are relished by the public because of the element of surprise, due to their improbabilities, and the amusing manner of their presentation.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Takes of the 1920s

Here he is, that noted silent film star—Walter Lantz.

Long before Lantz hosted the Woody Woodpecker Show on TV, he co-starred on screen with his cartoon creations Dinky Doodle and Weakheart (a dog) in a series of animated shorts for Bray. Lantz’s acting won’t evoke memories of Buster Keaton, but it’s serviceable for a cartoon.

Tex Avery may have been noted for exaggerated takes but the man who was his boss on two occasions was doing it back in the mid-‘20s. In Just Spooks (1925) there are a bunch of imaginative ideas. Here’s a big eye take. Unfortunately, Lantz doesn’t start with small eyes and make them huge in four or six frames. Instead, he does a fear take with two drawings alternating, one with wiggly lines. Carlo Vinci was doing the same thing more than 30 years later at Hanna-Barbera.

There is a growth take. It’s pretty good but the timing isn’t crisp. Lantz cuts away from it too soon with the characters still in mid-air. Here’s how it starts and ends.

Clyde Geronimi gets screen credit as Lantz’ assistant.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Crook Jumped Over the Moon

You know a gag is coming but what’s it going to be?

Disappointing, it turns out.

In the climax scene of the ComiColor short The Brementown Musicians (1935), the animals tossed out by a farmer return to save him from burglars. In some cycle animation, the donkey kicks the identical crooks out the door and into the night sky.

The first couple sail over the moon. You get the feeling a gag is being set up. Why would it be happening otherwise?

Here it is. The moon swallows one of the burglars, then spits him out. That’s the gag.

Iwerks must have decreed his cartoons be filled with radiating lines. They all have them. The moon sprouts them in this scene.

Iwerks and musician Carl Stalling are the only ones with credits on this cartoon, which has could have had whimsy, but didn’t.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Ethel and Yvonne

No amount of Shark Repellent Bat Spray could kill the shark over which Batman jumped entering its final TV season. The first sign of a toothy creature swimming toward the series was the addition of Batgirl. 11-year-old me realised in 1967 it was a ratings gimmick. The next sign were the villains that simply couldn’t be taken seriously. Milton Berle? Oh, come on. Ethel Merman? She wasn’t evil. Well, maybe she was to Ernie Borgnine. All you saw on the TV screen was Ethel Merman, not a character. The worst was the episode with the pied piper/mechanical mice. I had turned 12 by then and just rolled my eyes. Any sense of adventure or suspense to keep kids tuned had been tossed out by the producers, who just seemed to be amusing themselves.

Ethel and Batgirl were used as selling points for the coming season. Here’s a story from the National Enterprise Association from August 31, 1967 quoting the Merm and Yvonne Craig, who played Batgirl. The columnist doesn’t have any idea who Batgirl’s character is. And Merman eventually did play Dolly Levi.
Ethel Merman Bids Broadway ‘Good-Bye’

Newspaper Enterprise Assn.
HOLLYWOOD — Batman, this coming season, has lost an episode but gained a daughter. The Caped Crusader — or, if you prefer, The Riotous Rodent — will only be on ABC once a week. But this year, there will be a Batgirl on the premises.
Not only that, but producer Howie Horwitz is going ahead snagging off unexpected guest stars to spice up the proceedings. One such is Ethel Merman, playing a character named Lola Lasagna. She did a two-parter, working with Burgess Meredith (The Penguin) and she had a batball.
“That’s what I want to do from now on,” Miss Merman said, still full of enthusiasm. “Just do different things. I did a Tarzan in Mexico and loved it. And I loved this.”
The greatest Broadway musical star of them all has turned her back on the Broadway musical stage. For good, she says.
“No more of those long runs for me.” Ethel says. “I wouldn’t do another Broadway musical for anything. I turned down ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘Mame’— that ought to prove I’m serious about it.”
She wouldn’t mind a drama—something like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—or perhaps a limited-engagement musical. But more than anything, she wants a television series. No more big musicals, though.
“I don’t think much of Broadway musicals these days,” she says. “They’ve changed. Why, some of the performers these days won’t even do matinees. Imagine that.”
A girl who would gladly do a Broadway musical is Yvonne Craig, the delightful young actress who is the new Batgirl. In fact, she’s Batgirling it this year in the hopes that this will lead to something — like perhaps a musical.
Yvonne Craig has two of the three talents needed for the musical stage—she is originally a ballet dancer and now an accomplished actress. As for the third, singing, she’s studying.
Actually, Yvonne took the Batgirl part for two reasons — she wanted recognition (“I’ve done many guest shots, but people never put the face and name together”) and credit cards.
As a free-lance actress,” she says, “I could never get a credit card. They figure that free-lance actresses are not good risks. The only way I got a gasoline credit card is because a friend let me put down that I was a part-time secretary with his company.”
Yvonne Craig spent three years with the Ballet Russe, so she knows what she's talking about, entrechat-wise. And if you have a daughter thinking about ballet — or if you're thinking about ballet for her — Yvonne’s ideas are worth considering.
Yvonne didn’t start studying dancing until she was 14, which runs counter to the old theory that the younger a girl starts the better.
“I think,” she says, “that it can be harmful to start too young. If I had a daughter and she was built right — loose — I wouldn’t start her until she was about 12, ten, perhaps. But no younger.”
She also has a theory that ballet schools should teach a course in anatomy along with dancing. A dancer, she believes, should know about the muscles in her body and how much punishment they can take.
So practice dancing, work hard, learn about muscles — and maybe you, too, can be a Batgirl.
Judging by that story, Yvonne was quite happy to get her name in print. We transcribed one interview she did in this post. Here’s another one, published September 19, 1967. I don’t know which syndicate employed the columnist who wrote it. Again, fame seems to be of great importance to her.
Batgirl Is a Lively Little Lady

NEW YORK — There are some people who are just too darned pretty in real life to be adequately captured by a camera.
Yvonne Craig is one of them.
The Lively little (5’4”) lady, who has launched a new phase of her career as Batman’s Batgirl (“they call me the Bat Broad on the set") really doesn't need the smooth delicate facial features, the unassuming teenage lips or the handsome mannerisms of the uncluttered mind, to be classified a true beauty.
These things serve mainly as a frame for the loveliest eyes since Elizabeth Taylor popped on the scene many a moon ago.
And surprisingly enough, behind those absorbing orbs, there is a brain to match.
“I have a pretty face,” Yvonne admitted, “but it is a face without a name.
“In television, you can work steadily on any number of shows and when you’re seen, you’re forgotten. I’ve had guest parts in a dozen or more series but I’m still unknown today.
“That’s what I like about the Batgirl role. After I’m seen in this, my face and my name will become associated and there’s nothing more important in show business.”
Yvonne was offered a series role in a show, The Mothers In-Law, dominated by two potent personalities, Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard.
“Of course I wanted to do it,” she admitted, “but I could see that it would be little more than an entrance and exit situation. In the end I would still be a face without a name.
“I think and hope the show will be a great success, but I also think my chances will be better with Batgirl.”
Yvonne has an added opinion for which the Girl Watchers of America should be grateful. She despises the modern fashions that have “made the bosom and the waist obsolete.”
“I think the women of America are so diet conscious today because we have gone through an era where waists have been practically unknown. “With all these tent dresses and straight up-and-down fashions, women haven’t had to worry about the lines of their figures. And the result is a waistless society.”
And that is another area in which Yvonne excels. For whatever else viewers will think of the new Batgirl, they must admit to a man that she cuts a striking figure on the show.
Craig did as well as she could with the Batgirl role. She’s more fondly remembered today, I suspect, than in 1967 because those 11-year-old boys that didn’t see a need for her on the show figured out the reason later in life.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

How to Turn a Car Inside Out

Puns, parodies and impersonations fill the screen in Tex Avery’s Thugs With Dirty Mugs, a 1939 short for Warner Bros., but there’s an impressive little scene involving the bank robbers’ getaway car.

It turns a corner. There are some frames where the car is tipped on an angle as Avery goes for a cinematic effect. Someone in his unit had to be able to draw a car convincingly for this.

The gag is the car skids to a stop and the force turns it around—and inside out. These are consecutive frames.

Sid Sutherland is the credited animator (or was until a Blue Ribbon re-issue in 1944). Jack Miller got a writer credit.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Follow the Bouncing Cop

Warren Foster came up with two great foils for Bugs Bunny—Rocky and Muggsy, the bank robber and his henchman, after director Friz Freleng tested the gangster idea in some other cartoons.

Bugs and Thugs (1954) includes the well-known scene about Bugs, Rocky and Muggsy in the stove, a variation on a bit Mike Maltese came up for Freleng in Racketeer Rabbit (1946). The former is the funnier of the two cartoons, but there are some nice bits in the latter.

In one sequence, Bugs calls police to tell them he’s got the bank robbers. Muggsy drags him out of the phone booth and shoves him in Rocky’s getaway car (“A 1952 Acme...Straight 8...Overhead valves!”) and drives away, with Bugs still on the phone.

The next gag is a still obvious. It’s one of those coming-through-the-phone gags. As the car zooms farther away (off camera) the cop Bugs was talking to is pulled through the phone from the police station. I’ve always liked how he bounces on the pavement and somersaults out of the scene.

This cartoon was made before the six-month 3-D shutdown at Warners in 1953. The animators are Virgil Ross, Ken Champin, Art Davis and Manny Perez.