Sunday 31 January 2021

Benny on Broadway

It would seem pointless to publicise a stage show that’s already sold out, but Jack Benny did it anyway when he appeared in New York in 1963. After all, he still had a TV show on the air and he was getting free newspaper space to keep it in the spotlight.

Jack had been around so long, and his radio character was so well known, there wasn’t too much new to ask him. So the story below from the Camden Courier-Post of March 4, 1963 may seem fairly familiar.

Below it are two reviews of what was basically a vaudeville show, one from columnist Hy Gardner and the other from Newsweek. They’re both from March 11th. Jack gave audiences what saw on TV every week, along with a singer and some unknowns. It wasn’t an all-star extravaganza, but he gave them what they wanted, including the duelling violin routine with Toni Marcus.

Benny Pays Tab For Group’s Dinner

NEW YORK—A year or so ago, Jack Benny descended upon New York, recruited a group of Broadway celebrities and invited them to dine at a “famous restaurant.” He walked them to the eatery, lined them up outside, handed each guest 10 nickels, told them to live it up, and marched them into an Automat.
He stepped out of character this past weekend. He invited a group of TV editors, drama critics and celebrities to dinner at the Warwick and then to a private Sunday viewing of his “Jack Benny” show at the Ziegfeld Theatre . . . and . . . Mr. Benny picked up the tab!
BENNY BLAMES . . . and loves . . . his writers for creating his public image as a tightwad who still drives a Maxwell (circa 1922) and never pays Rochester, his man Friday.
This mirth-making illusion probably reached its crescendo on his weekly (pre-TV era) radio show when after having parked his ancient chariot in his garageless driveway he was confronted by a ruffian who stuck a pistol into his midriff and growled, “Your money or your life!”
There was dead silence on the air waves for seconds, then minutes, until the thug snarled impatiently, and Benny querulously bleated,
“Give me more time. I’m trying to make up my mind!”
“MY writers created the image of Stingy Benny,” the comedian told the pros Sunday. “They also were responsible for the violin bit. If I hadn’t been a comedian, I’d have been a virtuoso on the violin . . . but a lousy one. It was like being a golfer who likes to play but hates to practice.
“But I’ve kept this item a secret far too long—I HATE ‘Love in Bloom!’”
BENNY, a perennial 39 going on 70 (he celebrated, without fan-fare, his 69th birthday anniversary last week) is pleasantly and familiarly at ease in his virtually one-man show. But—
“Isn’t it a h—uva time to bring me back to Broadway for a six-week engagement? A snowstorm, a newspaper strike and Lent! Whether the show lays an egg because of those handicaps, I have a window handy on the 28th floor of this hotel.” (Aide to Benny fans: don’t worry, the six-week engagement is sold out.)
“I didn’t get my asking price for this job, but Billy Rose said I could have his lemonade concession,” the insouciant comic grinned. “But I don’t know what my net will be until Mary Livingstone finishes her shopping . . . that is, IF she ever finishes.”
AFTER telling his startled captive audience that because people really believe he is a miser, he leans over backwards to tip generously, he said he bawls out his Tuesday night audiences.
“They should be home watching my TV show!”
On the nights off he’d like to see other shows, but the tickets cost too much. “I went off-Broadway . . . and say, there’s a dilly in Scranton this week!”
So what comes after the six-week run? “I thought of going to Florida but . . . Ponce de Leon couldn’t find what he wanted most, so why should I waste time?

It's Not Just the Jack That Keeps Benny Working

NEW YORK — Jack Benny can make more people laugh hysterically with a famous take, a stare, a grimace or an inaudible grunt than most contemporaries can achieve with a polished script. It's gratifying to see him on television, but you must feel his warmth over the footlights of the Ziegfeld Theater to really appreciate his subtle wit and droll humor.
Why Jack, at this stage of the game, took on the grueling job of playing seven (or is it nine?) live shows a week for six weeks is something only he and Billy Rose, who inveigled him into the trap, can explain. Benny says the answer is a five-letter word, m-o-n-e-y.
But the man who built up the image of a tightwad isn't that money mad. As a matter of fact friends will tell you that whenever they have lunch or dinner with him he puts up a helluva fight to pick up the check. The fact that he never wins is irrelevant. It just goes to prove what a master of timing he is.
The truth is that Benny, like Chevalier, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Joe E. Lewis and the other handful of great entertainers in their 60s or 70's, use work as therapy for staying young. Every performance gives them something to look forward to and less time to look backwards.
When they face an audience they're ageless, finer performers than they were a decade or two ago. Their's is a mutual lifelong romance with their audiences. It creates a chemistry that no youngster can concoct. The word for it is Charisma.
At the opening, Benny, in self-defense, said that Chevalier is even more money-mad than he is.

Benny on Broadway
Jack Benny is so wise to his following that the moment he steps out onto the stage of the Ziegfeld Theater he knows what the talkative womenfolk are buzzing into their escorts’ ears. He says it first: “My God, he looks so much younger on TV.” From there on, the audience at this nameless revue could almost play the same trick on Benny. His big blue eyes still serve him as a topic of jest, along with his parsimony and the quirks of the stooge entourage he made famous on radio. Delivered with the familiar old mannerisms—hand on cheek, one limp knee bent inward—the running gags still work, even in a production which looks like the only USO show ever cheeky enough to open in New York at a $7.50 top.
Of all our illustrious clowns, Benny is the one who can do least, but when he catches himself in the reckless act of discarding some stray horsehairs from his violin bow and frugally pockets them instead, nobody could excel the princely finesse of it. Benny has the glowing patina of the vaudeville veteran, and the stage dims when he walks off. His co-star, Jane Morgan, is a torch howler whose welcome depends heavily on the way she makes an evening gown bulge, and there is a troupe of gospel singers who bully the ear drums beyond humane limits. But there is also a two-man juggling act called the Half Brothers whose skills skirt the supernatural. Even Benny is at his funniest when this amazing team interrupts him in the middle of a joke to make him the stunned pivot of a terrifying whirl of Indian clubs.

Saturday 30 January 2021

The Eyes of Don Williams

Even those of you who have trouble figuring out who animated what in the days of yore should have no trouble picking out the work of Don Williams once he was put into Art Davis’ unit at Warner Bros.

Williams developed a habit of stretching a character up, then dropping him down leaving a trail of multiple eyes.

We’ll talk a bit about Williams in just a moment. Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about.

From Mouse Menace, released Nov. 2, 1946 (Porky’s head looks like Davis’, bald and jowly).

The Goofy Gophers, released January 25, 1947.

The Foxy Duckling, released August 23, 1947.

More Williams in just a moment. But first a brief look.

To the right you see Williams’ draft card from October 1940. It shows that Donald Harold Williams was born on April 21, 1906 in Rochester, Minnesota. But you’ll notice the name “Murphy” written in the side margin. That’s because his birth name was Donald Harold Murphy. His father James Murphy was a “laborer” when he was born, but soon opened a crockery shop with a Jonathan J. Miller. The City Directory for 1913 shows that Murphy and Miller had moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan. It’s not clear when or where his parents divorced, but his mother Susie was living in Long Beach in 1919 when she married George A. Williams.

Don Williams worked as a clerk in 1925-26, then got a job as an usher in 1927. The 1928 City Directory refers to him as a “commercial artist” and in 1930, the Census reveals he’s working at a film studio. Presumably, it was Walter Lantz’s; he was a witness at Sid Sutherland’s wedding in 1931 and both worked for Lantz at the time. He was married the following year.

Williams told historian Mike Barrier of being approached in 1933 to jump to the brand-new Leon Schlesinger studio, and he did. His first screen credit were on Those Were Wonderful Days, released in April 1934. Williams moved over to Disney from August 1936 to February 1938.

The MGM Studio Club News mentions him in its edition of December 23, 1937—but in the art department, not in the cartoon department. His draft card puts him at Paul Fennell’s Cartoon Films in October 1940, but the MGM newsletter has him at the studio again and promoted to the production department in May 1941. He ended up back in animation, possibly because the studio was losing too many animators to the draft, and he’s credited on two sorts, Wild Honey, released Nov. 7, 1942 and The Stork’s Holiday, released Oct. 23, 1943 (Metro had not begun crediting animators on every cartoon yet).

We then find him at Columbia, where he got an animation screen credit for The Playful Pest, released December 3, 1943. By then, he had been working at Walter Lantz again for almost a month. His last credit there was on Woody Dines Out, released May 14, 1945; he used the cascading eyes effect when he was there.

A Warner Club News montage photo puts him at Warners no later than April 1945; Davis became a director a month later. The Club News says little about him, other than he was thrown by his pet horse once and dropped 20 pounds before fall of 1947.Williams’ first screen credit came in Hollywood Canine Canteen, released April 20, 1946. He lasted until the dismantling of the Davis unit by the start of 1948 and was let go.

How he made a living during the ‘50s is unclear. He did some work for the Kling studios, as his name appears on the industrial short The Butcher, the Baker, the Ice Cream Maker. He did have exhibits of his watercolours at a number of galleries around Los Angeles. The Hanna-Barbera studio threw him some work in 1959 on its two syndicated shows, Huckleberry Hound and Quick Draw McGraw. His name surfaces on the Q.T. Hush series in 1960. When DePatie-Freleng formed in May 1963, Williams was among the first animators hired and he remained with the studio until his death on June 17, 1980. He was 74.

There’s great animation and dialogue in What Makes Daffy Duck, released February 14, 1948. Bill Melendez gives Daffy a pile of expressions as he sways his head during dialogue. And here’s Williams.

Dough-Ray Me-ow, August 14, 1948.

And, finally, The Pest That Came to Dinner, released September 11, 1948. Notice the last two consecutive frame. Dry bush is added to mimic movement. The only thing moving is Sureshot's mouth.

Davis had an excellent unit, but I gather he was more comfortable animating than directing. On top of that, he had to deal with studio politics. He only got to direct Bugs Bunny once. He got two rookie writers (who went on to better things) after George Hill was fired over a drunken escapade and never seemed to mesh with them. Williams was no stranger to alcohol and it seems to have waylaid his career for a bit. Still, he survived in the business and turned out entertaining animation. And quirky eye streams as well.

Friday 29 January 2021

About That Television....

“Now don’t ask us how we got the television set back,” Droopy advises the audience in The Three Little Pups. Of course, the Southern wolf swallowed it earlier in the cartoon.

Tex Avery makes use of limited animation. Droopy’s head and mouth are the only thing that move in this scene. Droopy turns his head on twos, while grey shades on the TV screen alternate on the opposite twos. That means each frame is a little different.

Avery saves animation at the start with a storybook introduction. That means the camera focuses on immobile pages of a book. Later, there is a hole that’s cut in the page so a cel with drawings of the pups can be slid underneath it.

Still, there are five animators on this show, with Ray Patterson added to the usuals of Walt Clinton, Mike Lah, Grant Simmons and Bob Bentley.

Thursday 28 January 2021

Early Cloris

Jane Claiborne had a stellar acting career in films and television and....

Oh! Who’s Jane Claiborne, you ask?

A squib in the December 20, 1946 edition of the New York Daily News informed readers that “Jane Claiborne, who formerly called herself Cloris Leachman, has been signed for the feminine lead in “William Loves Mary,” new Norman Krasna comedy which begins rehearsing Monday.

The paper doesn’t explain why she changed her name. As you well know, she changed it back and went on to star opposite a dog (“Lassie”) and appear in one (“Phyllis”. Sorry, fans). But she’s being lauded for her triumphs.

One aspect of her early TV career is fascinating and a little baffling. Bob and Ray were a wonderful, creative team who got caught in the transition from radio to television. They were far better on radio, where they worked alone. On TV, they (or someone) decided they needed a female cast member. At first, they employed Audrey Meadows, who moved on to stardom opposite Jackie Gleason. Her replacement was Cloris Leachman.

Considering her show-biz career to date, it was an odd choice. She was Katharine Hepburn’s understudy, after all, as you can learn from this Daily News feature story of August 31, 1952.

A Star Now, Cloris Seeks Singing Role

BY UNOFFICIAL count, there are about 3,000 actresses constantly looking for jobs on New York TV programs. While there may be some doubt as to the exact number, there's one point on which there is no doubt: A 26-year-old blonde, hazel-eyed, Iowa-born performer named Cloris Leachman is one of the best of the lot.
Cloris (it's a family name and her mother's too) has been on virtually every TV dramatic show emanating from New York, and for the last year or two has been getting star billing.
A measure of her ability is the fact that while she is most frequently seen in heavy dramatic parts on such programs as "Suspense," "Danger," "Studio One" and "Kraft Theatre" it was she who was chosen when Bob and Ray needed a new girl comic for their NBC-TV show. Now she appears with them every Saturday night.
It's almost traditional in show business that a country-born girl who reaches stardom at the age of 26 should have done it the hard way. Not so in Cloris Leachman's case. She’s one of the rarely fortunate people whose lives seem a succession of good breaks. Her first good break came when she was 15 and won the first of three scholarships that helped further her dramatic studies. This gave her a free course in radio acting and announcing.
Apparently she learned a lot from her radio instructors, because by the time she was 18 she had three shows on KRNT and KSO in Des Moines.
Read the Funnies, Advised Housewives
She read the Sunday funnies; did a program on women in the news and under the name of Sara Wallace conducted a program giving housewives advice. Most of the housewives were old enough to be her mother, and one of them was.
The second scholarship was an Edgar Bergen scholarship to North-Western University—one of a number of awards that Charlie McCarthy's mentor has donated to that school.
While she was in her sophomore year she got still another break when, without her knowledge, a friend submitted her picture in a beauty contest. She emerged Miss Chicago and was a contestant in the annual Atlantic City beauty pageant of 1946 (all 48 states and New York City and Chicago are represented at Atlantic City). She didn't win the Miss America title, but she was one of 15 finalists, each of whom get a $1,000 scholarship.
When the Atlantic City contest was over, Cloris started on three-day holiday in New York City, but it turned out to be one of the longest week-ends of all time—she's never been back to Des Moines. Within two weeks she had job understudying Nina Foch in "John Loves Mary" on Broadway. Subsequently, she was understudy for “Happy Birthday”; appeared in “As You Like It” with Katharine Hepburn and won the “Theatre World” award for her acting in a flop play, "Story for a Sunday Evening."
So far Hollywood doesn’t seem to have discovered Cloris; but it may pretty soon. A few months ago she gave an audition for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the authors of "South Pacific," "King and I" and other smash hits.
She made so great an impression that they decided to write her into their next Broadway musical (it's untitled as yet).
They also decided to put her on a weekly salary—something just about unheard of in show business—so she could continue studying voice. She likes to think of this as her fourth—and perhaps most important—scholarship.

Most people reading here probably think of The Mary Tyler Moore Show when they think of Leachman. The show had the unenviable job of trying to by funny while balancing the comedy around two completely different settings. It’s to the credit of a strong cast they were able to do it. Leachman may not have been the strongest, but she won honours from her peers and has left behind a huge body of work.

My Mother-in-Law, the Cow

Anonymous Bob Clampett and his anonymous writer put a new spin on the old mother-in-law joke in Bacall to Arms (1946).

A henpecked husband, forewarned “the old battle axe” is on the way, hides his home under farmland occupied by a cow. Clampett called for an exaggerated mouth-movement chewing cycle. A few drawings:

The henpecked guy pops up from the ground. “She’ll never find us now Bessy!” he says to the cow. In a piece of extremely-quick timing, the cow disguise comes off.

The take.

The scene ends with a radio catchphrase as the mother-in-law exclaims “Don’t you believe it!”

Clampett is anonymous because he’d left Warners by the time this cartoon was pieced together. I don’t know about the writer, who is uncredited.