Sunday, 23 May 2021

A Writer Gets in on the Feud

It was supposed to last for the first 2½ months of 1937, but nobody wanted to let it go. That included Paramount Pictures, which put the Jack Benny/Fred Allen feud on the big screen in the feature Love Thy Neighbor three years later. And to promote it, James F. Scheer wrote this feature story in the December 1940 edition of Hollywood magazine.

Benny made for good copy for the magazine; earlier in the year, it did a pictorial on Buck Benny Rides Again, and published a few stock pictures of Jack, including one with his daughter Joan.

Scheer’s story is pure fan-rag baloney. It treats the feud as serious though, in reality, the two former vaudevillians had hung out together when Jack’s show was still based in New York. The “insults” are the product of someone’s imagination, either Scheer or maybe some Paramount publicity writers. I doubt Jack Benny would use “olfactory” in a sentence. The story ignores all of Jack’s vaudeville career prior to enlisting in the service in 1917. It is true Benny chain-smoked cigars in the ‘30s and Allen chewed on chaw. And Fred and Portland really did have a very modest apartment in New York City.

This Can’t Be Love

■ This is the saga of two residents of glass houses who have been throwing stones, fists, half-Nelsons, slurs, and, among other sundry properties, the well-known Bull at one another.
It is the saga of Fred (Two-Fist) Allen and, as Fred says, "Jack (Two-Face) Benny," anti-one-another stars of Paramount's musicomedy Love Thy Neighbor, whose other entries on the asset side include Mary Martin and that colored duo, Rochester and Theresa Harris.
The actual enmity, friendship, or whatever-it-is-ship of Benny Kubelsky, as Jack Benny was christened on the day the Waukegan, Illinois, stork airmailed him to Mom Benny, and John F. Sullivan, alias Fred Allen, cannot be packed into a few words.
Not even in a few paragraphs. Some say Buck Benny feels mildly nauseous toward Allen. Others say Fred feels the same way toward Benny. But unless you prod one with slurring barbs from the other, you are likely to find them as eloquent about one another as Geronimo.
Take a walk down Paramount's Avenue D. But walk on the wide whitewashed line in the center — that is, if you don't want to become a participant in the Allen-Benny feud, which has been raging since '36.
The right half is painted "Fred Allen's Side"; the left half, "Jack Benny's Side." Their dressing rooms face one another a hand-grenade distance across Avenue D.
A black-lettered sign on Sound Stage A warns: DANGER— FLYING QUIPS! And gals and guys, once you're in there, you're on your own.
Among those who find Benny and Allen not exactly Damon and Pythias is George McCall, radio commentator, who does not dare visit the set since he joined Captain Allen's Slur-Slingers, Company 1492 1/2, by saying, "When they put Benny's footprints in the lobby of Grauman's Chinese Theater, Fred Allen's footprints walked away."
Sources close to the scene say Captain Buck Benny's Company is "too reserved and gentlemanly to point out that neither combatant has yet dropped an oxford in Sid Grauman's wet cement."
But the Bennyites won't refuse to admit that the script of Love Thy Neighbor calls for wrestling and fistcuffing for Neighbors Fred Allen and Jack Benny, respectively. They want the best man to win, knowing it is Benny, despite the pugilistic, Cambridge, Massachusetts, name of Fred Allen — John F. Sullivan. He is, however, no relative of boxing's John L.
On the set of Love Thy Neighbor, the boys either let their barbs fly at one another in person or deliver them by word or note through third parties. "So Allen is taking boxing lessons?" Benny laughed and plopped into his canvas-backed chair. Slicked up in a black overcoat, top hat, knitted white silk scarf, mirror-shine patent leather shoes, and a New Year's Eve whoopee horn in his pocket, he flexed a bicep menacingly. "No doubt he's preparing for things to come." Allen espionage agents reported this to their chief, who cracked bitingly, "It might be a tough battle, but Jack has the advantage. I'm only two-fisted. He's two-faced!"
Answered Benny, "The only things athletic about Fred are his feet. He's so afraid of pain that I suspect he takes a local anesthetic when he gets a manicure." Face screwed into a typical Allenesque grimace, Fred shot back, "Benny has so few red corpuscles that he can't even see red. He is so anemic that when he wheel-chaired past a dozen kennels of bloodhounds at a local prize dog show, not one of them lifted a nostril with an acknowledging sniff."
That should have put Jack in the hands of the receivers, but after a five-minute conference with gag-writers Bill Morrow and Eddie Beloin, he preserved his dignity by sending only a stern note of reply to Allen:
"Despite Mr. Allen's physical culture campaign, it is doubtful whether he could go one round by himself. Strength is such an absent quality in Mr. Allen's makeup, which I hesitate to refer to as physical makeup, that if we put on the gloves together and began to spar, I would be shadow boxing inside three seconds."

■ Amid this verbal and written exchange of lefts and rights, the timorous bystander who wishes to preserve his neutrality wonders just how this Allen-Benny feud made its debut.
Well, to abbreviate it, the feud had its coming out in the New York winter season of 1936 — to be exact, the raw cold evening of December 30. Fred Allen customarily invited a handful of amateurs to participate in each week's broadcast, and on that night Stewart Canin, a ten-year-old violinist bowed his way through a tricky solo, The Bee.
"That should make Jack Benny mighty ashamed of himself," ad-libbed the ace ad-libber. "He's been trying to play that piece for forty years and hasn't succeeded yet."
It was just a quip that passed in the night — apparently.
Next Sunday Jack made a remark that "a certain reformed juggler" had done him an injustice and retorted, "When I was ten years old, I could play The Bee too."
Thus came love to Neighbors Benny and Allen, who have been swapping slams from Hollywood and New York ever since.

■ Jack was born on St. Valentine's Day — "and what a boon to the comic valentine industry," Fred dryly admits. Like most kids, Jack went to Junior and Senior High school with only a mild distaste for teachers. His distaste for working in his dad's haberdashery shop was anything but mild.
Helping customers select chapeaux for bald pates and orange neckties with barber-pole stripes to match a cerise suit went against the Benny artistic grain, which began to assert itself when Jack traded a Honus Wagner bat, a pair of clamp skates, a Hohner harmonica, and two bucks for his first fiddle.
Every exercise in the books and Rubinstein's Melody in F took an awful beating — as did neighbors who were not psychic enough to see a future in music for Jack.
Anyhow, as a high school student, he tried, to crash Waukegan's only theater with his own orchestra. He did, but his bandsmen didn't. After all, the manager could use only one ticket-taker. Later Jack established a non-stop talk record, convinced the manager he should be on the stage fiddling, and did until fire inspectors closed the theater because of old age.
Then it was vaudeville. During World War I, he played in The Great Lakes Review for sailors training at the Great Lakes Naval Station. Nobody threw him even a rusty penny. In desperation he began talking more and playing less. He passed the hat, got it filled with coins, jokingly asked for "a second helping," and got it.
On that day Buck Benny became a monologuist and began getting regular bookings. Fred Allen's name was just another item in Variety and Billboard to Jack. They hadn't actually met until six months before their feud started.
In rapid order Jack made his debut in The Hollywood Review at M-G-M, went to New York for a leading role in Earl Carroll's Vanities, and broadcast one night as guest of a columnist. Next week he was signed to a long-term radio contract. Every Sunday night listener knows the rest.

■ Fred Allen says his life really began at about half the age Walter Pitkin claims life begins.
As a young fellow who set "returned" books back in the proper stalls at the Boston Public Library for twenty cents an hour, Fred spied a tome on juggling. Eureka! He read it from frontispiece to rear cover, and when the librarian wasn't around, practiced juggling books.
He had Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Shelley up in the air all at once for the first time in their history when the head librarian walked into the room. Fred's animated hands froze. Shakespeare slapped the concrete floor. Shelley nose-dived. Milton ended up sprawled on Shakespeare, and Chaucer landed — kerplunk! — on the librarian's high forehead. End of act two!
An improved juggler, Fred went on the stage, copped a prize at a Boston theater one night, and was about to receive the award from the famous fighter, John L. Sullivan, master of ceremonies, when the great John L. asked him his name. Fred said it as it was written on his birth certificate — John F. Sullivan. "Sullivan?" barked John L. "That's no name for a juggler."
It wasn't. So when Fred — and a hundred others — wanted an audition for a vaudeville troupe, he changed his name to Allen, because the person in charge asked for applicants in alphabetical order.
Early in his career, he earned his reputation as the acme of ad-libbers. He dropped one of his circling ten-pins and a couple of tennis balls, and the loud m-cee asked, "Where did you learn how to start to try to juggle?"
Fred glanced out at the audience and retorted in his twangy, nasal best: "I studied a correspondence course in baggage smashing!"
Fred, whose mind is perpetual motion machinery on jokes and witticisms, hesitated in tackling radio, thinking he might not be funny unseen. It didn't take him long to learn he was wrong.
Since 1936, Allen and Benny have known each other — from a distance. Fred dislikes Hollywood. Jack likes Hollywood. Consequently, the boys have never really been together long enough to know each other well.
But what Fred started on that winter night's broadcast doesn't seem to stop.

■ When Fred and his party got off at the Union Station in Los Angeles to begin work in Love Thy Neighbor, Benny wasn't there. He was at NBC rehearsing that evening's program, but he had a committee of beauteous babes, carrying insulting signs, and a city official — a street sweeper — to greet Fred.
"Benny wouldn't dare meet me himself," rasped Allen. "He's afraid I'd pull his hair out — and he'd have to go home to get some more!"
Jack waived the remark and approached Fred the next day, extending the olive branch.
"I'm not one to bear a grudge," he explains. "We offered Allen and his party the chance to stay with us. But in his usual sour fashion he refused. Mary and I were very disappointed. We had gone to the trouble of cleaning out the whole cellar."
And, later, when Jack had returned from his Hawaiian trip, he broke into the conference of Producer-Director Mark Sandrich, Allen, and script writers, asking them to delay the picture.
"I'm in swell condition," said Jack, "but I think I should have a short rest before going to work with Allen, because I am somewhat weary mentally. I was met in Honolulu by 27,000 people, which is four fans and two Kanakas more than greeted Shirley Temple. They were lovely to me, but they all put leis around my neck. And carrying 27,000 leis — it is bad luck to take them off — sort of dulls the mind and the olfactory nerves after three weeks."
Allen, frowning his vinegar frown, disgust puckering his eyes, said dryly, "The only reason there weren't 27,000 people to greet Benny on his return here is that extras cost more in Los Angeles than they do in Honolulu — and Benny wouldn't put out that much dough!"
Before Love Thy Neighbor went into production, Producer-Director Mark Sandrich promised Fred that Jack would positively not play The Bee in the picture.
"He won't?" screamed Allen. "He can't!"
So history is becoming repetitious, and Benny feels the sting of The Bee.
And speaking of Jack, he was chatting through his teeth which were clenching the ever-present, roly-poly, brown cigar:
"You know, one of the most charming qualities is tolerance — tolerance for Allen. How many headlines have you ever read to this effect: 'Comedian Benny Tears Out Jugular Vein of Obscure Radio Performer?' None — yet!"
Allen was outside earshot. Allen espionage agents were out of sight, and the remark fell on ears but not the right ones.
The whole setup is crazy — this Love Thy Neighbor business. Benny and Allen have been slamming each other for years. And now attacks are more venomous than ever. Jack doesn't like Fred's habit of chewing tobacco. Fred doesn't like Jack's smoking so many cigars. Jack thinks Fred's boxing is done purely in the mind. Fred thinks Jack's vigorous "in the hills" hiking is something dreamed up in the minds of Benny's publicists.
Allen likes living in a two-by-nothing apartment with his wife, Portland, officiating at the range. Benny likes lavish surroundings — a dozen baths and a swimming pool. Allen is almost a Peter the Hermit.
Benny is a social-smoothy who loves company in quantity. There is one thing Jack likes about Fred — "His lovely middle name: Florence."

■ As tastes differ, so do Benny and Allen. They do not associate from lack of common interests, rather than from animosity. Let anyone outside the Benny circle toss a disparaging remark at Allen, and watch Jack blow a fuse. Let anyone disparage Benny, to Allen, and watch Allen come back with a slicing remark.
They are each other's common sadistic property, and let no man try to put in an oar. It's a case of brother abuse brother — but with a limited entry.
Neighbors Allen and Benny may dispute about who should get top billing in the picture; they may wrangle because Fred has seventeen changes of costume and Jack has but three; they may spar about which of them will cop the Oscar for 1940, but it is all good, wholesome, homecooked stuff.
In a philosophical mood, Fred often wonders whether he or Jack, whom he calls "the streamlined Joe Miller," will leave his humorist's footprints on the sands of time. He is not sure about this.
But there is one thing about which he is reasonably certain. It's the footprints in the lobby of Grauman's Chinese Theater, and he says, "If Sid Grauman ever stoops to inviting Jack Benny to put his footprints in the lobby of the theater, I'll keep my feet at home!"

1 comment:

  1. "I hope to be Jack's friend until he's 40, and that will be forever." Fred Allen