Friday 30 April 2021

The Magic Fluke Background

An opening pan of the nightclub scene off Broadway opens The Magic Fluke, the second UPA cartoon designed for theatrical release. “Club Bobo” is in honour of Bobe Cannon, one of the animators of this 1949 short.

Herb Klynn, Jules Engel and Bill Hurtz handled layouts and backgrounds. The voice of the narrating crow is an uncredited John T. Smith.

Thursday 29 April 2021

Crying at the Coo Coo Nut Grove

Friz Freleng pans up in The Coo Coo Nut Grove (1936) and it turns out we’re seeing Helen Morgan crying while singing Warren/Dubin’s “The Little Things You Used To Do.”

The gag topper is the nightclub is so deep in tears, celebrities are on top of tables that float away. (Freleng liked post-scripts in gags. In this one, after the tables have floated out of the scene, a George Arliss turtle rows from left to right while on the back of his shell.

What’s a little odd in this cartoon is some of the celebrities are human, others are animalised versions. (Foreground: Laurel and Hardy, Wallace Beery. Background: Katharine Hepburn and W.C. Fields, Groucho in drag and Harpo).

Sandy Walker and Bob McKimson are the credited animators. The celebrities were designed by Thornton Hee just before he got a job with Walt Disney.

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Hale and Hale

It’s like they wanted to pretend it wasn’t there.

Alan Hale was available for interviews before and after the debut of Gilligan’s Island. Syndicated columnists didn’t ask him about the show—instead, they wrote stories saying “Gee, he looks just like his dad.”

Erskine Johnson of NEA did it. Hank Grant of the Hollywood Reporter did it. Vernon Scott of UPI did it. Bob Thomas of the AP touched on it, too.

It’s probably because the series got dumped on over and over again by critics. Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press proclaimed “It is positively the worst new program in a season full of mediocre entries.” This was the “vast wasteland” era of the S.S. Newton Minow. He assailed TV for being too low-brow. The idea of escapist silliness was completely foreign to him and the critics. Because that’s what Gilligan’s Island is. It didn’t pretend to be anything else.

We’ll skip the Johnson and Grant columns. Here’s Scott’s for United Press International, June 7, 1965.

Young Hale still confused with father, dead 15 years

HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — Alan Hale, the rotund skipper of "Gilligan's Island," bears a remarkable resemblance to his late father and, curiously, acknowledges that he still is in competition with his dad.
"I look so much like him that people think my father is still alive," says Hale.
"And he is seen by millions of people on the late movies, which has kept him alive in the minds of the public. The nice thing about it is that my youngsters are able to see their grandfather although they never knew him in life."
Hale Sr. died 15 years ago. And until eight years ago his son continued to be billed as Alan Hale Jr. How that he's dropped the Jr. the confusion between father and son has increased.
The confusion is heightened because Hale's role in the CBS-TV series is precisely the bungling kind of comedy role the senior Hale played so often during his lifetime. Like his father, Alan is a huge, bluff man, easy going and a popular figure in Hollywood.
He and his wife, Naomi, live in a small frame Hollywood bungalow. It's a little old-fashioned place on a quiet, unpretentious street. The furniture is comfortable and unspectacular.
Mrs. Hale weighs less than 100 pounds and provides a striking contrast to her husband's bulk. He calls her Trinket.
"The house isn't large by Hollywood standards," he says. "But it has a lovely little garden and a big fireplace. It's our castle and we love it."
On weekends the castle is crowded with voting Hales by a previous marriage. The youngsters are Alan Brian, 16; Chris, 13; Lana, 12; and Dorian, 9. Of his only daughter, Hale says, "Her name is Alan (Lana) spelled inside out — a sop to my ego."
The children live with father and mother and attend school in the San Fernando Valley.
For all his fame as an actor, Hale might as well be a plumber or a landscape gardener. He is not even on the fringes of movietown's "in" set. He has no status symbols.
He chugs to work each morning through the canyons to Studio Center in a 1954 Cadillac which the entire family calls Old Blue Boy. Trinket clunks along in a 1951 Dodge dubbed the Gray Streak.
"We love our old cars," Hale grins. "They're like personalities to us. They perk along with no trouble at all.
Both Hales are golf nuts. He is a member of The Hackers, a group of amateur golfers who play on various links around the country. But the demands of the series have cut into Alan's game. He has ballooned from a 5 handicap to a 12.
Hale's real avocation can easily be determined by the size of his girth. He fancies himself a talented chef.
"I used to be a camera bug with a dark room and all that," he says. "But when I started using color film I gave it all up—and found out I still had the creative urge to take raw materials and tarn them into something useful and different. So I turned to cooking."
Probably to Trinket's relief, Hale does most of the cooking when the children visit on weekends.
He uses them for experiments.
“I’ll try a new recipe, making it up as I go along,” he laughs. "If they like It, I keep improving the dish. If they don't, I drop the project and try another recipe."
Hale's specialties are potato soup, spaghetti dishes and casseroles.
So far the kids have survived. And Alan's bulk is sufficient proof that he, at least, thrives on his own cooking.
A native California, Hale dresses the part. He almost always can be found in sports shirts and slacks. Even when a tie is required Alan sticks to blazers and informal garb. He may be the only television star who rents a tuxedo for formal functions.
The name Hale may continue to find its way onto screen credits in the next generation. Young Dorian already has taken a screen test, and his proud father says: "He looks like a real comer."

Bob Thomas of the Associated Press penned this for editions of January 2, 1965. He avoids any comment on the series other than it was getting good ratings.

Three Strikes.. A Hit

AP Movie-Television Writer
HOLLYWOOD (AP) — For Alan Hale it looks as if the third time makes the charm.
The hefty, extroverted actor, who fitted neatly into his father's footsteps as a jolly, capable character actor, has been at bat three times in the television game. The first venture was "Biff Baker."
That lasted merely a season. Later came "Casey Jones" for Screen Gems. "There was a lapse of a year between the pilot and the series," Alan recalls. "I saw the producer once during that time — and it was the only time I ever saw him."
Again, a season's run.
Alan joined Bob Denver, Jim Backus, Tina Louise and other castaways on "Gilligan's Island," and this time the ratings indicate he has picked a winner.
"I think people enjoy it," said Alan. "They seem to appreciate a show that has no problems — just fun." And he's not at all displeased that some folks have been comparing him and Bob Denver to Laurel and Hardy.
It has been a half-dozen years since Alan dropped the junior off his billing. He did so not to escape the image of his father famed as the jolly sidekick of Errol Flynn in numerous adventure films. Unlike some second-generation actors, young Alan doesn't fight the comparison with his father.
"I always remember what my grandfather told me one day," he recalled. "We were out in the backyard of our Hollywood house and he said, 'What's that?' I asked him, 'What's what?' 'That — behind you,' he said. I said, 'Oh, that's my shadow,' and he replied, 'Don't ever lose it.' In other words: find my own place in the sun."
The quest was not always simple. In the postwar years when movie business was slack, Alan took a number of outside jobs, including a four-year stretch selling vacuum cleaners.
"That was the best education an actor could possibly have," he commented. "Every front porch was like opening night.
"I had some great experiences. One night another salesman and I were making some calls when we came upon a big party in the valley where only one person spoke English; the rest all spoke Spanish. Well, we were invited in for refreshments and by the time we left we had sold four vacuum cleaners."
Despite promise of a distributorship, Alan returned to acting as soon as his fortunes improved, and he's likely to stay in it as long as his Pa did.
"Funny thing," he reflected, "with his old movies on television, I guess I'm in competition with him. That's okay with me. He was the greatest."

Hale’s identity problem was caused by reruns and solved by reruns. When Gilligan first appeared, Hale’s dad was on the small screen on shows running old movies. Eventually, they were replaced with newer films. Meanwhile, the S.S. Minnow was launched into daily syndication where it remained for years (and is probably still playing somewhere). Alan Hale may have become the Skipper to TV fans, but he became his own man, too.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Jolly Roger Speaks

A pirate flag uses its own bones as telescopes in the 1935 Ub Iwerks ComiColor short Sinbad the Sailor.

The Iwerks ubiquitous radiating lines appear.

The skull turns to the pirate and says something I cannot understand.

This passed for a gag at the Iwerks studio.

Some of the animation is good and there are some imaginative directoral touches (panning into characters, overhead shots) but anyone who thinks this is close in quality to the Fleischer Sindbad two-reeler released the same year has been yo-ho-ho-ing too much rum.

Monday 26 April 2021

The Eyes Have It

A pair of eyes do a little travelling to get a closer look at The Lady That’s Known as Lou in The Shooting of Dan McGoo, a Tex Avery cartoon released in 1945.

Having been told off by the Mae West-sounding Lou (played by Sara Berner), the eyes turn around and jump from the table back into the wolf’s sockets (wolf played by Frank Graham).

Ed Love, Preston Blair and Ray Abrams are the credited animators. Bill Thompson was on war duty in the Midwest so other than an archival piece of audio, someone else is voicing him. I think that’s Pat McGeehan as the piano player.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Life of Benny

It’s a long journey from being kicked out of school to becoming a loved entertainer for decades. But that’s the journey Jack Benny went on.

Cosmopolitan magazine was no gushy fan rag. It profiled Jack in a lengthy article in October 1947, interviewing friends and colleagues, and painting a portrait of a man could be moody, not particularly interested in current affairs, and someone who, as they put it then, was “fresh” as a teenager.

Below is the second half of the article. It has perhaps the best account—and probably not known to many in 1947—of the evolution of the Benny radio show and his unpleasant split with his writer, Harry Conn. Interestingly, the story says that “nobody was impressed by Jack’s debut” on the Ed Sullivan show (it wasn’t his debut, but that’s beside the point). Someone must have been impressed, as it’s conceded that Benny was put on the new Canada Dry radio show because of it, if indeed that’s what happened (George Olsen told a different story later in life, taking credit for Benny’s hiring).

Correctly, it points out the evolution of Rochester’s character. And, if accurate, the Jack-Mary courtship took place rather quickly.

The “Japs or better” line was coined by Goody Ace. The line isn’t exactly a “goody” today.

The Fiddler From Waukegan

THE MAN who was to accomplish the feat of putting Waukegan, Illinois, an obscure town of less than thirty-five thousand population, on the national map, was actually born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 14, 1894. Benny's parents lived in Waukegan, but his mother, Emma, insisted on going to Chicago for the birth of her first child. "When people ask my child where he was born, I want him to say he was born in Chicago," she said. A week after he was born he was named Benjamin Kubelsky and two months later he was taken back to Waukegan. His father was a former peddler of kitchenware who had later owned a saloon in Waukegan and had just emharked on a small haberdashery enterprise on South Genesee Street. Kubelsky was not a very aggressive businessman, and his family was one of the poorest in Waukegan. Nonetheless, when Benjamin was six years old, his father bought him a fiddle for one hundred dollars—which represented the family savings for a year—and put him under the tutelage of Charles Lindsay, the town's best music teacher, who charged one dollar an hour for lessons.
By the time he was eight, Benny was playing the violin with Farmer's Orchestra, a six-piece combination, which appeared at weddings and parties given by Waukegan's aristocracy. By 1906, when he was twelve years old, Benjamin was playing every night in the pit band at the Barrison Theatre. His musical precocity was the talk of Waukegan, and a group of the town's leading citizens wanted to raise a fund to further his musical education by sending him to a conservatory in New York and then to Europe, but the boy preferred to remain at home.
It became evident, at a very early age, that Benjamin had no future in the mercantile line. Once, when he was minding the shop while his father had dinner, a man came in and gave Benjamin some money.
"What did you sell?" his father asked later.
"Nothing," the boy replied. "He just gave me some money on his account."
"Account? Account? What account? What's his name?"
"I don't know," Benjamin said. "Gee, do you have to have his name?"
One Saturday morning, a customer came in and ordered some shirts and ties and socks and walked out without paying any cash.
"It's all right," Benjamin said triumphantly.
"He said to charge it to his account. And this time I got his name!"
"His name! His name! Why he ain't got no account in my store. I never saw that man before in my life."
When she heard of the incident, Mrs. Kubelsky, who seems to have been the family wit, sighed and said to her husband, "Well, Meyer, plumbing is a good business too!"
In school, young Kubelsky was considered one of the freshest as well as one of the dumbest pupils. His English teacher, Alice Payne, once ordered him to leave the classroom because he was talking. There was to be a dance at the Parish House that night, and Farmer's Orchestra was providing the syncopation. As Benny walked out of the class, he turned to his teacher and said, "Alice, don't forget to save me a dance tonight."
He was expelled from the school orchestra, where he played first violin, because when the orchestra was rehearsing Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony," he loudly remarked that the Waukegan High School Orchestra was certainly going to finish that symphony, all right, all right.
Sent to the principal's office once for disciplinary treatment, he offered to make peace with the principal by giving him a pass to the Barrison Theatre. When the principal presented the pass, he was informed that the pass was for the previous week and that it was no good.
In his sophomore year, Benjamin was expelled from high school, and in 1912, he broke into vaudeville. Cora Salisbury, the pianist at the Barrison Theatre, who was many years older than he and who had once done a solo routine in vaudeville, proposed that they form a team. They plotted out a novelty musical ad and got some bookings. His parents were violently opposed to his going into the theater. They felt it was a disgrace. Benny pointed out that his educational possibilities were dim, that he had no ability at running a store, and that the future for a violinist in Waukegan was very limited.
The act was called Salisbury and Benny, because there was a noted concert violinist at that time by the name of Jan Kubelik, and the vaudeville circuit was afraid there might be some confusion. The act played split weeks in the family-time circuit of the middle West. They received fifty dollars a week, with Benny getting fifteen.
After two seasons, Miss Salisbury decided to retire. Benny teamed up with a Chicago pianist, Lyman Woods. This time Benny got top billing and Woods received the fifteen-dollar short end of the fifty-dollar-a-week salary. The act was billed as "From Grand Opera to Ragtime," and it opened with a classical medley that always included the "Poet and Peasant Overture" and a Brahms Hungarian Dance. Then Benny did a solo, playing a very mournful interpretation of "The Rosary," bathed in an amber spotlight. 'Woods did a piano solo, a Chopin Polonaise. Then the duo rattled off a ragtime tune in lively fashion and finished with a medley of popular songs like "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" and "Everybody's Doin' It." Neither Benny nor Woods did any speaking. But, during the lighter numbers, Benny got into the habit of pantomiming or raising a little finger when he played a graceful bar of music or acting as if he were under a big strain when he was playing a difficult passage. These little touches always got laughs.
Gradually, Benny and Woods worked up to the better circuits, the Gus Sun Circuit, the Western Vaudeville Circuit, the Pantages, and finally the Orpheum, which was the big time. In 1916, their career culminated in the dream of every vaudevillian—a week's booking at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. They were now getting two hundred and fifty dollars a week. But they were a dismal flop. They received such bad notices and so little applause that they almost lost a year's bookings. Benny and Woods was strictly a small-town act.
When war came in 1917, Benny enlisted in the United States Navy and was sent to boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Having listed his profession as "musician" he was assigned to the band. The bandmaster was annoyed when he found Bern1y played a fiddle. The bandmaster had no use for strings and asked Benny if he could quickly master a flute or a piccolo. Benny's reply was to ask for an easy assignment, like swabbing the deck of a battleship. At this point, some of the sailors got together and decided to stage a show for the men. They got a recreation hall and one after another, each of them did a bit. Benny played some violin selections and was greeted by boos and whistling.
Pat O'Brien, who later became an actor, was in the show, and he whispered to Benny, "For heaven's sake, put down that fiddle and talk." In desperation Benny said to the audience: "I was having an argument with Pat O'Brien about the Irish navy this morning." A wave of chuckling went through the audience. Benny thereupon ad libbed a series of zany comments about life at Great Lakes and interspersed them with a few bars on the violin.
When the Great Lakes Revue, a nautical equivalent of Irving Berlin's "Yip Yip Yaphank" was put together, Benny Kubelsky found himself playing the comedy role of the "Admiral’s Disorderly, Izzy There." Besides playing in several sketches he also did a humorous piano-and-fiddle act with a fellow sailor, Elzear Confrey, later known to fame as Zez Confrey, who during the 1920’s composed Kitten on the Keys" and "Stumbling."
After the armistice, Benny returned to vaudeville and bought some gags from a writer named Al Boasberg. His act was now called Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology, and consisted of ragtime tunes and comedy effects on the violin (such as imitating the squeals of a cat or a pig), With a few gags thrown in, Benny was developing his stage presence and his timing. Audiences loved his trick of rolling his eyes around in a droll manner when he got off something excruciating on his violin. In show-business circles, Benny was considered an imitator of Ben Bernie, then a star on the Orpheum Circuit, who had been doing a talking-and-fiddle act for years. Broadway people even thought that Benny had deliberately chosen his name to deceive the customers. So he decided to change his name to Jack Benny.
The act was now "Jack Benny: Fun with a Fiddle." And it finally became simply, "A Few Minutes With Jack Benny." As time went on, Benny played the fiddle less and less, and spoke more and more. Finally, he ceased to play the violin altogether, but he continued to hold it under his arm to give himself courage. In vaudeville, Benny was generally considered to have the smartest, subtlest, suavest act. A reviewer in the Times once called him "The most civilized act in vaudeville." He never played for vulgar belly laughs. He stood on the stage expressing unhurried ease and exuding great self-confidence. He almost seemed to feel that nothing mattered very much. As he spoke, in a slow and bored fashion, he would fix his tie, or straighten his breastpocket handkerchief or pick invisible bits of dust off his suit. He didn't seem at all to care for the fact that there was an audience out there. Abel Green, editor of Variety, says, "Benny's delivery in vaudeville was one of the first examples of modern throw-away technique."
Benny's opening line, which he used for years, was celebrated. He would casually lope toward the center of the stage, tuck his violin under his arm, brush his hair back with his left hand, and inquire of the maestro, "How is the show?"
"Fine up to now," the maestro would reply.
"I'll fix that!" Benny would say.
Benny's deliberately cultivated suavity on the stage concealed an almost irrational terror of an audience. But nobody watching him ever realized that he was trembling inside and that every line he spoke and every piece of business he did required an effort of will power.
In 1924 he finally achieved the Palace again and was a sensation because his sophisticated routine delighted the hardboiled Palace audience. He was moved to the best spot, next to closing. The Schuberts signed him for a 1925 revue, "The Great Temptations." He did a twelve-minute monologue just before the end of the first act on opening night. He was so petrified with stage fright that he didn't even know what he was saying and didn't hear the applause. When Robert Benchley reviewed the show in the old Life magazine, he praised Jack Benny's performance and said he had never seen such savoir faire on a stage and wondered how a newcomer like Benny could act so blasé.
Around 1927, he became a vaudeville master of ceremonies. He walked on and off during all the other acts and in between the acts, and he introduced each act with a flippant comment. One of his famous remarks occurred at the Palace, when Long Tack Sam, a Chinese magician, opened the bill. After Long Tack Sam made his exit, Benny wandered on stage and drawled, "Vaudeville has certainly changed. I can remember when it took Japs or better to open!"
But in vaudeville Jack Benny was never one of the top-ranking stars. He never earned above two hundred and fifty dollars a week until 1932 when he played the Palace at a substantial increase. Benny's act was caviar to the general and a good many theaters never played him at all because their audiences didn’t think he was amusing.
Often, he would go to see his agent, Tom Fitzpatrick, and there would be no work at all for him. Once things got so desperate that when Fitzpatrick got a call from a theater manager in New Jersey, offering twenty-five dollars for an animal act, Benny said he would take the job. He borrowed two Pekingese dogs from the wife of an actor friend and took them to New Jersey. When he made his entrance he tied the dogs to a piece of scenery and proceeded to tell stories and play some tunes on his fiddle. The audience applauded hirn, and the manager said it was a peculiar sort of animal act, but he paid Benny the twenty-five dollars. As Jack was leaving, the manager blurted, "Mister, don't your dogs do any tricks?”
"Not at these prices," murmured Jack serenely, pocketing the money.
When Benny was in Los Angeles with the road company of "The Great Temptations," in 1926, he visited at the home of a girl, Fifi Marks, whom he had known in vaudeville. Fifi had a vivacious younger sister, Sadye, a black-haired, black-eyed, sharp-tongued girl, who worked as a clerk in a department store.
However, Benny, who was never the sparkling-conversationalist type, did not have much to say to Sadye. He just looked at her. A few weeks later the phone rang in the Marks household at two o'clock in the morning. Mrs. Marks answered it, woke Sadye and said that there was some crazy man telephoning from Canada. It was Jack Benny. Sadye asked him why he had called in the middle of the night, and he replied that he had been thinking of her just then and wanted to say hello. "Is that ALL?" she cried.
A few months later, when "The Great Temptations" was playing Chicago, Sadye was visiting friends there, and Jack had a date with her. He said nothing of his intentions. He took her to meet his father in Waukegan (his mother had died ten years previously). As they were returning to Chicago on the train, Jack suddenly blurted, "I think we ought to get married."
She said, "Why?"
"Well," he stammered, "Dad likes you."
"That's a silly reason."
"Well," he said, "you might go well in the act. I could use a girl in the act."
"That's an even sillier reason."
Jack flushed all over. "Well-uh-I guess, I guess, I love you."
She kissed him.
They were married on January 14, 1927, at the Clayton Hotel in Waukegan. He used her in his vaudeville act before she became the Mary Livingston of his radio show. They have been one of those ideally married Hollywood couples. She is fifteen years younger than Jack and has all of the qualities of quickness, adroitness, sharpness that Jack does not have. The one tragedy of their life was that they have been unable to have a child. They adopted a daughter, Joan, in 1935.
In 1928 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed Benny to a long-term contract, but after he did three films, "Hollywood Revue of 1929," "Chasing Rainbows" and "The Medicine Man," and failed to distinguish himself, the movies lost interest in him. In 1931, when he was playing in an edition of Earl Carroll's "Vanities," he began to be worried about the future, because the combination of the talking pictures and the depression was slowly killing off vaudeville. The new medium of radio, which was hiring vaudeville actors, was becoming big business. Benny's friend, George Burns, and his wife, Gracie Allen, had already done a twenty-six-week stint on the air. They advised Jack that this was the coming thing.
When the "Vanities" went on the road, Jack asked Carroll to release him from the contract. He was determined to stay in New York and break into radio. One day in Lindy's columnist Ed Sullivan, who then conducted a Broadway atmosphere radio program, invited Jack to be his guest. Together with Al Boasberg, Jack wrote a five-minute spot for himself, which opened, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Jack Benny talking. There will be a slight pause while you say 'Who cares?' I'm going back to pictures in about ten weeks. I'm going to be in a new film with Greta Garbo. They sent me the story last week. When the picture opens, I'm found dead in the bathroom. It's a sort of mystery picture. I'm found in the bathtub on a Wednesday night. You'd really like Garbo. She and I were great friends in Hollywood. She used to let me drive her car all around town. Of course, she paid me for it."
Nobody was impressed by Jack's debut.
He sounded vapid and colorless. By 1932, it was clear that vaudeville was shot. Benny, getting panicky, went to William Stein, the president of the Music Corporation of America, a large talent agency, and pleaded for a band which he could lead, in the style of Ben Bernie. MCA said it was not interested because Jack Benny had no "name" value. In desperation, Benny took a night-club date in Miami. His act never went well in night clubs. The noise of the drunks and the waiters bringing food and drinks tended to distract attention from Jack's quiet, subtle delivery. While he was in Florida, his agent, Sam Lyons, wired him that Canada Dry had decided to sponsor him on a new radio program. He would be the master of ceremonies on a twice-a-week half-hour program on Mondays and Fridays over the NBC-Blue Network. Also starring on the program would be George Olsen and his band, and a singer, Ethel Shutta. It was simply a variety show, in which Jack introduced the various musical numbers and told jokes and funny stories directly to the radio audience.
The show ran all summer, and by the end of the summer, Jack and Al Boasberg had exhausted all their vaudeville material and all their variations on the vaudeville material.
"Where," groaned Jack, first uttering a cry that he was to frequently repeat during the succeding years, "is all the fresh material coming from? Without good material, you're dead." He was terrified as he realized that radio was an insatiable monster that swallowed scripts and demanded new ones incessantly.
George Burns introduced him to Harry Conn, a young gag writer. It was Conn, working with Benny, who created a new formula, a brand new approach in radio. Instead of reciting lines to the listener at home as if he were speaking from a stage, Benny developed a narrative show with a framework of situations, and a set of characters, on which amusing complications and funny pay-off lines could he hung. It was the great revolution in radio comedy.
"Practically all comedy shows on the radio today," says Fred Allen, "owe their structure to Benny's conceptions. He was the first to realize that the listener is in a living room at home not in a theater with one thousand other people. When he tunes into the Benny show, it's like tuning into somebody else's home. Benny also was the first comedian in radio to realize that you could get big laughs by ridiculing yourself, instead of your stooges."
Until about 1934, radio comedy was still a reflection of vaudeville material. The laugh shows-of which Jack Pearl's and Ed Wynn's were typical—depended on bizarre situations, unreal and exaggerated characters, a crackling succession of gags, with a "straight" line following hard upon a gag and a gag following hard upon the "straight" line. The comedian always reserved the meaty punch lines for himself. The comedian constantly played with puns and double-meaning lines.
Conn developed for Benny fairly real and human characters and situations and had the humor arising out of the characters and the situation. His dialogue sounded conversational instead of artificial. He eschewed puns and other forms of low comedy. Many of the situations were written around Benny's home life. The show usually began with an opening spot, hung around a topic like spring and there would be a series of interchanges between Benny, his girl friend Mary Livingston, who in those days played a dumb role, tenor Frank Parker who played an insulting employee, band-leader Don Bestor, and an announcer, Don Wilson, a two-hundred-and-thirty-pound gentleman of great bonhomie. The second spot on the program usually revolved around the problem of casting for the sketch. After the casting was settled, Parker sang an aria, and the program concluded with the sketch-often a satire of a popular book, play or movie.
Working with Conn during script and reading rehearsals, Benny began to develop a latent talent that he had never suspected was in him. He was a good judge of material, of the good and the bad, and he had an instinctive sense for what would "play" right on the air. As George Burns remarks, "He's the greatest editor of material in the business. He's got the knack for cutting out all the weak slush and keeping in only the strong punchy lines." And, because Benny has an apoplectic appreciation of other peoples' humor, he stimulates his writers.
Nevertheless, Benny's unconventional approach to radio staggered his sponsors, and he won public popularity slowly.
Although the New York World-Telegram poll of radio editors all over the country picked Benny, in 1934,as the best comedian on the air, Canada Dry refused to renew his option, and his next sponsor, Chevrolet, let him go after two seasons because William Knudsen of General Motors said he wasn't funny.
By 1935, he had slowly begun his climb up the ladder of Crossley ratings (the Hooper rating did not become available in radio until later), and he was standing in about ninth place. In 1936 he climbed higher, and, finally, in 1937 he passed Eddie Cantor and was firmly established in first place. Except for an occasional, brief dip, he has remained in the first five of radio ever since, despite all the vicissitudes of time and the coming new stars like Edgar Bergen and Fibber McGee and Bob Hope. As Benny says, "I can't make every program terrifically good but really to hold your nose at it—that I can keep it from. If my first three or four shows in a new season are good, I know I'm safe, because once I hit a good stride my writers and myself will keep on coasting from there, and all my other shows will be good. In radio, the pressure never lets up. In vaudeville, I never played to more than twelve hundred people at any one time, but with radio, in less than one half hour thirty million people can decide that you stink."
In 1941 Niles Trammell, president of NBC, was so awed by Jack's ability to sell Jello that he gave Benny a lifetime option on the network's Sunday night seven P.M. time segment, no matter who sponsored him in the future. Benny is still the only radio artist who has such an arrangement.
Toward the early part of 1936, relations between Benny and his writer, Harry Conn, became strained. Conn, who had started writing for Jack at sixty-five dollars a week, was now receiving thirteen hundred and fifty, the highest salary ever paid to a radio writer up till then. (Benny was the first actor in radio to pay writers good money). Conn believed that it was his imagination and wit that made Benny's success possible, and he believed that he was receiving only a small pittance of what he was really worth. He also wanted credit on the air. Benny refused to mention Conn’s name as writer on every program because, he said some listeners were under the impression that the events I narrated on the program were really happening. Finally, Conn said he was going out of town and if Benny wanted any more scripts he could come to the hotel and get them, providing he met the right conditions.
Benny was sitting around the Friar's Club when he received word that Conn I was in Atlantic City. It was only four days before the broadcast, and he had no script. He wired Conn: “It's a tossup who'll have a nervous breakdown, you or me, and I’m giving it to you."
With the aid of Goodman Ace, Benny hurriedly put together a script. Benny hired Ed Beloin and Bill Morrow, two writers who remained with him until 1943, when the present team of Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsberg, George Balzer and John Tackaberry took over the creative reins of the program.
Conn sued Benny for sixty thousand dollars, alleging that Benny was still using ideas and characters which he (Conn) had invented. Benny settled the case for ten thousand, and they have been enemies ever since.
It was shortly after this that Benny moved his program to California, and the present shape of it gradually began to form. Rochester emerged on the show in 1936, and Phil Harris came a year later. Mary found Dennis Day while listening to some audition records. Most of the running gags used today date from that period. A running gag usually starts in an accidental fashion. Once, during National Automobile Week, Mary asked Jack if he was going to buy a new car, and he said that he was trading his Stanley Steamer in for a Maxwell, which started the Maxwell theme. Rochester developed when Benny needed a Pullman-porter character for a situation that showed him, traveling cross-country in a train. Rochester's gravel-voiced impudence was so perfect a foil for Benny's gentle swagger that he became a permanent part of the show.
In recent years, Rochester's character has been toned down. He no longer shoots dice (over the air, at any rate), he has stopped drinking and he leads a less adventurous life with women. The Sportsmen Quartet-considered the funniest single fresh idea in radio comedy during the 1946-47 season-was intended to be merely a one-shot lampooning the Lucky Strike middle commercial. Public reaction was so favorable that the quartet was continued, and every week they sang a different lyric about LS/MFT to some well-known song.
During rehearsals, Benny is a fanatical perfectionist. He oversees every detail of the program—from the way Dennis Day is reading a line to the smallest sound effect.
Once, dissatisfied with the way his sound-effects engineer was producing the rustle of a piece of paper, he had the engineer try it forty times until he was satisfied with the result.
Benny treats his four writers with politeness, deference and even a little humility. During a script conference, Benny is treated as a writer, and his opinions are frequently overruled and he is even criticized severely. When Benny wants to contradict one of his writers, he'll say, very gently, "If you fellers don't mind, I think in here we should have a different twist."
The conferences begin immediately after a broadcast when the four writers go to Benny's dressing room and discuss the next week's program. Then—since each program falls into two broad classifications—the opening or "cast" spot, in which the various members of the cast are introduced; and the closing spot which consists of a dramatization, a guest spot, or some "real" situation such as Benny going to the station to catch a train—the two writing assignments are split. Perrin and Balzer will take one spot and Josefsberg and Tackaberry will take the other one."
On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, each team works separately and is in constant telephone communication with Benny. On Thursday, there is a meeting at Benny's house, and the first draft of the script is pounded out. On Friday, there is a second meeting at Benny's house, and the first draft is polished. On Saturday, in Studio L of the NBC building at Vine Street and Sunset Boulevard, there is a reading of the entire script, with the cast and the guest stars.
Then, after lunch, on Saturday, Benny, his writers, his script secretary, Jeanette Eymann, and the producer, Hilliard Marks, who is Benny's brother-in-law, lock themselves in a room" and go over the script line by line, word by word. In case of a dispute, a majority vote always rules, and Jack's vote has no more power than any writer's.
Benny is never satisfied with the script. He and his writers continue to polish and rewrite and cut.
On Sunday afternoon there is another editorial session, and up to a few minutes before the broadcast his writers will be bringing him a new line or a better way of saying a line already in the script.
OF THE thirty minutes of broadcast time, about two minutes is taken up by the opening and closing commercials, over which Benny has no control. The rest of the program is entirely in his hands. Of the remaining twenty-eight minutes, about seven are allotted to "spread"—the time consumed by studio applause and laughter. This leaves about twenty to twenty-one minutes of entertainment.
This means, roughly, that Benny receives about one thousand dollars a minute for portraying himself as an egotistic, grasping, avaricious, foolish man with a toupee.
Nevertheless, he recently remarked to a friend, “You take a violinist like a Heifetz or a Szigeti. Headaches like I have, they never know, because in music all you play is the classics, pieces somebody wrote in the year eighteen fifty nineteen hundred. A guy like Heifetz, he doesn't have to hire four composers and then have to drive himself crazy to have them compose eight numbers for his next concert. He gives the audience the good old Beethoven and Paganini numbers. Also Heifetz doesn't have to worry about his Hooper rating and about vice-presidents of NBC or sponsor trouble or advertising agency executives. I should have I listened to my father and practiced more on the fiddle when I was a boy in Waukegan."

Saturday 24 April 2021

Finding a Columbia Favorite

How can I describe the Columbia cartoon studio?

Unique, maybe?

The studio’s output was odd. There were Krazy Kat shorts which bore the name of George Herriman’s character and nothing else. There were Scrappy cartoons, where kids drank, cross-dressed and got beaten unconscious. There were imitation Disneys with loads of colour and not much else. There were shorts full of Hollywood celebrities, taking advantage of the abilities of animator and caricaturist Ben Shenkman. There were several regimes, one which hired Disney picketers and told them to experiment. There was another that wanted carbon copies of Warners and Tex Avery cartoons, so we got a Daffy-like duck and a Sylvester-like cat. And there were all kinds of stories that didn’t make much sense.

Oh, and a fox and crow, neither of whom were sympathetic or likeable. But they made money for Columbia in comic book licensing.

When we talk about the “Columbia” studio, we actually mean the Charles Mintz/Winkler Productions operations. When sound films were becoming inevitable, Mintz signed a deal with Columbia to release his Krazy Kat shorts; they had been distributed by Paramount in the silent days. A deal with signed around July 1, 1929. The first, Ratskin, was released on August 15th. Some of the early sound Krazys by Manny Gould and Ben Harrison are quite fun. In The Apache Kid (1930), Krazy is an apache dancer who rolls his own cigarette—which turns into the shape of a camel!

Mintz got the idea of moving the Krazy Kat studio to the West Coast. That’s what he did in February 1930. His brother-in-law, George Winkler, already had a studio in Los Angeles. It had been making Oswald cartoons until Universal decided in 1929 to get Walter Lantz to do it. The first Scrappy short was released on July 16, 1930. (The studio also made Toby the Pup shorts for release through RKO starting late July 1930).The two studios merged as Screen Gems in December 1931. Scrappy helped launch the phoney-Disney “Color Rhapsodies” series with Holidayland on November 9, 1934.

That brings us to this article from 1939 where the head of production at the studio tells us of the vetting process to get characters on the screen. Despite that, they’re not all that funny. By now, Columbia had taken over the operation of the studio from Mintz and re-named it Screen Gems.

No Limit on Work Hours of Cartoon Stars
HOLLYWOOD, Oct. 8—(AP)— There are movie producers who can slave-drive their juvenile stars without fear of child welfare groups and who can work their four-legged employees to the bone without a whimper from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
James Bronis is one. He's the head of Screen Gems, a Columbia producing organization.
"Our 'stock company'," explains Bronis, "is composed of characters developed in our animated cartoons.
"Our lively juvenile star, Scrappy, often works in 10 or 11 pictures at once, yet the educational authorities never have to reprove us.
Krazy Kat Works Hard
"Krazy Kat may work in half a dozen of the 27 pictures we have in production now without suffering the slightest physical harm, or inciting the anger of any animated animals guild.
"There is no danger of one of our other stars being tied up in another picture or at another studio. But we still have casting problems."
The trouble is, says Bronis, you can never tell how appealing a cartoon character, however quaint or humorous on paper, will be when brought to life.
"We give each new character a 'physical' examination," says Bronis.
Made To Run Gamut
"We try him out in every imaginable acrobatic action, and we put him through dramatic tests— make him run the gamut of pen-and-ink emotions.
"If he passes all these satisfactorily he gets a special test for the part in mind. If he succeeds in the minor role—if he clicks with the public—then we make him the hero of his own cartoon."
The elf-like beings in "The Happy Tots" passed the tests and are in their second color rhapsody. The Blue Birds, a new "family" group, are in their third cartoon. But Bronis favors three newcomers in "The House That Jack Built"—an ostrich, a beaver and a bear. Especially the ostrich.
"There's one actor," he says, "that won't lay an egg."

Mintz died on December 30, 1939.

Columbia decided to make its move. Frank Tashlin was brought in to oversee production. In September 1941, Ben Schwalb was transferred from New York to replace George Winkler as general manager and proceeded to lay off 30 people. Dave Fleischer took charge in April 1942 but was gone by December the following year; musician Paul Worth was his general manager and carried on until January 1945 when he was arrested on a forgery charge. Hugh McCollum was brought in by Columbia in March 1945 and finally Ray Katz was hired in July to manage the studio. By November 1946, it was all over. Columbia closed the studio. The last Screen Gems cartoon was released on June 30, 1949.

The Cohn family wasn’t done with cartoons yet. Much like it had distributed Disney cartoons in the early ‘30s, Columbia did the same with UPA shorts starting in late 1948. Then it bought a percentage of the newly-formed H-B Enterprises in 1957 and began putting Hanna-Barbera cartoons on the big screen from 1959 to 1965. They starred Loopy De Loop and were in limited animation. They were inferior to Quick Draw McGraw and Huckleberry Hound cartoons that kids were watching on their TV.

“Inferior” may be a way of describing the Columbia studio, but it’s a trifle unfair, despite a lot of what strikes me as very tedious and explanation-defying cartoons. They had Art Davis on staff for ten years, Emery Hawkins was put to work on Oscar-nominee The Little Match Girl, Preston Blair animated there for a time, Mel Blanc, Sara Berner, Danny Webb and Frank Graham were among the actors on its shorts, and I can’t help liking the audacity of Cal Howard creating an armed Daffy Duck knock-off with Woody Woodpecker music playing in the background.

Friday 23 April 2021

Dancing Drunk Dwarves

The Merry Dwarfs (1929) is an exercise in timing everything (namely dancing) to music. At the end two of the dwarves land in a barrel of beer and drunken move around. Since they’re drunk, the ground moves, too.

It’s fun to watch, but Disney soon had to move past this kind of short with the addition of a story or stronger gags. The Fleischer cartoons in New York, arguably, were funnier because of oddities and inanimate objects becoming animate for a brief time.

Thursday 22 April 2021

Good Night, You All

Tex Avery tries to repeat an idea Bad Luck Blackie in Billy Boy, but fails.

In the earlier cartoon, increasingly larger and more outrageous things fall on the bad guy. Here, a little goat continues to eat anything until in the final gag, he is shot to the moon—and eats that.

The problem is there’s no antagonist, so there’s no real satisfactory comeuppance. The goat eats and the gag is dependent on how outrageous it is, or the “adopted father” wolf’s comment afterward.

The idea of a character not getting rattled was probably new enough at the time to be amusing in itself. At the end, the world plunged into darkness because of Billy Boy’s appetite, the wolf flicks on a match, and happily says “Good night, you all.”

The tape-loop effect which has the wolf repeat his last word was fairly new technology at the time, so perhaps that’s why Avery tried it. He only used it in this cartoon.

The animators on this cartoon are Bob Bentley, Walt Clinton, Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons and Mike Lah.

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Moore Goes Big Time

Nestled amongst the serials and game shows on daytime TV in the ‘50s were low-key variety shows. Besides a name star, there were a singer or two, and a comedian, a sketch perhaps, and maybe a guest if the budget allowed for it.

Bob Crosby hosted one, as he did on radio. So did Robert Q. Lewis, Arthur Godfrey, Jack Paar, Tennessee Ernie Ford and a few others.

Another was Garry Moore.

Moore was picked in 1943 to fill a hole in what was pretty much an emergency move by NBC and it was agreed to toss in Jimmy Durante as well. Moore was a comedian who wrote his own off-beat and, at times, silly material. Durante was Durante. But the two meshed instantly and the show was a hit. It moved to CBS and continued only until Moore decided he wanted to go it alone in 1947.

Eventually Moore got a daytime radio, then a daytime TV, show and was hired in 1952 to emcee I’ve Got a Secret on Sunday nights on top of that. But he wanted more. And, evidently, CBS saw enough potential income in him to give him an hour of prime time.

The big time meant big changes. So long, Denise Lor and Ken Carson, we wish you well on your future endeavours. Only announcer Durwood Kirby made the jump from daytime (Nelson Case and Barbara Britton also handled commercials). Jack Benny’s old director Ralph Levy was brought in to produce. Writers included Vinny Bogert, Herb Finn (later at Hanna-Barbera) and ex-Benny jokester John Tackaberry. There was Howard Smith’s orchestra. There were dancers. There was befuddled Marion Lorne.

Here’s Levy’s take on the coming show, from a column of September 7th. Levy was gone in a month. He quit over how the show was done; he was under exclusive contract with CBS, so it would appear he wasn’t disagreeing with the network.

Garry to Join the Titans of TV

Associated Press Writer
NEW YORK—Garry Moore, the cheerful sailor with the crewcut who for lo these years has given the American housewife her best excuse for a morning coffee break, moves into television's big leagues Sept. 30.
The Garry Moore Show, complete with $100,000 weekly budget, singing, dancing, comedy sketches and guest stars, will place him in the company of the TV titans—Como, Allen, Sullivan, Shore—as star of a nighttime variety program.
Moore, of course, is no stranger to the big after-dark audience. But there is a lot of difference between moderating a half-hour panel show like "I've Got a Secret" and being the heart of an hour-long revue, an area in which the competition is keen.
"The trick," says Ralph Levy, the producer who holds Moore's fate in his hands, "Is not to be different, but to be better. Let's face it, there are probably 25 top girl singers in the business, about 10 top comedians and maybe four top dancers. Before one season is over, the audience is going to see just about all of them on all the variety shows. It is how they are used which is going to be important.
Moore's show, which already has been sold to two sponsors, will have four or five high-priced writers on a permanent basis, but Levy also has budgeted a large amount for free lance material.
"A lot of good comedy writers are busy on other things, but can be called on to tailor special material for visiting stars," explained Levy. "And we'll use special writers to integrate the commercials and make sure that the show itself gets a change of pace which is not always possible if the regular writing staff is used all the time."
Moore's peers in the variety show business are performers with special talents. Perry Como and Dinah Shore are singers; Steve Allen plays the piano; Bob Hope is a comedian. Moore's gift is quite another thing.
"Garry brings to the show sincerity, honesty, great enthusiasm and warmth," says Levy. "His appeal to sponsors—and he is a truly great salesman—is that sincerity and honesty. So when Moore says that he wants to introduce a singer he thinks is great, the audience believes him. Moore is what I'd call a television personality, and one who reflects a high level of popular taste.
"On the other hand, he can do a little of everything. He can dance along a little with a dancing star, sing along with a singer and he can play straight man to comedians. But basically we are going to be building his show around his enthusiasm and his sincerity."
Moore's new show should be off to a running autumn start with a ready-made audience of devoted housewives who will sorely miss his old morning show.
Levy, while he appreciates the interest of the ladies, doesn't want the evening audience to get the idea that the only thing which is happening to Moore is a transfer of his old weekday morning show to a once-a-week night show. That is one reason that the fact Moore will bring along with him two or three of his regulars, including Durwood Kirby, is not being emphasized.
"But we'll definitely carry over the old feeling of informality," Levy insists, "with Moore stepping over the footlights to sit on the stage steps and thus enter the living room.
Levy, a veteran producer, has definite ideas about the use of the camera on different types of shows.
"You'll never see great camera work on a good comedy show," he insists. "In a dramatic show, the camera can embellish the action—move in to catch an expression, swing around to catch some action while an actor speaks his lines. But if a comedian is telling a joke when the camera is moved an iota, the joke is ruined.
"I like to think of the camera in this kind of a show as just another person sitting in the audience. I plan to put the camera with long lenses in the back of the theater and keep them there. "And of course we'll work with live audiences. Performers aren't necessarily actors, and all the great performers need the chemistry of an audience. Without one, their performance suffers and the home audience knows that something is wrong."

The show debuted September 30th. Here’s a syndicated column from that day which gives you an idea of the difference between daytime and prime time when it comes to fame.

Garry Moore Show Bows Tonight

George Gobel made about 30 appearances on Garry Moore's daily daytime variety show, but nobody ever heard him except housewives. When Garry did his seventh anniversary show in the morning slot, he asked a group of CBS executives to catch the show. Their first comments were. "Seven years! I didn't know he'd been on for seven years. Did anyone send the guy flowers?" In a way that's why Garry Moore is happy to be crawling cut of his shell with a night-time variety show that debuts this evening over CBS.
I spoke to the gentleman whose youthful appearance made the crew cut toupee outsell the old-fashioned mop at his CBS office last week. The guardian of America's most unimportant secrets has thrown a mysterious cloud around the format of his new frolic.
Won't Waste Stars
"It's not that I don't know what I'm going to do myself, but "some of the little surprises we're planning would be bombs if we publicized them." He cited a couple of "off the record" samples and Garry's show really worries me—it may actually be clever and different.
"One thing I don't intend to do is waste guest stars. I bought a terrific sketch for an October showing which called for a cowboy hero who can really act. I wanted Richard Boone (Have Gun Will Travel) to do the sketch, so we contacted him. He's not available until March, so we've put the routine on the shelf until Boone is our guest. I'm not going to waste material on the wrong performers. After I get the sketch—then I'll cast it," Moore explained.
For seven years Garry showcased new talent on his morning show. As people like Gobel went through their paces, Garry practically got on his knees and begged the TV people to give the newcomers a break. But while Moore was pleading, the people he was appealing to were, having coffee in their offices and trying to think of fresh new talent to put into night-time shows. Now, a Garry Moore booking will be a break for a comic and Garry is looking forward to using some of the youngsters he tried last season.
With "I've Got a Secret" still riding high on Wednesday and his own show on Tuesday, Garry's routine has become a bit hectic. Although he had to come up with a variety format five days a week last year, the preparation became a routine task and featured regular, although long, hours.
Marion Lorne on Show
"Now that I have to be in town at least two evenings, the wife and I are going to take a place in New York City and spend three nights a week here. It's easier without children." The Moores are practically newlyweds this year as both their sons are away at school, and they're just getting used to their new-found freedom and the accompanying loneliness.
The regulars on the Moore show will be Marion Lorne, whose performance in "Harvey" was the first big smash of the young TV season, and Durward Kirby. Kirby was with Garry in the morning and millions of housewives have seen the man do comedy for years. "But I have to break him in like a newcomer, because most of the people have never heard of him. That's daytime television," commented Garry. Marion will appear as the producer's assistant and will wander in and out of scenes merely being Marion Lorne which should please everybody.
When Garry was doing the daytime stint there were 94 people in his entire crew. For the one evening program there are 94 people engaged in behind-the-scenes work alone. After Moore called the morning show quits, he was forced to let many of his staff members go, but they're all back at their desks again hoping to give the boss a winner.

Moore had his problems on opening night. Johnny Mathis walked out because he wasn’t allowed to plug his new record. Levy quickly brought in Gordon MacRae. Critics were mixed about the show. But it did carry on through 1964, showing Moore had some staying power. He also had problems with (surprise!) CBS president Jim Aubrey, but that’s for another column.

You’ll notice one name is absent through all this—Carol Burnett. She appeared on several of the first season shows but didn’t become a regular until the following year. Burnett learned well from Moore but while his variety show is obscure today, Burnett’s effort in the ‘60s and ‘70s is being marketed to new fans and shows how entertaining variety could be when done well.

Tuesday 20 April 2021

The Good Egg Isn't So Good

There are some really messed up characters in Chuck Jones’ The Good Egg (1939). We have a suicidal chicken who steals a turtle egg, then convinces herself it’s a chick. We have a newborn turtle who is convinced by his “mother” that he’s a little chicken.

Being an early Jones, it tries oh-so-hard to be a Disney cartoon. It’s slower than, well, a turtle (except the one in this cartoon who can zip along). It has all those squeally-voiced actresses he brought in to play mice. Its story tries to make you feel sorry for just above everyone in the cartoon.

In this period, Jones like using shadows and light to give characters more depth.

And we get some perspective animation just for the hell of it. There’s no need in the plot for the turtle to make a complete turn like this. Jones is showing off.

Ken Harris got the animation credit on this short, with Phil Monroe and Bob McKimson uncredited. Dave Monahan wrote the story.