Wednesday 31 August 2022

Del Sharbutt

The old days of radio had announcers who got worked into the actual programme. Harlow Wilcox, Ken Carpenter, Don Wilson, Harry Von Zell are among them. And there were others who were very solid but worked more along the traditional lines of handling the opening and closing and commercials.

Del Sharbutt falls in that category for the most part.

He was employed in the ‘40s by the Campbell Soup company. His job was to sell soup, not be part of the dialogue with the stars, though I have heard a summer replacement show where he hosted and sang. He took credit for coming up with the phrase “M-m-good!” that was worked into the Campbell’s jingle well into the television era.

When network radio collapsed, Sharbutt managed to get picked up by the Mutual network to read news. Mutual also hired Tony Marvin and Westbrook Van Voorhis, guys they never would have been able to afford when network radio was at its peak. Sharbutt retired to Palm Desert, California in 1976 but found another calling—working with various alcohol and drug recovery programmes. Alcohol was at the centre of the social life for radio’s announcers and Sharbutt, like many others, got caught in it, but managed to get out.

Here’s a feature story on Sharbutt from Radio Life magazine of December 2, 1945. At the time, Campbell’s had moved him from New York to Los Angeles to announce on Jack Carson’s show for Campbell on Wednesdays and Request Performance on Sunday nights.

Take It Easy
Says Del Sharbutt, Who Did! And Look What It Got Him—Head Mikeman for Top Shows

By Peggy Carter

Wednesday, 9 p.m., Sunday, 6 p.m.

WRITING THE STORY of tall, blond and good-looking Del Sharbutt is a pleasant task because it's the success story of boy makes good come true. Only "good" in this case is a mild understatement which covers a multitude of things.
As one of radio's most popular emcee-announcers, Del has hit his stride. His rich mellow voice, easy-going, friendly nature and his quick sense of timing have made him a "natural" for the job of head mike man. You hear him cavorting weekly with Jack Carson. On Sundays he can he found announcing the popular "Request Performance."
Often you hear his songs (although you may be unaware of it), "A Romantic Guy I," "Nickel Serenade," and others on your radio. He sings, plays the saxophone and piano. And someday (soon we hope) you'll see him as leading man in a musical comedy.
Being able to do everything seems to be simple for Del. After leaving school, where he studied law, he joined a Texas radio station as staff singer, which, in turn, led to announcing. The time was ripe, young Sharbutt felt, to take a bigger step. And off he went to Chicago.
Chicago led to New York and in 1933, within a few months after his arrival, Del found himself emcee of the old Chevrolet program. In those days a studio audience was something of an innovation and frankly it scared.him to death.
It wasn't the prospect of the audience which was so terrifying as the thoughts of a warmup. “I had to wear a tux," he grinned as he reminisced with us, "because radio dressed at that time. The tux only added to my discomfort. I had no idea what to tell the folks but when the time came somebody gave me a push, I found myself in front of the audience and from there on it's a mental blank. I guess I got through it because no tomatoes flew in my direction, but it was the march of doom."
Likes Audience
With this initiation over, Del never feared an audience again, in fact he preferred (and still does) to work with one. But a new worry cropped up. He found that his working hours were very irregular. Sometimes his schedule called for a 6 a.m. broadcast, with his previous day's shift having ended only four hours prior. That wasn't much time for sleep and oh, how Del loved to sleep! His "out" lay in the fact that he was impossible to awaken.
With typical Sharbutt ingenuity he solved this crisis. He began collecting alarm clocks. At last count he had thirteen and wouldn't arise until the thirteenth had rung. "I wasn't late but it took me half the night to set the things."
The ensuing years found him on shows with every top name in New York radio. Yet during all of this time, music had not been forgotten. He acquired a Hammond organ and began taking "hints" from friend, Ethel Smith. Another pal, Lanny Ross, and he opened a music company, presenting the public with many of their own tunes, including "A Romantic Guy I." Del even spent some time training for opera, but decided he'd stick to lighter variations.
Today wife, singer Mary Bell, and he have built their lovely Beverly Hills home around music. The beloved organ is still there, myriads of records, and two lively youngsters who love to carol with mom and pop and bang on pop's piano.
Del's still writing tunes and when Lanny is a civilian again the music company will go back into business. He confesses he's a jitterbug at heart and at one time used to hold jam sessions in his apartment with contemporary jazz notables as stars.
He plays a mean game of golf and is quite a handy man about the house. California is an ideal spot for him because he likes its leisurely way of living. And he wishes he could wear sports clothes the rest of his life. His fondest memories include the days when he played straight man to a young comedian named Bob Hope. "We were terrific," grinned Del which brings up a point! Young Sharbutt has never become a comedian, which is just about the only credit he hasn't to his record. But don't be too sure about that!

Long after Jack Carson left the radio airwaves, Sharbutt was caught up in Watergate-like shenanigans during the Nixon White House. Variety reported on March 6, 1974:
Washington, March 5.—District Police and the FBI are investigating the discovery of an electronic eavesdropping device found Saturday (2) in the offices of the Mutual Broadcasting System here.
Police said an electrician found the bug implanted in the ceiling near the desk of Del Sharbutt, a national news correspondent.
M-m-Bad! If someone wanted to hear Sharbutt, they could just turn on the radio.

He was 90 when he died in 2002.

Listen to a snippet below of The Jack Carson Show as Sharbutt introduces the proceedings.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Little Johnny Jet Backgrounds

Little Johnny Jet and his father roar high over farmland and cities created by background artist Johnny Johnsen.

Little Johnny Jet (1953) features animation by Ray Patterson, Grant Simmons, Mike Lah, Walt Clinton and Bob Bentley. Heck Allen gagged the short with director Tex Avery. This was the first cartoon Avery made when he returned from about a year's leave of absence.

Monday 29 August 2022

Today's Radio Catchphrase

Newlywed bugs try to get some privacy in their suite in the Honeymoon Hotel, from the Warner Bros. cartoon of the same name. But the moon is not only spying on them, it’s singing to them.

Mr. Bug takes care of the interloper by shutting off the thimble lamp so it can't see.

The moon takes advantage of the fact that this Merrie Melodies cartoon is in Cinecolor. It turns red and then contritely says “Is my face red!”

If you’re wondering where the line came from, one place it was revealed was in the October 28, 1930 entertainment page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a side note revealing “as W. Winchell says: ‘Is my face red?’”

Walter Winchell was a Broadway columnist who began broadcasting on CBS in May of that year. His catchphrase was picked up by Allen Rivkin and Ben Markson, who used it as a title of their play about a gossip columnist the following year. RKO bought the movie rights in 1932, which the Hollywood Reporter baldly announcing “Robert Armstrong will play the Walter Winchell part.”

Back to the cartoon...

Honeymoon Hotel was the first color short made by the Schlesinger studio. It was one of a handful directed by Earl Duvall, with the animation credits going to Jack King and Frank Tipper (after Duvall was fired for a drunken outburst, King took over as a director). Bernie Brown gets the rotational music credit, with the score including the title song (originally heard in the feature Footlight Parade) along with another Warren-Dubin song, “You’re Getting to Be a Habit With Me,” the Warner cartoon favourite “By a Waterfall” and the 1905 Gus Edwards’ chestnut “In My Merry Oldsmobile.”

Sunday 28 August 2022

Tralfaz Sunday Theatre: How To Avoid An Accident

Mike Wallace lulls us into a false sense of security and then—WHAM!!! He hits us with what he really wants to get across?

A “60 Minutes” episode? Not in this case. We’re talking about a 1949 industrial film called How to Avoid An Accident. At first, it looks like Wallace is narrating an ordinary road safety film. But no! The answer to the title of the film is simple—buy General Tires.

The ten-minute short was made in Chicago, where Wallace was working in radio, by Wilding Productions of Chicago, Detroit and Hollywood, which got into the movie business in 1914 with silent slide films. They were a top industrial film firm for quite a number of years.

This is a great movie for fans of late ‘40s cars and low-budget effects. Stupid children run into the street. Scrrrreeeech!!! Cut to horrified people. Cut to the child lying on the road. Dead? Injured? You decide. All the fault of those non-General Tires. It’s a serious situation but handled with pure cinematic hokum.

Even more hilarious is when a 1949 Dodge Custom Coupe is hit by another car and slides. The car is simply a cut-out drawing that’s pushed into the background of a still photo of a residential intersection. Maybe even cheesier is a shot of a 1947 Pontiac that serves to avoid a car. Cut to another shot. The Pontiac is now a cut-out picture overtop of a photo of a bridge. Decidedly cheesier is a photo of a damaged car swirling after being hit by a train. Each is accompanied by a newspaper with Wallace intoning the shocking headline. These must have been clich├ęs, even in 1949.

We also get a 1949 Ford (which hits a child, see above), what looks like a 1948 Chevrolet and tests using 1949 Lincoln Cosmopolitan.

I did like the double-exposure effect where a billboard turns into the children who are on it (see left).

Chicago was the headquarters for two educational film companies at the time: Encyclopaedia Britannica and Coronet Instructional Films. Wallace did some narration work for the latter. He would soon be in New York, pushing Elgin American compacts on You Bet Your Life.

Anyway, I won’t spoil the rest of this short. Have a look.

Jack Benny's Date With Detroit

The only possible explanation is Jack Benny really liked to work. He certainly didn’t need the money.

Jack spent October 1947 to June 1948 on the radio but, during that time, he had some side gigs he fit in at the same time.

In January, he took the show to Denver where he was doing a March of Dimes benefit. In February and March, the programme was broadcast from Palm Springs. But he saved his big trip to June. Jack played some big-paying theatre dates in Detroit, Cleveland and New York in between radio shows.

We’ll talk about the Detroit stage and radio shows in a moment. First, part of a story about Jack on the editorial page from the June 12, 1948 edition of the Free Press. It would appear Benny spent more time promoting someone else than his own show. As for the matter of taxes, Jack's handlers and CBS would take care of that by year's end.

Good Morning
By Malcolm W. Bingay

Here's the Old Architect of the Pellucid Pillar, playing the role of the man about town.
To my surprise I found Jack Benny, now playing at the Fox (advt.), a delightfully modest chap; a fellow with that matured modesty of one who knows he's good and does not have to keep telling you about it. That's the real test; the man who brags is always the one who is never surf of himself.
"How come," I asked, “that you are on tour?"
"To keep the feel of the theater," said the veteran trouper, "and to keep myself before the public. I assure you that it is not for money. I have reached a point on income where practically all I earn goes to the Government. But I have sense enough to know that the old scale dwindles and you can't make even what the Government lets you have left unless you maintain your place in the eyes of the public.
"For that reason money in this case being no object I have been playing around with the idea of putting on a full evening show at top price for a tour. Wouldn't make any money, but see all the people I would meet, the publicity I would get and the fun I would have."
His voice is subdued, his innate humor quiet, keen and friendly. His whole character is all that they crack him up to be: a nice guy who knows the show business.
HE WAS especially interested in the new show at the Cass (advt.) in which Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse are proving that "Life With Father" was too rich a mine to be given up after just one vein of gold. Their new show, “Life With Mother,” is a better play than "Life With Father." The second edition of the Clarence Day saga has a coherent, continuing plot that works up to a heart touching climax at the end or the third act.
But what I started out to say was that Jack Benny was far happier talking about Crouse and Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney than he was about himself.
"THEY ARE the finest people of the theater," he said. "They have collaborated on some of the biggest stage hits of our times and yet there is never the slightest sign of jealousy. If you listen to Lindsay he will make you believe that Crouse deserves all the credit and if you listen to Crouse you are assured that Lindsay is the flaming genius who makes their shows click."
Incidentally, perhaps there will come a time when some other playwright will write a play on Crouse and Lindsay and the lovely little Dorothy Stickney who is the wife of Lindsay, off stage as well as on.
Jack Benny is a great booster of everybody in the show business but he was not exaggerating the tender happiness and deep friendships of the Clarence Day Society—or whatever it is you wish to call it. Why, Benny even likes and admires Fred Allen and all those other radio comics with whom he is supposed to be feuding all the time.

The previous day, the paper published this short review of the stage show.

Jack Benny’s Show Makes the Folks Feel at Home
Jack Benny's stage show at the Fox Theater was better than old home week for the crowds that saw its opening Thursday.
The Walking Man was in stride with all the gags out of the air. Fred Allen, for instance, looks like "a short butcher peeking over two pounds of liver," the man said.
"Doesn't it make you seasick to look at his hair?" he said about Phil Harris.
BUT AFTER Phil sang "Porker Club" [sic] and "That's What I Like About the South" and led Herschel Lieb's orchestra in his free-wheeling, knee-action style, Phil took care of Jack.
Jackson stood like a stonewall while Phil and lovely Marilyn Maxwell showed him up as a great lover, after Marilyn had sung "Hooray for Love." Miss M., in strapless black velvet, hoorays in a camp-meeting blues voice.
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson came over from the barber shop to perform a very funny "Sabre Dance" burlesque.
LEADING off the specialties, the Sportsmen Quartet sang "Wyoming" and the dialect “Adobe Hacienda."
Jack tried a couple of times to play "Love In Bloom" on his violin. But he and the band were sinking into the put before he finally got at it.
Screen feature during the week of Benny’s engagement is “Big City” with seven stars headed by Margaret O’Brien.

The most interesting reportage of the Free Press may have been on June 15th, when a columnist gave an in depth description of how the Benny people got the audience primed for the radio show.

Half-Hour Warmup Has Benny Excited


At 6:30 p. m. the doors of the Art Institute auditorium opened. By 6:33 some 400 people had squeezed past the harried ticket takers for the Jack Benny program. At 6:34 they were all breathlessly seated with the exception of a few lost souls herded to the rear by a man from the fire marshal's office.

NEXT FEW minutes passed quietly. Chief interest was in several characters whose main occupation seemed to be looking from their wrist watches to the clock on the NBC booth and back again ... a fascinating hobby. A few musicians filed on the stage. A man beeped a horn (not off the Maxwell), rang a bell, slammed a prop door. They worked fine.

AT 6:45 Phil Harris bounced on the stage, announced: "The old man's done three shows today. They're back there now glueing him together." He introduced the three regular members of the band, including Frankie Remley, the left-handed guitar player who is a regular on Harris' own show. Remainder of outfit was from Detroit.

6:49 BENNY strolls on stage with a pipe in his hand, calls: "Welcome to the Lucky Strike program." Laughter. 6:51: Don Wilson. 6:52: Mary Livingstone. Jack takes one look and moans: "That dress must have cost a fortune." 6:52: Dennis Day appears to terrific applause, followed by Rochester, who gets an even bigger hand.

6:53: Benny cracks: "We have more people on this show than usually listen to us," introduces Mr. Kitzel and the Sportsmen. 6:54: Jack puts on his glasses, paces back and forth. Mary gives a voice level for the control room. 6:55: Jack asks: "How much time? Five minutes? Give me my violin," launches into "Love in Bloom." Harris throws a fistful of pennies in front of him, Jack falters, stops and dives for loot. "I can't wait," he explains.

6:56: REMLEY joins him in a few hot licks at "My Honey's Loving Eyes," livening audience. 6:57: Benny whips out handkerchief, mops forehead, says piteously: "I have to give myself a couple of minutes to get nervous." 6:59: Riffles through script for first time, tells audience despairingly: “It's lousy.”

6:59 1/2: Tension rolls in waves from the stage toward the audience. Musical director waits with arms high overhead. Don Wilson stands by one mike, Benny fidgets at another. Some members of cast sit on edges of collapsible chairs in front of the band.

7:00: MUSIC AND commercial boom through from New York "IT'S THE TOBACCO THAT COUNTS!" Benny barks from the side of his mouth: "What the hell else?" . . . and the show is under way.

The paper decided to profile someone on the Benny show—another newspaperman. We’ll have that next week.

Saturday 27 August 2022

Animation's Prince of Wales

You know Friz and Chuck and Tex and Tash and Bob (times two) and even Art. They’re the big-name directors who plied their trade on Warner Bros. cartoons.

There were a few others after the studio parted company with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising in 1933 and Leon Schlesinger put together his own cartoon operation. One was Earl Duvall.

Who was Earl Duvall, you ask.

We’re really fortunate Duvall supplied his own biography to the June 20, 1931 edition of Motion Picture Daily in an invaluable article on employees of the Walt Disney studio. We’ve posted it here before, but let’s do it again:
Earl Duvall: “Born June 7, 1898, in a front room across from the Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Public schools too difficult . . . entered business college. Big success at fourteen as page for U. S. Senator Joseph Weldon Baily of Texas. Joe got in bad with Senate and Mrs. Duvall’s son joined the regular army. Served during the war at Hazelhurst Field, Mineola, New York. After the war hooked up with the New York World and then entered art department Washington Times. Later with Washington Post, Bell Syndicate, New York. Came to California for no reason whatsoever and Walt gave me a job. Married, have one son and hay fever.”
Census records show that Owen Earl Duvall, Jr. was born to Owen Earl and Roberta A. Duvall. Newspaper reports say his father became a policeman in 1900, and was later assigned to the bicycle squad. We presume the article to the right, praising George Herriman, was sent to the Washington Times comic editor by soon-to-be-animator Duvall. It appeared on January 18, 1922. He married Jane Cornish in D.C. in 1923; a unique twist was after his ceremony, his best man and the maid of honour surprised everyone by announcing they were getting married, too, right then and there. The 1924 Washington directory lists his occupation as “clerk” but the 1925 City Directory shows he was a self-employed artist; he and his wife appeared in a play for the Order of the Eastern Star that year. In 1929, he drew a Christmas serial for the Paramount Feature Syndicate. He was still in D.C. in the 1930 Census, but must have left soon after. Mike Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons (pg. 105) states Duvall was hired by Disney in June 1931, designing backgrounds and making character sketches for Wilfred Jackson for a brief time before going into story work.

Disney director Jack Kinney mentioned Duvall in his autobiography.
Of course, out of all the characters at the studio, there were a few welshers—one was Earl Duvall, a charming story man who kept a tab running with Mary [Flanigan, the receptionist in the animation building who would also loan money]. Earl drove a snappy eight-cylinder Auburn runabout roadster. He dressed well, bought his clothes at elite men’s stores, and ate lunch at Leslie’s Bar and Hardware Store—the studio “in” place. In fact, Earl was the spitting image of the Prince of Wales at the time [Norm McCabe said the same thing in an interview].
However, rumor had it that Earl lived beyond his means. He would sometimes go on the cuff for over a month, but somehow his horse would come in, and Mary always got paid first.
Now, Ted Sears’s large corner office was sort of a gathering place for the department. Walt would drop in from time to time to see how things were going, and Earl, who was sort of a loner, would drop in too, to check on his horse bets for the day. Whenever he bumped into Walt, Walt would ask him how his story was going, and Earl answered, “I’m trying to tighten up the boards.” “Well, Walt replied, “let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll get together.” “Okay, Walt, it won’t be long.”
This went on for some time, and finally, one Friday, Walt said to Earl, “Let’s set up a time and see what you’ve got.” To which Earl said, “How about Monday at ten A.M.?”
That was fine with Walt, who told Ted to set up a meeting.
Monday morning arrived, as it usually did, and the troops assembled in Earl’s room with Walt and four empty storyboards, but no Earl. We waited awhile, and still no Earl. Walt became impatient, tapping his fingers and wondering where Earl hid his boards. We searched around, but there were no clues, and no Earl either.
Earl had taken this time to terminate his employment with the Walt Disney Studios and had simply disappeared, leaving Walt holding the bag and also several bill collectors, including the Auburn car agency, who would have liked to repossess Earl’s speedster.
Duvall also owed Mary Flanigan, but the story department secretly paid his debt to uphold its honour.

He had one other duty at Disney. The October 1956 edition of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories answered a question, saying Duvall wrote the Silly Symphonies Sunday comic from the start until early 1933 and he had pencilled and inked it from the start until April 1932.

It’s not clear when Duvall joined Leon Schlesinger’s studio making Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons (pg. 324) says the last of the staff was hired early in June 1933. The first thing the studio had to do was come up with a starring character to replace Bosko, who Harman and Ising took with them to MGM. Duvall was the one, according to a Bob Clampett interview in 1969, who originated Buddy.

Duvall supervised five cartoons at Schlesinger; the first three spelled his last name with one ‘l’ on the title cards.

Buddy’s Beer Garden (Looney Tunes, Nov. 18, 1933)
Buddy’s Show Boat (Looney Tunes, Dec. 9, 1933)
Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence (Merrie Melodies, Dec. 16, 1933)
Honeymoon Hotel (Merrie Melodies, Feb. 17, 1934)
Buddy’s Garage (Looney Tunes, Apr. 14, 1934)

Jones dismissed Duvall as a “poor storyman from Disney, lousy director at Schlesinger” but Backyard Fence perks along nicely with some interesting overhead layouts, a sequence on some telegraph lines that changes angles and a nice twist ending. But then he imploded. Friz Freleng told Jerry Beck in an interview published in the great fan magazine Animato! (Spring, 1989):
Friz: He was a very lovable man, but a heavy drinker. And he did the best cartoons over there before I got there. And when I came over they let Tom Palmer go. Really, these were not writers [Palmer and Jack King]. They were pretty good animators, but they were not creative people. I met Earl Duval [sic] at the drugstore for breakfast one morning, and he was drunk already, and he said, “I’m going in and I’m going to tell Leon off a bit. I’m going to get more goddamn money than he ever wanted to put out.

Jerry: And that was the last we saw of Earl Duval.

Friz: I kept warning him. I said, “Don’t do it now. Wait until some other day when you’re sober. He said, “I’m sober now.” And he walked down the driveway.
By the time I finished breakfast and came down the driveway, here comes Earl Duval back. He said, “I got fired.” He was a bad influence, in a way, because of his attitude.”
We lose track of Duvall until 1942. His draft registration, dated Feb. 16th that year has him back in Washington as a self-employed commercial artist. It would appear he was divorced; Jane was in D.C. and only she is mentioned in a Washington Evening Star story about their son in 1944. After the war, he resumed his art career and the Copyright Catalogue for 1947 shows he was the illustrator of a 29-page, unpublished book called “My A-B-C To Health.” How and why he died is a mystery for now, but he passed away on December 21, 1950 at age 52 and is buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.

NOTE: Devon Baxter has found additional information about Duvall's travels. See the comment section.

Friday 26 August 2022

Pounding a Piano

The other day, we mentioned both Woody Woodpecker and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. The two got together in the 1954 cartoon Convict Concerto, written for Walter Lantz (presumably on a freelance basis) by Hugh Harman.

The music gave the cartoon a structure and was treated seriously; there’s no interposing of “The Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe” like in the Oscar-winning Tom and Jerry cartoon The Cat Concerto (1947). Harman was a pioneer of sound animation and was certainly capable of combining musical beats with the action on the screen.

There’s squash and stretch where Woody jumps from off-camera to his piano, and the Maxie Rosenbloom-sounding police officer (played by Daws Butler) partially snaps out of his stupor.

There’s no director credit on the cartoon. It’s presumed Don Patterson was responsible, though Harman likely had a large hand in this if he was timing music to the gags. This was Patterson’s last directing job. Walter Lantz had hired Tex Avery. To make room for him, Patterson was demoted and animated in Avery’s unit.

Ray Abrams and Herman Cohen animated along with Patterson, and Raymond Turner was given screen credit as the pianist.

Thursday 25 August 2022

How a Hare Heckles

Mike Maltese loved Bugs Bunny twisting situations around to his advantage without the other character realising it. Bugs did it to Daffy with the rabbit season/duck season routine in Rabbit Fire (1951).

Maltese did it in The Heckling Hare (1941) where the rabbit imitates what Willoughby the dog is doing then takes over and Willoughby is copying him. Bugs stops but Willoughby keeps going, then holds up a commentary sign to the audience. Bugs did the same thing with the wolf in The Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944).

All of them pretty funny. (All three were for different directors)

Here are some frames from The Heckling Hare.


Now, Bugs takes over.

No need for Bugs to carry on. Dull Willoughby's on auto-pilot.

The commentary.

Maltese tops the gag by ending it with a baseball bat. The final two frames below are separated by red and white colour cards, each shot twice taking up a total of a fourth of a second.

This is the cartoon where director Tex Avery refused to chop 40 feet at the end, so producer Leon Schlesinger chopped it anyway and suspended Avery. He never worked on another Warner Bros. cartoon again.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Biannual Bud and Lou

“Who’s on First?”

It was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s most famous routine and launched their careers in radio, then films, then television.

The pair’s radio show had several different incarnations, but they all included the quick back-and-forth play on words that brought them their initial fame. One version was taken off the air in 1943 when Costello became seriously ill. Quickly rushed into the breech was an unlikely pairing of Garry Moore and Jimmy Durante, which became such a hit that when Costello was ready to come back, the sponsor had to find a spot on another network.

Abbott and Costello’s second broadcast of the 1946-47 season for Camel cigarettes was examined by syndicated critic John Crosby on October 15, 1946. I always liked their wordplay, but Crosby outlined what he saw as a difficulty for the pair, which became more pronounced once they began to appear on television. For the record, the landlady in the episode was played by Verna Felton. Also uncredited are John Brown and Gale Gordon.

Comedy by Instinct

By John Crosby
Abbott and Costello are back on the air again (N.B.C. 10 p.m. Thursdays), a sure sign the ducks better start winging south because cold weather is just around the corner. As a matter of fact, this raffish pair of comedians are animated by instincts far more highly developed than any migrating duck. Their routines have the precision and predictability of a conditioned reflex. If you've never seen these particular conditioned reflexes, they're wonderful. If you have, it's another story.
In a recent sketch, Costello—that's the little fat one—was suffering from a strange malady; every time he told a lie or did anything wrong, an invisible pixie blew a horn. It went something like this: "Look at me! The picture of masculine virility; Two hundred and sixty pounds of bulging muscles. (Horn) Medium-sized muscles. (Horn) Teentsie-weentsie muscles. (Horn) Blubber (Silence) . . . Blubber."
● ● ●
It's a well-worn idea with infinite variation. Its humor depends on Costello’s beautifully modulated inflections and brilliant timing. It took countless repetitions in countless vaudeville houses to get it down pat.
"I got money in the bank," boasted Costello.
"You got money in the bank!"
"Four hundred dollars. (Horn) Twenty-eight bucks."
They spit it at you like bullets and before the laughs die, you get more.
"You're in bad shape. You better make a will."
"Twenty-eight bucks. That isn't enough to start a college, is it?"
"Small college?"
"Junior college?"
The first time I heard Abbott and Costello, they were delivering the same sort of rapid-fire malarkey about hot dogs and mustard at the New York World's Fair in 1939. It went on for minutes and it was pretty funny. In fact, if you've never heard it, it still is.
● ● ●
They are an excellent example of what happens when one amusement industry tangles with another. In vaudeville or even in musical comedy, you could reasonably expect to see this pair of comics not much more than once a year. In radio you get them every week. These routines get their punch from long practice—but not in front of the same audience.
Radio has simply taken over, undigested, a rather low but authentic form of comedy from another medium, just as the automobile industry borrowed the body design of the horse-drawn carriage. But, whereas the automobile industry rapidly modified the carriage body, Abbott and Costello have scarcely been modified at all.
There are a few up-to-date references about the housing shortage and the O.P.A. but Abbott and Costello are never quite at home with them. They prefer a gag they have gradually molded with their own hands from a little laugh to a great big belly laugh.
Abbott, for instance, is greeted at the door of Costello boarding house by the landlady, who apologizes for the mess on the floor. "Try not to step on my husband," she said. "It's his birthday." Or, if you'd like another sample, Abbott greets a lawyer at the door of Costello's room.
"Come in."
"Sorry, I'm late. I was detained at court."
"How did you make out?"
"I was acquitted."
"Father got 35 years."
You can see for yourself how one gag has been patiently grafted onto another, probably by trial and error. In the old day a comedian could, through a season, carefully fatten one joke into a whole five-minute routine. But, with substantially the same audience, week after week, you can't get away with it in radio. Just what the old-style comedians should do about radio is beyond me, but I have my own remedy for the listener. Tune in to them just twice a year.

The other Crosby columns of the week:

On October 14th, Duffy’s Tavern and insult comedy get a look. On the 16th, it’s a fairly local column on a bank jingle and radio etiquette. The 17th is about a show on a local New York station. It involves the incredible racism of a politician from Mississippi. Fred Allen’s “Radio Mikado” was quoted in depth in the column of the 18th and was transcribed in an earlier post.

Tuesday 23 August 2022

Where Have I Heard That Music Before?

Yes, a piano, classical music and little living flames can combine for a fun cartoon.

But the Woody Woodpecker/Andy Panda short Musical Moments From Chopin (1946) wasn’t the first. You can find the same situation 16 years earlier in the Fleischer Talkartoon Fire Bugs.

One difference is the 1930 cartoon utilises that classic piece that is the favourite of cartoon directors everywhere—Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

This one stars Bimbo as a fireman, Sparky as his firewagon horse, and an obsessive lion who does not want his piano playing interrupted, fire or no fire.

The fire turns into little flame characters (similar to the aforementioned Woody/Andy cartoon) that dance on top of the piano.

Cut to a scene of a flame and a hand-drill flame and, well, we’ll leave this gag alone.

The lion is shocked to see the flames are now playing the Second Hungarian Rhapsody. He blows them off the piano.

Never was there an A-list studio whose cartoons have been treated so shabbily than the Fleischers. We’ve seen restorations of its Popeyes and some Betty Boops, but the early Talkartoons and Screen Songs have been completely ignored. The ones I’ve seen have more crazy little gags, at least to me, than almost everything else being put out in the early ‘30s. Someone should do something to get good-looking versions to home viewers.

Monday 22 August 2022

So Long, Folks!

The early Warner Bros. cartoons had the best endings. Beginning with the first short in 1930, the Looney Toons concluded with Bosko leaping out from behind a wooden sign and exclaiming “That’s all folks!” When the Merrie Melodies debuted in 1931, a character would run from the back of a drum, but the exclamation now was “So long, folks!”

The drum was put into storage for a while when Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising parted ways with Leon Schlesinger in 1933. The ending now featured a stage curtain with musical notes, and a character in the cartoon standing and making the final pronouncement (Buddy in the Looney Toons).

It would appear when the Merrie Melodies went completely to colour in 1935 with The Country Boy, the ending featured a jester on stage, waving a marotte and exclaiming “That’s all, folks” (his voice varied with each cartoon). I always liked the jester when I was a kid. It never dawned on me he never starred in any cartoons.

Perhaps the creepiest looking and sounding spokes-character was the cat at the end of Sittin’ on a Back Yard Fence (1933), apparently animated by Don Williams. It shouts “So long, folks!” in a raspy falsetto. Get a load of the teeth.

The jester et al were retired in 1936. The familiar concentric circles were seen on the Merrie Melodies for the first time in the Friz Freleng-directed I Wanna Play House. The Looney Tunes had the zooming Warner Bros. shield and the “our gang” animals, with the “That’s all, Folks!” script at the end. Porky knocked Beans, Little Kitty and Oliver Owl out of the opening starting with Little Beau Porky later that year.

The bass drum apparently returned, with Porky bursting through it, when “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” took over as the Looney Toons theme. Since the Porky 101 disc set has such mangled openings and closings, I’ve had to rely on cue sheets supplied by Daniel Goldmark, which say the first short was Rover’s Rival (1937) from the Bob Clampett unit.

For this post, that’s all, folks.