Tuesday 28 February 2023

Fox Fails

Did Art Davis get stuck with more one-shot cartoons than the other Warners directors? It seems that way to me. Maybe it’s because he was only allowed to direct one Bugs Bunny cartoon.

One of his one-shots is The Foxy Duckling (1947). The premise sounds like something from a Buzzy the Crow cartoon. A fox can’t sleep. A book gives him advice. He needs a pillow filled with fresh crow meat duck down.

Enter a one-shot, super-confident (and silent) one-shot duck character. This cartoon really moves along in places; the fox’s failures are quick and it’s on to the next gag.

Don Williams, Manny Gould and Bill Melendez are the animators. There’s dry brush and silhouettes.

The duckling indicates to the fox he is now almost over a cliff. Time for a Tex Avery-inspired take.

The duck spins in mid-air and follows with a quick ka-pow!

There’s no story credit. I wonder if the writer was George Hill, who was originally hired around February 1945 to help Warren Foster in Bob McKimson’s unit. When Davis took over Bob Clampett’s unit two months later, Hill was assigned to it as a writer. Hill was soon fired after a drunken encounter with studio boss Ed Selzer. Dave Monahan, who had been reassigned by the military from the East Coast to write Snafu cartoons on the West Coast, supplied stories to Davis as well. The invaluable Warner Club News suggests Lloyd Turner and Bill Scott didn’t become Davis’ writers until July 1946.

This isn’t really the most appealing of Davis’ cartoons. The combination of one-time-only characters and the lack of dialogue may be the reason. Carl Stalling’s fine score and Treg Brown’s familiar effects help tremendously; try imagining it with a Screen Gems score by Darrell Calker. Davis made a terrific fox-duck cartoon with Daffy (and Elmer Fudd) in What Makes Daffy Duck (1948).

Not counting his work finishing Bacall to Arms, this was Davis’ third cartoon behind The Goofy Gophers (Production 1021) and Mouse Menace (Production 1028). The Foxy Duckling (Production 1031) was reissued as a credit-less Blue Ribbon in November 1954.

Monday 27 February 2023

Flea Bones

Skeletons abound in Ub Iwerks’ Spooks, a Flip the Frog short.

One gag features a skeleton dog who, quite logically, has a skeleton flea that he scratches from his bones. The flea scoots away in a cloud of dust.

This short is a perfect vehicle for Iwerks’ wonky backgrounds (note the picture of the fish on the wall). The background artist is uncredited, and so is everyone else but Iwerks.

The cartoon was copyrighted in May 1932 but it was playing at a theatre in David City, Nebraska on January 1st.

Sunday 26 February 2023

Johnny Green

The start of the 1935-36 radio season brought some changes to the Jack Benny show and, as it turned out, they weren’t permanent.

The programme was now all but officially based in California. Orchestra leader Don Bestor wanted to continue working in the east, so he was replaced by pianist and composer Johnny Green, already known for writing “Body and Soul.” And popular vocalist Frank Parker left as well, moving to CBS and starring on a programme for Atlantic Refining. His replacement, Michael Bartlett, either quit or was fired, depending on the version you read, after five shows. Hired to handle the songs was California radio novice Kenny Baker.

Green stayed with the Benny show for one season, electing to take a job leading the orchestra on Fred Astaire’s series for Packard. There were no hard feelings about the split. Years later, Jack hosted a party honouring Green for the release of a new album. Green appeared on the Shower of Stars show in 1958 when Benny celebrated his 40th birthday, and wrote a special song for it. They evidently stayed friends.

Here are a couple of newspaper stories about Jack’s show during Green’s time. The first one is from the Washington Evening Star of March 15, 1936. Interestingly, Don Wilson is still considered a sports announcer; his play-by-play of the Rose Bowl is why NBC brought him to New York. Even more interesting is the reference to writer Harry Conn. The Washington show was the last one Conn wrote for Benny. The relationship between the two was poisoned by Conn’s demands for more money and more credit. Reading this, you’d never known anything was amiss.

The story about “Emergency Mary” is pure fiction. The script for the first Mary show exists. It’s clear Mary was intended to a part of the show.

Comedian Is Surrounded By Distinguished Personnel Broadcast From National Press Club Includes Mary Livingstone, Kenny Baker, Johnny Green and Don Wilson.
By the Radio Editor.
THE Jack Benny program, which the Nation’s radio critics have chosen as the outstanding air attraction for the past two years, and whose star they have elected as their favorite microphone comedian three years running, will originate tonight in Washington. The broadcast will be staged in the National Press Club Auditorium at 7 p.m.
Along with Benny will be heard that modem poetess, Mary Livingstone, whose ode to “Labor Day” will go down in literary history as a twentieth century classic; Kenny Baker, the timid tenor from California; Johnny Green, composer-conductor-pianist, leading a local orchestra, and Don Wilson, the sports announcer, who turns in a pretty good acting job every now and then.
WHAT is the formula for the success of the Benny programs? Why is it that his suave, easy-going humor seems to be making a consistently bigger hit with listeners throughout the country than that of his comic colleagues? To start out finding the answers to these questions one might visit a small room in New York's Park Central Hotel any Wednesday morning. A knock on the door of Room 1510 about 9 o'clock will bring a hearty “Come in" from a fellow named Harry Conn. As you walk in, you see a solidly-built man—you'd guess he's in his late thirties—seated in front of a portable typewriter.
Conn is Benny's collaborator. He never starts working on the Sunday broadcast until the preceding Wednesday. “What are you going to have Sunday?” you ask Harry. He doesn't know, will be the reply. “Well, isn't it about time you get to thinking about it?” you continue.
“You’re telling me. And what do you suppose this typewriter is for?" he comes back—and then, "The first thing I have to do this morning is work out a situation that will make a good vehicle for Jack and his cast. We always try to get something topical—a current screen or stage success, a public event about which there is a lot of discussion or an episode which has been planted on a previous program. Illustrative of the latter is the famous 'feud' between Jack and Don Bestor last year. This grew out of the very simple notion of having Jack not give Don a Christmas present. When this structure has been carefully planned, I begin thinking about gags.”
UNDERLYING all of Benny's thinking in building a show are two principles which have governed his comedy ever since he first faced the microphone. Although he is the comedy star, the majority of the laughs must go to the other members of the cast; there must be good-natured kidding of the typical method of commercial announcing.
In every script Jack Benny is the Underdog. Johnny Green comes on and flips a few wisecracks at him. Mary deflates him further with a couple of well-aimed darts. Even Kenny Baker and Wilson take him down a few pegs. With the result that the sympathy of the listeners is with Benny from the start. The heckling of the star by his supporters is a sound comedy formula, but it brings even more laughs in the Benny show, because, no matter how many times they have heard them before, members of the audience never expect tenors, band leaders and announcers to say anything funny. Neither Baker, Wilson nor Green are trained actors, and yet under Benny's watchful eye they have become first-rate comedy players.
MARY LIVINGSTONE, who is Mrs. Benny outside of the studios, rates a paragraph by herself. She was not in the first Benny series. One night Jack found his script running short, and he signaled Mary, who was In the audience, to step over to the mike and ad-lib with him for a minute or two in order to fill out the remaining time. She made such a hit on this impromptu occasion that Jack has kept her in the show as one of his foils ever since.
In the matter of kidding the announcements, Jack Benny is considered a past master. There is too much pompous commercial spieling on the air, he feels. As a result, the product he represents finds its way into Benny comedy sequence at the most unexpected moments. The "plugs” are effective because they are genuinely funny and because they are brief.

As mentioned in the story above, Johnny Green wasn’t a trained actor. But that’s now what Jack expected out of the main players on his show. How did Green view this? Here’s his perspective in a column in the Cincinnati Post, April 25, 1936.

Comedy Yen Grows in Baton Wielders
Ambition Involving Gag Lines and Laugh Situations Was Instilled in Maestroes When Jack Benny Gave George Olsen a Funny Line
TURNING reporter for a day gives me an opportunity to reveal that many radio orchestra leaders are currently nursing secret ambitions of an unusual variety. These ambitions, strangely, are not concerned with becoming the foremost dispensers of dance music. It seems, rather that their neuroses and complexes involve gag lines and comedy situations. Ever since that eventful evening four years ago when Jack Benny gave George Olsen his first funny line, a new field was opened for heretofore sane maestri.
Before that the only baton-saver who essayed a comedy style was Ben Bernie. But Ben was formerly associated with Phil Baker in vaudeville, so he knows the ropes. When Benny took the serious, though always affable, Frank Black and made a funny fellow of Frank, the panic was on. All the musical boys got out their editions of Joe Miller and made applications to be funny men.
What the maestri didn't realize however was that the comics use them as foils or wrap them in character parts for farcical skits. They seem to have gotten the idea that they can carry on a comedy show by themselves. Some of the boys are due for a rude awakening. They have assumed the theory that all a radio comedian needs is a talented straight man and a good gag writer.
Groundwork Is Overlooked
WHAT these bandsmen forget is the long period of training which comics like Benny, Cantor, Baker and Fred Allen have undergone. Endles[s] trooping around the country, contact with unruly audiences — all have given these comedians a razor-edge sense of humor and a happy faculty f[o]r coining flip retorts. Then, too, these comics know how to phase and time a line. Ever since Jack gave me lines to deliver on our Sunday night show I've been discovering how important timing is.
I MAY be painting a rather dismal picture. I do not mean that orchestra leaders should not go into the comedy field. Of course, they should, but don’t misunderstand. Handling comedy lines is great for a bandsman. It gives him a new perspective, opens up new vistas and is a lot of fun. Lots of maestri enter the field because it presents a challenge. Can he become proficient in the handling of comedy lines.
It is essential that a bandsman should retain his sense of proportion. His business is primarily to furnish good music. Once he forsakes this realization and thinks he can be a good comic on his own, that's the beginning of the end. I’m grateful to Jack Benny for thinking me capable enough to handle comedy lines, but I'm not going to let it throw me.

It’d be interesting to hear which bandleaders Green had in mind. There’s one performance of Bestor’s that’s so bad, everyone starts laughing at his line-reading. Before him was Frank Black, whose delivery comes across as a cross between a drone and a sneer. The best acting bandleader on Benny’s show was the one who followed Green. Phil Harris was hired for the 1936-37 season. Once the writers developed a character for him, he became larger than life—and stayed that way the rest of his career, including his cartoon career with Walt Disney.

It turned out one of the best things that could happen to Jack Benny’s show was Johnny Green’s departure.

Saturday 25 February 2023

I Created a Wabbit

The man in the photo to your right is the creator of Bugs Bunny.

Well, he said he was.

This may confuse you because the man doesn’t look like Tex Avery. Nor Bugs Hardaway. Nor Bob Givens. Nor even Mel Blanc. In fact, he wasn’t even employed by the Leon Schlesinger studio when it made A Wild Hare in 1940.

The person you see in the 1924 Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News photo of “socially prominent young people” taking part in a play is Tedd Pierce.

Yes, Pierce once claimed to create Bugs Bunny. And Porky Pig.

It’s a shame a proper biography of Pierce hasn’t been written as he seems to be the most interesting of the three main writers of Warner Bros. cartoons after the end of World War Two. Chuck Jones, who worked directly with the one-time writing team of Pierce and Mike Maltese, described him in “Chuck Amuck” as “Mickey Rooney in Ronald Colman’s body” and “C. Aubrey Smith at twenty-two playing the role of the world’s foremost authority on the dry martini.”

Alcohol played a part in Pierce’s life. Writer Lloyd Turner said his hangout was Brittingham’s, a restaurant/lounge at Columbia Square, part of the CBS/KNX complex on Sunset and Gower. Pierce was informally monikered “The Duke of Brittingham,” a title referenced in Rabbit Hood, a Jones-directed cartoon written by Maltese. Jones recalled how Pierce, having consumed a considerable volume from a jar of homemade martinis, went into his brother’s house at Laguna Beach, grabbed the urn containing his mother’s ashes, and attempted to discharge them into the nearby Pacific Ocean, only to have the wind blow them back into his face.

While a story in Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons speaks of a rift between Pierce and Maltese, Jerry Eisenberg recalled to me the two put on noon-hour shows for the amusement of the staff when he was a young assistant animator at the studio in the ‘50s. Bill Scott told Jim Korkis, related in Animato, Summer 1990, “You couldn’t get two funnier people going through a storyboard than Maltese and Pierce. Pierce was a very good-looking man. He really had a patrician look to him when he wasn’t bruised—he used to get in a lot of fights off the lot for a variety of reasons. On Mondays he would sometimes show up like death warmed over, or he wouldn’t show up at all. He had a fine New England accent, and he was a tremendous guy, a very funny fellow.”

Pierce’s departure from Warners in the late ‘50s has never, to the best of my knowledge, ever been addressed in any of the many books dealing with the studio. Much like one can assume bar fights and absences detailed by Scott were triggered by alcohol, it’s safe to assume the same thing ended his career at Warners.

However, let’s get back to his claim about Bugs Bunny. It appeared in a story in the South Gate Daily Press-Tribune plugging Pierce’s appearance at a drive-in. This is from April 6, 1951. Whoever wrote the story, in their effort to gush about popular characters, seems to have forgotten about Mickey Mouse, let alone the silent Felix the Cat.

Warner Bros Top Cartoonist to be at Gage Drive-In
The man behind the animal will tell all interested parties about some of his famous proteges Sunday night at Gage Drive-In Theater. Animals, in this case, being Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Tweedy Pie [sic], world's most illustrious rabbit, pig, and canary, respectively.
And the man in this case is Ted Pierce, top story man for Warner Brothers cartoons. Pierce, with the late Leon Schlesinger, created Porky, Hollywood’s most successful pig, and first cartoon character to come through with nationwide appeal.
Pierce also scripted full-length feature cartoons “Gulliver’s' Travels" and “Mr. Bugs Goes to Town," and did a voice in both. His Tweedy Pie won an Academy award in 1948, first bird to be so honoured, and Bugs Bunny, perhaps his greatest creation, has ranked first among motion picture exhibitors for the last seven years.
Howard Nagel, manager of the Gage, has billed three of Pierce’s most popular cartoons with regular bill of "Tomahawk" and "Under the Gun."

Pierce was born at Quogue, Long Island, New York on August 12, 1906. His father, Samuel Cupples Pierce, was a broker on the New York Stock Exchange. It appears his family had lived in California, as his sister Barbera was born there a year earlier, and we find the Pierces living in Pasadena in 1910.

One has to be cautious about biographical research; too often, assumptions are made when there is more than one person with the same name in the same location. But we do know Pierce wrote what passed for humorous stories in the Illustrated Daily News in 1925, accompanied by some of his little drawings, after graduation from Pasadena Polytechnic and Taft School in Connecticut (Warner Club News, Dec. 1944).

Pierce married in 1928, the same year his father died. The 1930 Census puts him in San Francisco, where he was employed as a commercial artist. An article in the Helena Independent of that year reports Pierce was hired to paint murals inside the newly-constructed, 28-storey William Taylor Hotel at Leavenworth and McAllister Streets, including one with a Joan of Arc motif. He was also in the gumball machine business, according to a Warner Club News squib. He was soon back in southern California, living in an art colony at Laguna Beach, where a newspaper report in Aug. 1932 revealed he won a huge copper bowl at a costume contest, where he dressed up at an Olympic athlete, complete with fake muscles.

By then, wanderlust had overtaken Pierce, and he pulled up the family and moved to Papeete in Tahiti. Pierce wrote about his life there in a feature story in the Los Angeles Times of April 23, 1933, but on October 10th, he was back in California. It was then Pierce was hired as a writer at the Leon Schlesinger studio (from the Warner Club News, as above) and became head of the story department after Tom Armstrong left in the mid-30s.

Pierce had appeared in amateur plays in the 1920s, and he put his acting talents to use at the Schlesinger studio. Keith Scott’s two-volume set on voice actors in the Golden Age of Cartoons reveals Pierce’s first role was as the egg-laying coach in Along Flirtation Walk (1934). He did imitations of radio characters, including Elmer Blurt and Tizzie Lish (sounding more like Lish in the early 1950s than the 1930s). He was quite accomplished imitating Bud Abbott in A Tale of Two Kitties (1942). He appeared on camera, too. A superimposed silhouette of Pierce enacted a prolonged death scene in Daffy Duck and Egghead (1937) after being shot by a character on-screen.

While at Schlesinger in his first tour of duty, he became president of the local animation union in 1936. Tom Sito’s Drawing the Line said it met in secret, sometimes in cellars.

In 1939, Pierce jumped his contract to get a job with the Fleischer studio in Miami. He wrote stories and voiced characters. And, as Len Higgins reported in his syndicated column of March 15, 1941:

We don't know whether Ted Pierce, artist and writer at Fleischer Studio in Miami, Fla., ought to be ashamed of himself or not.
A month ago he broke his left leg, but bad, when he slipped in the bathtub. For a month he lay In a hospital bed, each day having to answer sympathetic questioners concerning the state of his health. He grew thoroughly weary not only of the questions, but of his busted extremity.
Then he came back to work at the studio on, of all things, "Superman,” the "Man of Steel," who can bust a battleship with one blow of his fist. He forgot all about his crutches and almost about his injury— until the 400-odd employes of the cartoon plant began questioning him about his poor, poor leg.
Disgusted, he became diabolic. He got a piece of flesh colored paper, drew a horrific realistic replica of his wound in color, pasted it over the plaster paris cast on his leg.
To each questioner thereafter he merely pulled up his trouser, pointed to his illustration. Nobody in the studio even talks to Artist Pierce; they never invite him to lunch either.

Pierce returned to Schlesinger’s in June 1941, at the behest of Jones, who credited him with being “good at structure, and it was a humorous structure—but it wasn’t gags.” Still, Pierce worked on the first Pepé Le Pew cartoon, and Jones wrote it was pretty much impossible for Pepé to have been created without Pierce around. Chuck Amuck reveals Pierce’s enthusiasm for the opposite sex—he remarried in 1946—but he was living on his own in an apartment by 1950. By now, Pierce had added a second 'd' to his first name; Jones observed it had been done in response to puppeteer Bil Baird dropping a second 'l' in his first name.

Jones and Friz Freleng shared Pierce and Maltese until a shuffling left Pierce with Freleng, his first solo cartoon was Hare Splitter (Production 1059), released in Sept. 1948. Another shuffle saw Pierce dumped into the Bob McKimson unit, starting with Hillbilly Hare (Production 1130), released Aug. 1950. McKimson unhappily described the change as a political move by Freleng, and once denigrated his unit for being full of “drunks and queers”; Pierce could certainly be described as the former. He was involved in a serious car crash; the Warner Club News of April 1952 said he required 22 stitches.

With the McKimson unit being disbanded in early 1953 (several months before a shutdown of the cartoon studio), Pierce landed at UPA, returning after the studio re-opened in 1954 to work with Jones (until Mike Maltese returned from the Lantz studio) and McKimson. His last Warners short was Jones’ The Abominal Snow Rabbit (Production 1551), released in May 1961. Dave Detiege replaced him.

Without going into a list, Pierce’s name shows up as a writer, with Bill Danch, on The Alvin Show in 1961. The two of them freelanced for Walter Lantz in the 1961-62 theatrical season. I once asked Jerry Eisenberg if Pierce had ever been considered for work at Hanna-Barbera, especially as the studio was looking for writers in the 1960s. He didn’t think so and didn’t understand why.

Cartoon characters were perfect fodder for children’s records, and Pierce penned lyrics for some at Capitol Records, including “The Woody Woodpecker Polka” (1951), “Bugs Bunny and the Pirate” and “Chin Chow and the Golden Bird” (both 1954, all with Warren Foster). He also co-wrote “We Were Meant For We” with Scotty Harrell in 1947.

Pierce died in Los Angeles on February 19, 1972.

Friday 24 February 2023

The Lion Has a Ball

A perky score and a string of gags pretty much describes Bosko at the Zoo, a 1932 effort by director Hugh Harman and his animators for Warner Bros.

The title pretty much describes the cartoon. There is no real plot. There is some reused animation and reused gags, including one to end the short.

Bosko is chased through the world's longest cage in perspective—twice—by a lion in what appears to be an 18-drawing cycle, animated on ones. The music in the background is Harry Ruby's “I’m Happy When You’re Jealous.” Here are a few drawings.

This lion animation scene is re-used from Bosko Shipwrecked! (1931) with a different background.

Since there’s no plot, there’s no need to bring the cartoon to a logical conclusion. Harman and the writers just settle for an old gag and end the short. It’s reused from Big Man of the North (1931) where three characters crash into each other and form a three-in-one ball. In this case it’s an ostrich Bosko was chasing, and the ape and the lion that were chasing him.

Perennially helpful Mark Kausler points out the gag was also used in the silent Disney cartoon Ozzie of the Mounted (1928), on which was employed one Hugh Harman.

The cartoon has atypical la-la-la-la singing at the outset, and Honey joyously exclaiming “Ain’t that cute?” as we hear in so many other Warners cartoons of the era.

Friz Freleng and Larry Martin are the credited animators.

Frank Marsales’ score includes “There’s a Blue Note in My Love Song” by Ted Shapiro and Maurice Beresford, when Bosko is trying to lasso the ostrich. It was a fairly new song at the time. Hear a slower version by Paul Whiteman below.

Thursday 23 February 2023

This Is The City

“Its entertainment value is attested by the fact that it began its theatrical distribution by playing the Paramount Theatre, on Broadway in New York City.”

The statement was made about a cartoon in 1956—but not one produced by the Famous/Paramount studio, home of Casper the Friendly Ghost and Popeye. The film is Destination Earth, a stylish 13½ minute short made for the Oil Industry Information Committee of the American Petroleum Institute by John Sutherland Productions.

The cartoon is full of imaginative, stylised designs by two Disney veterans—Tom Oreb and Vic Haboush. We’ve featured their wonderful work on the blog before. Here’s a downtown city scape. The background art is by Joe Montell.

The woman on the movie theatre poster (a 3-D film in 1956?) looks like something out of UPA. Note the theatre has “Super Tody Yo-Vision.”

Here’s a bit of Captain Cosmic the Martian walking toward the public library.

I haven’t been able to find when it played at the Paramount, but I’ve found other screenings at theatres (one with Sal Mineo’s Crime in the States), at service clubs and on several television stations during Oil Progress Week in October 1956. A Jewish women’s group showed it after a meeting in 1964, along with the industrial short Beef As You Like It.

The fine designs cover for the fact that the film basically tells the government to stay out of free enterprise.

George Cannata, Russ Von Neida, Tom Ray, Bill Higgins and Ken O’Brien get animation credits. Carl Urbano was the director, Marvin Miller gets no screen credit for voices and there’s no music credit, either.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Before Endora

Agnes Moorehead’s name isn’t one you associate with ditzy dames.

But that was her typecasting at one time.

Yes, it was long before Bewitched and before Orson Welles cast her in the Mercury Players.

Here’s a feature story from February 2, 1936 in “Screen & Radio Weekly,” one of those weekend newspaper supplements. If you want to know some of her background, it’s revealed below. Yes, the word “witch” comes up.

She Admits She Doesn’t Like Her Work
Agnes Moorehead Longs to Escape ZaSu Pitts Roles
By Mary Jacobs
YOU'RE going to interview a radio star, young, feminine star.
You make your appointment, you get there on time, and after awhile SHE arrives. That's fine; you're glad she got there at all. So you get set to hear how wonderful her work is, how she loves, simply LOVES radio, how happy she was when she got her present role and how everything is perfectly adorable. She will probably wind lip by telling how, when she was 5 and making her debut in the Sunday school class play, she knew that she would never be happy unless she could become an actress and do just what she is doing now.
If she tells you just that, you sigh and shrug your shoulders; that's what you expected anyway. But if she tells you something else, tells you, in fact, just the opposite, that, folks, is something to write about. And that is what Agnes Moorehead told me.
Since Agnes came to radio in 1930, she has played one dizzy female role after another, including her present jobs. She is, you may know, one of Phil Baker's stooges on CBS, and the nosey Mrs. Van Alastaire Crowder on Helen Hayes' NBC show, "The New Penny." And how does she feel about it all?
"Invariably, when there is a pain-in-the-neck role for a girl to play, the directors start yelling 'Agnes.' And Agnes comes running, except once to while when I get so fed up that I refuse the job.
"If I could get just one decent dramatic role to play, it wouldn't be so bad. But do I get it? No! I’m ZaSu Pitts of the radio, and apparently I've got to keep on being ZaSu Pitts until my hair is white and the bones of my ringers rattle when I wring my hands."
WE WERE talking in Miss Moorehead's sitting room, a huge, paneled white room, very modern and not at all ZaSu Pitts-ish. She sat on a brown linen box-like sofa, one foot restlessly tapping the floor as she spoke. Dressed in a simple white flannel suit, trimmed with navy braid and a navy sailor tie, she looked about 18. Actually, she is in her twenties.
Tall, blue-eyed, titian-haired, Agnes Moorehead is the kind oi girl the men are just k-krazy about.
My first impression of her was that she was very aloof and self-contained. That was when I entered her apartment. But as she warmed to her subject this reticence left her. She went on:
"When I first got my chance on the air I felt grand. You would, too, if you were an unemployed actress down to your last nickel, and a job on the air landed like manna from heaven.
"I had pawned my diamond ring. I lived on oatmeal soup and apples. Nourishing enough," with a shrug of her shoulders, "but no diet for little Agnes.
"Joseph Bell, who had been one of my instructors at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, started to work for NBC and sent for me. He gave me the role of Sally, the tough girl in 'The Mystery House.' She was so tough she seemed worse than Capone to me. But I played the role for over a year.
"MY NEXT job," she said, "was as Lizzie Peters, the shrilly sharp-spoken New England spinster on the Seth Parker program. I toured with Phillips Lord in his Seth Parker show for 20 weeks." A smile lighted her face. "I got the thrill of my life then," she confessed. "Henry Ford entertained our troupe, and he danced with me. But that didn't make me like my role."
Agnes offered me a cigaret. "Don't mind my not smoking," she said; "just a remnant of my childhood days. I'm a Presbyterian minister's daughter. And if you are a minister's daughter, you don't smoke or do a lot of other things. "After the Seth Parker stint was finished," she continued, frowning at the fireplace in front of the sofa, "I tried my best to get a dramatic role on the air. I auditioned and auditioned.
"And I landed up as Nana, the most fluttery, helpless little half-wit who ever lived. I was Nana for three years, on the 'Evening in Paris' program. Somebody, with nothing but the best of intentions, I am sure, phoned CBS after the show one night. She wanted to talk to ZaSu Pitts, she insisted, 'But,' the attendants told her, 'Miss Pitts is in Hollywood.' She kept insisting that she had just heard the movie star broadcast from their New York studios.
"It wasn't till she mentioned Nana, on the 'Evening in Paris' program that they realized she thought I was ZaSu. Then all the directors began to say I was the ZaSu Pitts of radio—and I've been that ever since."
Looking up for a minute, she smiled briefly at me, then her eyes wandered back to the fire again. "When Mr. Griffith, the famous movie producer who had discovered ZaSu went on the air,'' she continued, "he clinched matters. He wanted someone to impersonate ZaSu." Dozens of actresses were tried out, including Agnes Moorehead.
After he had heard her, he said, "She's more like ZaSu than ZaSu is herself. It's amazing."
"YOU KNOW," Miss Moorehead told me, "I almost did play one swell emotional role on the air.
"I was ambling through the halls at NBC when a director came running out of one of the studios and literally pulled me after him.
“'You've got to help us out,' he gasped. 'Miriam Hopkins hasn't appeared for the dress rehearsal of her program, and the sponsor's listening in. Please, Miss Moorehead, go in and act for all you're worth. The sponsor must be pleased.'”
It was an original dramatic sketch prepared for Miss Hopkins. Agnes Moorehead did her best. The sponsor was pleased. Everyone patted her on the shoulder and said she was superb.
But that was only for the dress rehearsal. When the show went on the air that night, Miss Hopkins played the role. No one outside the studio ever heard of Agnes' acting!
"I almost got a break that time," she told me, grimacing, "but almost doesn't count."
Just then a tall, slim, blond young man entered the room, smiled at me, and said to Miss Moorehead, "I'll be back at 6," as he leaned over and kissed her goodby.
"That's my husband, John G. Lee," she said. "We met when we both attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He's in the movies. And the swellest person you ever met."
Agnes glanced at her wrist watch. "Goodness," she exclaimed, "I'm due for rehearsal at NBC in 10 minutes. I've become so engrossed in talking about myself I’ve forgotten all about time. Do you want to come along to the rehearsal? It wouldn't take long, and we can finish our chat there."
The NBC Studios are just a few blocks from Miss Moorehead's apartment. We walked quickly, and soon we were in one of the small rehearsal studios on the third floor of the NBC Building. There were about 10 actresses sitting in a semi-circle. The production man sat in front at a table with his assistant.
I retreated to the piano stool. They were rehearsing for "Dot and Will," that long-lived sustaining feature at NBC. Perhaps you listen in. If so, you'll recognize Agnes as Rosie, the wholesome, ordinary housewife. She doesn't like that role, either.
Soon she had said her few lines in the day's program, and we sat outside in the lobby.
"TELL ME, was there any single role in radio you really liked?" I asked her.
"Yes." she told me, "Jeanne, the sweet ingeriue on ‘The Lady Next Door’ program. Of course it wasn't a particularlv dramatic part, but Jeanne was a nice girl instead of a witch-like female. That lasted over a year.
"I also played," she added smilingly, "the role of Betty on that program and Betty was as nasty a cat as ever lived."
“What is the most unsympathetic female role you've ever played?” I asked.
"I think my present role of Mrs. Crowder on the Helen Hayes show," she said. "I am the most terrible, malicious old cross-patch you ever heard of.
"For sheer hopelessness, though, I think my role at CBS with the Street Singer, a few years ago, was the worst. I was Lonesome Lulu, the original wallflower.
“When I was a youngster,” she told me, "everyone thought I'd turn out that way. I had a martyr complex as a child. I longed to attend the parties my classmates gave. But I was a minister's daughter. I couldn't stay out after 9:30 at night till I went to college. I never went to a dance till I was grown up and away from home."
YOU can imagine what went on in the Moorehead household when Agnes, a naturally gifted dancer, secretly tried out and was accepted for the ballet of the St. Louis Municipal Opera Co., when she was 15. And you can imagine how her family felt when, a few years later, she announced she was going to be, not a school teacher, but an actress!
"I came to New York to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Arts," she said. “I felt I could do as I wanted. I liked acting better than dancing that was all there was to it."
She graduated in 1929, in the heart of the depression. "John and I, without a-cent between us, got married as soon as we graduated. And then * * *
“I had an awful job getting placed,” she said, "I got my first job by pestering Al Woods, the producer, till he got so tired of seeing me around he gave me the part of the French maid in 'Scarlet Pages.'
"When that ended, I couldn't find any work to do. Aside from a few brief engagements in dizzy parts, like the Hindu in 'Soldiers and Women,' I was at liberty all the time."
Then along came radio.
"I think radio is O. K.," Miss Moorehead concluded, "but how I would like to be something besides a hard-hearted Hannah, a lunatic and Dumb Dora combined."

Things changed quickly. Let’s move ahead a few years, with this feature piece in the May 3, 1943 edition of the Los Angeles Daily News.

Virginia Wright
Drama Editor
Agnes Moorehead has come to accept it as a compliment when people remark, on meeting her for the first time, that she’s not at all what they expected.
Her red hair and freckles invariably come as a surprise to those who think of her as the stern faced mother of the boy Kane in “Citizen Kane” or as the hysterical maiden aunt of young Amberson in “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
The fact that she looked entirely unlike her former self in “Big Street,” as the wife of Eugene Pallette, was completely discounted by the public. They decided she was someone else, and one producer, at least, put her down in his memory as Alina MacMahon.
In “Journey Into Fear,” currently at the Hawaii, Agnes Moorehead is back in character as the shrewish wife of a phony radical, and in “Jane Eyre” she plays the cruel Mrs. Reed.
The comedy talents of Agnes Moorehead have been completely unexplored since she came to Hollywood with other members of the Mercury Players to appear with Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.”
It probably would be hard to convince local producers that the actress once toured the country in support of such comedians as Phil Baker and Lew Lehr.
Special fame
The Phil Baker tour, one of the vaudeville shows staged in the summer by radio companies, brought Miss Moorehead a very special kind of fame. Her part in the proceedings demanded that she execute “three bumps.”
When the show played Boston where Sunday blue laws existed, a special performance had to be given for the censor. All material in questionable taste was eliminated there on Sundays. In this case, however, the censor did not eliminate Miss Moorehead’s three burlesque routines. “Never,” he said, “have I seen such ladylike bumps.”
If Miss Moorehead is a “Puritan at heart,” as she has been labeled in the past, it probably can be put down to the fact that her father was a Presbyterian minister.
And like most minister's daughters she was on display from an early age. She was singing in the St. Louis opera house—in the chorus—when she was 12. And in 1923 she did her first stint on radio singing for reception on the old crystal sets.
Educated at a small Ohio college and at the University of Wisconsin, Agnes Moorehead turned from singing to the serious business of acting when she enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.
It was there she met and married Jack Lee (who just completed the role of an American radio correspondent in Columbia's “Appointment in Berlin”). Since the days of the Academy they have never played together. In the commercial theater Agnes Moorehead seemed always to be cast in character parts, while Jack Lee drew juvenile roles.
Introduction to radio
Even in radio Miss Moorehead's first audition in 1929 was for the part of an old lady. But as her career in that field progressed she became the most versatile actress on the air.
Beatrice Lillie, whom she supported in radio, once remarked that Agnes Moorehead has the best sense of timing of any comedienne I have known." Miss Moorehead's best imitations. Incidentally, are of that British star.
Agnes Moorehead was with Helen Hayes on all the Campbell soup programs. When they did Jane Eyre" on the air Miss Moorehead played five characters, Including the Mrs. Reed she plays in the picture.
It was in radio that she became acquainted with Orson Welles, and became one of the original members of the Mercury Players, working with him in the WPA theater project, on the commercial stage and in radio. When Welles came to Hollywood he brought his Mercury Players along. It was a gamble for them, of course. Miss Moorehead had won a big name for herself in radio and she had no way of knowing what kind of success she would meet in motion pictures. She decided, however, to take the chance, and Hollywood rewarded her last year with the nomination for supporting actress Academy award.
It was inevitable that Agnes Moorehead would be called back into radio on this coast. She is on the Lionel Barrymore show and the Lockheed program. And now that radio has rediscovered her, perhaps Hollywood will recognize her versatile talents.

Of course, film roles came, and so did television. In 1967, she was nominated for Emmys in comedy and drama categories, and won in the latter. No one was comparing her to ZaSu Pitts any more.

Tuesday 21 February 2023

Rubber Hose Waitress

Walt Disney wasn’t quite into “illusion of life” in 1929. Witness how, in El Terrible Toreador, the cantina waitress has balls for hands.

And there’s rubber hose aplenty. Spaghetti arms like this would become popular at UPA 20 years later.

Since we’re still in the ‘20s, cartoons are more or less strings of gags around a topic.

The toreador has the Yankee Doodle laugh that artist Ub Iwerks would put in Stratos-fear, produced at his own studio in 1933. It’s the one the gremlin had in Falling Hare at Warners ten years later.

Monday 20 February 2023

Corny Old Gag

Tex Avery of 1944 at MGM referred to Tex Avery of 1941 at Warner Bros.

In Of Fox and Hounds, a fox cons Willoughby the dog into jumping over a fence. The dog doesn’t realise the fence is at the top of the cliff.

In Happy-Go-Nutty, Screwy Squirrel pulls the same gag on Meathead the dog. But there's a difference.

Screwy shows up at the bottom of the cliff. “Extra, extra! Read all about it! Dumb dog falls for corny old gag!” Avery and writer Heck Allen are referring to the earlier cartoon. Rich Hogan got the writer credit on that one.

Preston Blair, Ray Abrams and Ed Love animated the MGM short.

Sunday 19 February 2023

The Young, Mean Benny

The Louisiana State Fair. Expo ’67. The Ronald Reagan Inaugural Concert.

What do they have in common?

Jack Benny.

He performed at all of them in 1967, along with his usual TV specials, talk show appearances, and a guest shot on The Smothers Brothers.

There was also a unique event in Jack’s life that year. He handed over a cheque for more than £50,000 to a woman in England, where he was supposedly on a holiday.

The London Evening Standard of May 17 doesn’t explain the circumstances of how it was arranged, but recorded the good news for posterity.

Meet the £52,000 family
There’ll be no more getting up at 6.30 to cook bacon, eggs and sausages for eight hungry lodgers for Mrs. Susan Maddison.
For today, East London landlady Mrs. Maddison, who has seven children, collected a £52,641 Littlewoods Treble Chance pools cheque from American comedian Jack Benny.
But despite her win, Mrs. Maddison, 46, of Goldsmith Road, Leyton, will not turn her 11s.-a-night lodgers out straight away.
She will make certain they have got other landladies to go to first.
Proudly watching while she received the cheque at the Grosvenor House Hotel as her 29-year-old second husband, lorry driver Mr. John Maddison, to whom she has been married for six years.
He is the father of Debbie, five, and Brett, three. The other five children are from Mrs. Maddison’s first marriage, which ended in divorce.
Mrs. Maddison, who came to England in 1946 from Co. Armagh, Northern Ireland, has done the pools for 20 years.
Now, after modest wins of £26, £22 and half-a-crown last year, her biggest win has come up on a 7s. 6d. stake on two 8-from-10 perms.
The birth dates
And the only method she permits herself is to do one line from the children’s birth dates together with the birthday of a Pekinese dog, Bobo, she once owned. But the winning line was just guess work.
After the cheque was handed over by Jack Benny, self-styled “meanest man in the world,” she said: “I’ll give up being a landlady now. I want to buy a house in Walthan Abbey or Chingford. It’s nice there and not too far from London.”
Mrs. Maddison added: “I used to study form but now I don’t do it any more. My husband does his own coupon and has won £39.”
She said she had worked hard all her life and thought there was no end to it. She had taken it for granted that hard work and little money was her destiny.
One of his children, Olive, 21, is studying law at London University.
After a big celebration tonight at their Leyton home the family plan a holiday.

We mentioned Jack was supposedly on a holiday. That didn’t stop him from performing at the London Palladium, with Dusty Springfield, British comedian Bob Monkhouse and ballad singer Vince Hill.

Why? Because Jack liked to work.

A writer for the London Express interviewed Jack during his stop. Benny appeared in a film called The Meanest Man in the World (1943) where he tries to become a bad-guy lawyer. However, the story below uses the English form of the word “mean.” In other words, “cheap.”

This appeared in a number of American papers, starting around June 24, 1967.

Jack Benny: He Has to Prove He's Not Really Mean

LONDON — Jack Benny has built a legend out of two statements—and both of them, as I discovered the other day, are false.
For long years now he has been proclaiming that he is 39 and that also he is the Meanest Man in the World.
Let us take this age business first.
It is obvious that he is more than 39. But what will be far from obvious will be his real age. For Jack Benny is 73.
He is, without doubt, the youngest-looking 73-year-old I have ever met. Even if you can remember the years he has been around as one of the world's top comics, you would judge him to be no more than 60 at a push and well preserved at that.
His hair is slightly greying and thinning, but the bronze face is unhaggard, his voice is strong, and there is no hint of the rocking chair in his figure.
I commented on this and he beamed. "Yes," he said, "even the doctors are amazed. And it certainly makes you feel good to hear people tell you you look so young."
HOW HAS he managed it? He leaned back in his chair and said: "Well, I'll tell you. It's constantly working. Enjoying my work and loving life. I'm sure that if I had spent my life selling machinery or something I would look my age.
"As it is, I can't wait to get up in the morning to see what's going to happen. You must never lose your enthusiasm; never lose the excitement.
"My trip to London is supposed to be a vacation. People say: What kind of vacation is this?' But I just love to take a vacation where there's work.
"I remember Bob Hope going off for three weeks on a yacht, and when he returned I asked him if he'd enjoyed himself. No, he said, 'There was no place to work.' That goes for me too. Another thing. I've always mixed with young people. That helps a lot.
"I would like to live to be a hundred—but only if I can continue to feel good."
But, apart from working and enjoying life, has Benny any other recipe for his youthfulness? "No. I walk a lot and I play golf. And I never drink too much—though I've smoked a lot."
WHAT NOW, about the "Meanest Man in the World" tag? That, it appeared was also a myth. "It started as a joke—and it just snowballed," explained Benny.
In fact, it has become a handicap. For as he explains: "You constantly have to prove that you are not realy [sic] stingy—that it is just a joke. You would be surprised how many people are convinced that there can't be smoke without fire.
"I can't afford to let someone else pick up the check or people say: 'Ah, it's true—he is mean.' When it comes to tipping, I have to overtip all the time." Arising out of this gimmick, Benny has been dubbed "the last of the great savers." After 56 years in show business he is clearly well heeled. But how wealthy is he?
To this, he says: "I have a fairly good amount of money stacked away but not as much as people think. Some people really believe I have 30 or 40 million dollars. I never cared that much about piling the stuff. I had a pretty good time spending it, though."
There is a third aspect of Jack Benny which has always intrigued me—his violin playing. For years he has done an act in which he mixes jokes with fooling on the fiddle. But in recent years he has frequently popped up playing with symphony orchestras.
He owns two valuable violins, including a Stradivarius. How serious is he about his playing? "I suppose I'm the kind of player who, if you're not a musician, you think is fine," he said candidly. "I've even fooled some critics. But when I appear before an orchestra my playing is a great satire—though I usually finish with a serious piece of playing just to kinda surprise the audience."
Most music critics, however, take Benny at his self-confessed level. They write such notices as: "Jack Benny played Mendelssohn last night—Mendelssohn lost." Or "Like Heifitz [sic], Jack Benny held the violin under his chin." But playing in concerts undoubtedly gives Benny a kick. "When I'm standing before the orchestra, dressed in tails, I actually think at that moment I'm the world's greatest violinist—and I act that way. I become all aloof and egotistical. But it doesn't take long before the feeling goes."
HE GRINNED. "Isaac Stern once said to me: 'You actually look like a violinist—it's a goddam shame you have to play!' "
Is Benny sad that he is not a great player? "I am a frustrated violinist," he admitted. "But let me answer you this way: I never seriously played the violin from the age of 14 until 11 years ago when I was 62. Then I decided to start again.
"An orchestra leader told me : 'You're nuts. You'll never get your fingers moving.' But I was determined to try—and I did.
"Now I think that if I could pick up the violin and play it seriously after a gap of nearly 50 years, it shows I would have had a chance of being a great concert violinist.
"But my wife has told me: 'If you had set out to be that, it would have been your biggest mistake. You would not have been good enough to be in the top rank and you would have been too good to make yourself play badly for a comedy act.' "
I recalled something he had said earlier: "I don't ever want to retire. I would only think about giving it up if I can’t make people laugh as I used to."

Today’s unrelated Benny trivia:

You may recall a few jokes on Jack’s radio show about an elk’s tooth on a watch chain. Watch chains are almost obsolete, but the Elks are still around. And, according to the Jan. 23, 1968 edition of the Elwood Call Leader of Indiana, Jack was a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

He belonged to Waukegan Lodge No. 702. Also members were Phil Harris of Palm Springs Lodge No. 1905 and Andy Devine, who served as Exalted Ruler of San Fernando Lodge No. 1539.