Comedy legends vs. new technology

In the beginning, there was vaudeville.  It was entertainment in its purest form: performers would tour the country virtually year-round, repeating their new or established acts for a different audience, in a different town, for modest pay. Vaudeville existed as such, unchanged, for over 50 years.

The Palace Theatre in New York–the Mecca of vaudeville for twenty years.

But in the early decades of the 20th century, new technologies allowed for more and better mass communication and entertainment. In the late ‘20s, silent movies became sound movies, the radio networks were born, and, eventually, television enabled entertainers to reach millions of people at a time. With so many new creative doors open for comedians, they still faced unexpected challenges.

Stan Laurel (far left, seated) and Charlie Chaplin (holding life preserver) with Fred Karno’s troupe in 1910.

The more visual stage comedians were naturally drawn to motion pictures, and the early silent film stars came from either American vaudeville, or, in the case of people like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and others, British Music Hall acts.

With the arrival of sound, adjustments needed to be made. Even the most accomplished silent film comedians had to face the new reality in the late 1920s. They simply didn’t know what talkies would do for, or to, their established comedy, because now they would have to flesh out their screen characters with voices and funny dialogue—things they didn’t need to think about before. Some adapted to sound well, and even looked forward to it; others, not so much .

    Hal Roach, the legendary comedy producer who created Our Gang (a.k.a. the Little Rascals) in 1922, and teamed Laurel with Hardy in 1926, kept pace with the sound revolution better than his main competitor Mack Sennett, even though the industry as a whole was still uncertain  about how sound would affect film comedy in general.

Roach stars Laurel & Hardy weren’t intimidated by sound films, and were the first major silent film comedians to take the plunge into sound successfully.  At first, they planned to use dialogue sparingly, without forcing it on either themselves or their audience, although Fate had given them the voices that perfectly suited their characters’ mannerisms and body language, as did their dialogue.

Laurel & Hardy’s transition to talkies was a fairly smooth one. Despite Roach’s intention to keep dialogue sparse in his talkies, the team’s first sound film, Unaccustomed as We Are plays almost like a television sitcom episode, with considerable (and necessary) dialogue throughout. In addition to the dialogue, the film uses sound for several  gags, including the closing shot of the film, in which we see Stan and Ollie say goodbye in the hallway of the apartment building, after which Stan disappears at the top step of the stairs. Then we hear a long series of thuds and crashes, knowing that poor Stan is tumbling his way to the first floor. Even in this first talkie, the creative team had found ways of using sound for gags.

As Stan once explained, “In that scene we removed the pain, by having the camera stay looking at the top of the staircase. The sound effect of the fall lets the audience visualize its own scene, and that just made it funnier to them.”

Harold Lloyd  also became a star at the Roach studios, and was one of the most revered and highest grossing film stars of the 1920s. After leaving Roach, Lloyd’s first sound film, Welcome Danger, wasn’t originally produced to be a sound film at all.

Scene from “Welcome Danger.”

He had completed filming, editing, and even began to show it to preview audiences in 1929 when he saw how the movie business was undergoing the sound revolution. When he previewed Welcome Danger for about the third time, there was a one-reeler sound film also on the bill, and he saw how the audience was in hysterics over it–even shots of  pouring of water, the frying of eggs, the clinking of ice in a glass. Lloyd said, ‘We worked out hearts out to get laughs with gags, and just because they’ve got some sound, the audience is roaring at these things.”

He realized it was time to make the transition, so he revamped the film by re-shooting major portions, and adding dialogue and sound effects, at the cost of almost one million dollars.

Buster Keaton felt no anxiety about making the transition to talkies, and in fact welcomed the arrival of sound, knowing that even a sound comedy could still be comprised primarily of slapstick anyway. Adding dialogue wouldn’t necessarily hurt the visual gags he was such a master at creating. There was no reason why Keaton couldn’t continue just being Keaton.

It was not sound that threatened his career, but rather the callous treatment he received from MGM studios, which, having acquired his contract, quickly and inexplicably stifled his ability to control his own material. The studio even partnered him with Jimmy Durante for a few films, before conceding that the two of them had no comedy chemistry. It also didn’t help that Keaton had been going through a divorce and an increasingly worrisome drinking problem.

 Harry Langdon, on the other hand, had trouble, due in great part to the character he created to great success in silent. His rather eerie baby face,

Langdon in his first talkie, a 1929 short film welcoming him to Hal Roach Studios.

enhanced with ample make-up, and childlike mannerisms necessitated him to take on a young voice to match. But the sight–and sound–of a grown man looking and speaking like a shy child comes off as somewhat disturbing. This was, not the only reason, but one reason why Langdon’s career faltered in the sound era.

As for Chaplin,  it was no secret that he had been resistant to making sound films. He vowed to continue making silents , even if it cost him millions of his own money. But there was a great deal of anguish behind his defiance.

He saw sound films as a threat to his very career, and was finding it increasingly difficult to justify making non-talking films in the sound era. But seeing how sound pictures were changing the film business had him truly torn between the past and future of the industry. He later wrote, “Occasionally I mused over the possibility of making a sound film, but the thought sickened me, for I realized I could never achieve the excellence of my silent pictures. It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable, for the first word he ever uttered would transform him into another person.” It became clear that Chaplin was fighting a losing battle with progress.

Next week, Part II:  How comedians adapted to the challenges of radio.

“Death in Paradise” Is Back!

As I did in August of last year, I’ve decided to use this blog to try to spread the word a bit about a TV program I discovered last summer, one that deserves attention.

It can be an especially satisfying experience to stumble upon a TV series entirely by accident (even if it’s been on the air for some time, under your very nose) and quickly become a big fan. This has happened to me and my wife Karen last year. The series to which I refer (drum roll): Death in Paradise, a BBC murder mystery series airing on PBS.

The program, created by Robert Thorogood (who writes a good number of the episodes), premiered in the UK in 2011. It takes place in the fictional town of Honore, in the equally fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie (and is filmed on Guadeloupe). In some ways, each episode plays as a rather traditional–but brilliant– whodunit, in which a seemingly unsolvable murder confounds the island’s team of detectives, led by the Detective Inspector. But add the gorgeous scenery, and the regular cast of immensely likeable characters, and you have the elements of a richly entertaining show. It has been steadily gaining popularity in the UK and Europe with each season it’s been on the air.

British comedian Ben Miller played Detective Inspector Richard Poole for the show’s first three series (or seasons, to us Yanks). Each series, consisting of eight episodes, is filmed over a five-month period on location. I must confess that, at this writing, I’ve yet to see the episodes with Miller in the lead, so I can’t comment on his performance just yet, but I’ll get to it one of these days.

Kris Marshall.

At the beginning of series 4, Kris Marshall took over as D.I. Humphrey Goodman. I had been familiar with Marshall mostly from his role as a goofy teen in the long-running Britcom My Family. He caught my eye as I was channel surfing one night recently, so I thought I’d give the show a few minutes of my time, not knowing a thing about it. Here, he plays the affable but socially awkward detective who, perhaps even surprising himself, can, in one moment of epiphany, solve a murder, with all of the loose ends neatly tied in his mind, including the one final clue that had escaped the notice of the others. The “payoff” scene of each episode places three or four suspects gathered as he reveals the murderer, and then methodically explains how he pieced together the details, which had been so efficiently collected by his team.

Florence and Humphrey.

The team includes Josephine Jobert as Detective Sergeant Florence Cassel, Danny John-Jules (famous as “Cat” on the legendary Britcom Red Dwarf) as veteran officer Dwayne Myers, and Tobi Bakare as younger officer JP Hooper. They are often visited by the imposing figure of Commissioner Selwyn Patterson (Don Warrington, another British TV veteran). The camaraderie among the group is impressive; at the end of each day, they unwind together with drinks at the town’s open-air bar. And, each episode is careful not to needlessly direct attention away from the murder case with a bothersome

Commissioner Selwyn.
Off-duty, socializing at the bar.

subplot. However, the “B” story usually involves a personal and/or romantic dilemma for one of the characters, which lightens the mood of the episode without getting in the way.

At the conclusion of series 6, Saint Marie sees another transfer of the Detective Inspector title from Humphrey to London detective Jack Mooney, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who is known to Britcom fans as the cheerful idiot Father Dougal McGuire on Father Ted. The transition takes place  in a two-part episode, during which Humphrey and Florence travel to London and team up with Mooney to solve an especially tough case. In an interesting twist (brought about by Marshall’s desire to leave the show),

Ardal O’Hanlon as Jack Mooney.

Mooney temporarily fills in for Humphrey back on Saint Marie, while Humphrey remains in London. But the temporary switch became  permanent, and it’s a treat seeing O’Hanlon as Mooney, who appears to be a bit more easygoing than Humphrey, but sometimes just as bumbling. When there’s a case to solve, however, his focus becomes laser sharp.

Jack addressing the suspects in the “payoff” scene.

Hopefully, this may remind you of an old, familiar American police detective, with an Average Joe appearance, but with a similar talent for solving perplexing murders. If you’re a Columbo fan (and if you’re not, I don’t think I want to know you), you’ll no doubt appreciate and enjoy Death in Paradise. Unlike Columbo, of course, you don’t get to know the killer’s identity right off the bat, but chances are you’ll be knocked out by how the Detective Inspector and his team solve each crime–and, until they reveal the murderer, you’ll probably pick the wrong suspect more often than not.

Series 8 cast.

The BBC began airing series eight in the UK back in January (with a new member of the team about to replace longtime favorite Danny John-Jules), and now, the patient among us get to enjoy it again on PBS.  The first episode of the new season aired here last week. And how’s this for a premise: When a man is stabbed in the back of a bus in broad daylight, the only obvious suspects are the three other passengers and the bus driver, none of whom could have committed the crime without being seen by the others. As the team investigates, they soon discover that each passenger had a reason to murder the victim. Jack and his team must solve another murder that seems to have been impossible to commit in the first place.

So, do yourself a favor and give Death in Paradise a try. One of my local PBS stations (WNJN) airs it on Saturday evenings at 10:00, but yours might carry it on a different night, or not at all. Fear not, though–it’s also available on Netflix, and perhaps other streaming services, as well as on dvd (which I found at my local library). So, enjoy! I’m certain you will.

Until next time…

 

A Couple of Film Classics For Summer

This is my 40th blog post since my very first entry this time last year. Simple math will tell you that my aim to post a fresh blog each week has fallen a bit short. It isn’t an easy task, although I do acknowledge that many bloggers, journalists, and columnists manage to do so each day, and I’d tip my hat to them, if I had a hat.

I’ve attempted to bring interesting and/or little known facts about entertainment history and pop culture to each of my entries, and I intend to continue doing so, but after a brief break to recharge my mental batteries. I’m also busy with other projects that will hopefully prove more generous to my wallet, if my patience pays off.

Just so I don’t take my break without leaving at least a few recommendations…

Two of my all-time favorite films happened to air on two different movie channels this past weekend. They couldn’t be further apart, no matter how you look at them, but they each stand out as stellar examples of their respective genres.

The first, 12 Angry Men, was written by Reginald Rose for the live drama series Studio One, airing on September 20, 1954. Henry Fonda was so impressed with the production that he bought the rights in order to adapt it to film, using his own money, and hiring some of the television cast to repeat their roles (Bob Cummings, known mostly for light comedic roles, played Fonda’s part in the TV production). The film was released in April of 1957.

Taking place almost entirely in a jury room, the story opens as the jurors in a New York City murder trial begin their debate as to the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic man, probably not even out of his teens. There doesn’t seem to be much debate necessary, as it looks like an open and shut case, pointing to the young man’s guilt. In their initial vote, eleven of the twelve men vote for conviction, with a lone holdout (Henry Fonda), dissenting, arguing that the accused deserves a decent debate before being sentenced to the electric chair. He resists pressure from the

others to change his vote, and instead slowly begins to cast doubt about the circumstantial evidence in the case.  Locked in a spare, hot room on a rainy day, tempers flare, personal prejudices reveal themselves, and reasonable doubt grows stronger among the men. Eventually, one bitter juror (Lee J. Cobb) finds himself alone as he continues to insist on the boy’s guilt.

Rose’s writing is brilliant in its verbal economics, allowing us to learn just enough about each juror to understand why he has voted for conviction in the beginning, and then why he changes his vote as the deliberation proceeds. The cast, of course, consists of many of the finest actors of the 20th century, all of whom achieve sheer perfection here, and nothing less. The closing minutes in the jury room, and the brief final scene outside on the courthouse steps, are especially memorable. When my wife Karen asked me “Why are we watching this for the thousandth time?”  I simply answered, “Because it’s magnificent.”

If you happen to be among the disadvantaged few who have yet to immerse themselves in this lesson in truly great writing and acting, please don’t delay! Seek out this film!

Now, which film might be considered to be the cinematic polar opposite of  such a powerful drama? I submit my choice for the funniest comedy film ever made, The Return of the Pink Panther, which also graced one of the movie channels this past weekend. It is the third film in the Pink Panther series; the original, released in 1964 and starring, of course, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (and David Niven as the jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton), led to the sequel A Shot in the Dark, released later in ’64, and bringing Sellers front & center, rather than as more of a supporting character in the original.

Clouseau accosts a street beggar (John Bluthal).

A decade later, the often tempestuous working relationship between Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards found the two reuniting for  1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, with Christopher Plummer as the supposedly retired Sir Charles.

For anyone inclined to dismiss any of these films as little more than indulgences in silly slapstick, look a little more carefully. Edwards’ comedy techniques are easily identifiable, from having a character fall completely out of frame (instead of having us watch him fall), to bringing back a gag just when the viewer had nearly forgotten it (most brilliantly used in a sequence involving two small delivery trucks), to using

Catherine Schell caught laughing on camera in this scene. It was the only usable take after she had broken up so many times at Sellers’ antics.

slow-motion, instead of the more commonly used fast-motion, for some gags. And, of course, there is Sellers himself, the greatest and most versatile comic actor who ever lived, playing Clouseau as an earnest law enforcement agent who never doubts his own skills, even when he is wreaking havoc and destruction all around him.

Sellers is helped by a hilarious supporting cast including Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, Burt Kwouk as his servant Cato, and Graham Stark (another Edwards’ stalwart) as Pepe, a sniveling underling of a Sidney Greenstreet-style crime boss. The story meanders through France, Gstaad, and the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Lugash, as Clouseau searches for his prime suspect.

Enough summarizing. This is a film created by masters of comedy, whose purpose was solely to entertain via hilarious characters, situations, dialogue, and unforgettable sight gags. Find this film, sit back, and laugh, as I’ve been doing since seeing it upon its premiere, with a theatre full of hysterical movie-goers, waaaay back when.

So, now begins my summer break, but please feel free to check out any or all of my previous blog postings, thanks to our newly-added button on my web site’s home page. It’s not too late to leave a comment or two, either!

Until next time…

 

Remembering the Birth of the Jet Age

Not long ago, I wrote about the sad passing of the 747, a magnificent airliner first flown for the public in 1970, whose manufacture has come to an end among all U.S. airlines. I haven’t been on a plane (747 or otherwise) in many years, but I still remember the excitement of taking a flight to a new destination, when getting there was half the fun. I do know that flying today isn’t what it used to be. In addition to extra fees for services that used to be free, seemingly excessive security probes, and smaller, more cramped seats for those on a budget, we hear stories almost daily about in-flight incidents with angry passengers, angry flight attendants, angry pets, and who knows what else. No doubt my rose-tinted memories will get a smack of reality the next time I fly.

But there was a time when it was all new, exciting, and life-changing. And it began sixty years ago, in 1958. The eventful arrival of passenger jets forever changed how we travel by air, by drastically cutting flight times–in effect shrinking the planet–and by offering more frills to a greater number of passengers on each flight.

It should come as little surprise that the jet engine—a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes—was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. Three years later, BOAC instituted a jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking

aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, but was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents, the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.

In the United States, a genuine competition between the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jets in the air. By the landmark year 1958, a new “first” in jet aviation occurred every few months:

May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base.

August 24 –Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.

 

Juan Trippe’s second “Time” magazine cover, 1949

October 26 — Pan Am, under leadership of its founder and commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refueling), with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own aircraft.

August 26, 1959 — Flying a new Boeing 707-320, with a greater fuel capacity, Pan Am made the first non-stop New York – London flight, solidifying Pan Am as the American leader of international passenger jet flight. The airline had purchased jets both from Boeing and Douglas, although some airlines, such as United and Delta, opted for the Douglas DC-8.

The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service changed the world in countless ways. Long distance travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable.

Pan Am may have been the first American airline to offer 707 jets to the flying public, but it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies. On July 19, 1961, after testing the feature earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by their addition to international flights the following month.  Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section.  Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard.

The first film to be shown was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr.

But the first account of an in-flight movie can be traced back to April of 1925, as described in the British magazine Flight:  “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

The TWA system remained the standard for in-flight entertainment for a quarter-century, until the mid-1980s, when wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. Alas, with laptops, phones, and tablets now providing passengers with much of their own private means of entertainment throughout a flight, even seat-back screens are becoming a dying feature, and no newly-constructed airliners will be including them (not good news for those who own none of the above devices).

I’d better get back on a plane soon, before I feel like Rip van Winkle.

Until next time…

Arrivals and (mostly) Departures on TV

The past week or so has brought quite a bit for TV viewers to absorb. Firstly, the 2017-18 season has just come to an end, with many of my personal favorites getting the chop, much to my dismay. Others have ended on their own accord, but it’s no less unfortunate to see quality programs wave good-bye.

Among those series that were not renewed (in no particular order):

Lucifer – A Fox show based on characters in the DC Comics universe, this quirky and highly entertaining series focuses on the Devil (or Lucifer, played with a suave sleeziness by British actor Tom Ellis) who has quit his job in Hell to live the high life in L.A., running a nightclub and indulging in every hedonistic pastime imaginable, while also assisting by-the-book L.A. police detective, Chloe Decker

(Lauren German). Lucifer is quite taken with the detective, who, unsurprisingly, doesn’t take his claim of being the Devil at all seriously. They manage to solve murder cases with impressive regularity, despite Lucifer’s often heavy-handed (devilish?) approach to catching the bad guys. But there’s so much more to this show. Alas, we only got to see three seasons.

Scorpion – This cancellation really hurts. Scorpion never grabbed much of the spotlight, but it was a reliable performer, mixing science, suspense, and quite a good deal of humor in each episode. The Scorpion team of young geniuses, guided by their agent from Homeland Security, are called upon to fix a wide variety of crises that would put thousands, if not millions of people in danger, but which must be dealt with unbeknownst to the public. While most of the team’s missions, and

their way of rescuing each other from precarious, nail-biting predicaments, are quite far-fetched, that’s part of the fun. A slew of clever one-liners by the colorful cast punctuates each episode.  Scorpion was cancelled after its fourth season.

Designated Survivor – This series started with a bang, in every sense, as a bomb explodes in the Capital building during the president’s State of the Union address, leaving a sole cabinet member, Secretrary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Keifer Sutherland), to assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief. The series follows his struggle to adapt to his new role, in the wake of a devastating national catastrophe.

The ongoing plotline becomes more complex as F.B.I. agent Hannah Welles (Maggie Q) leads the hunt for the terrorists. Other crises, domestic, foreign, and even personal, continue to challenge Kirkman as his term progresses. While the program often brings to mind the classic The West Wing, it lost much of its audience after the first season, as the plotline became less focused. Still, it has been a quality show centering on a president who serves with dignity and strong ethical standards, which is especially welcome these days, even if it’s only fiction.

Timeless – A time travel series in which a secret government team of good guys (including their invaluable female member, a history expert) chases a team of bad guys –Rittenhouse–through time, via high-tech pods. Rittenhouse, having stolen one of the pods, is determined to make changes in history, as dictated by their own evil agenda, which would inevitably affect the world in the present day.  Each episode, therefore, takes place in a different time period, on the verge of a history-defining event, which will either occur as we know it, or with a disturbingly significant twist.

As of this writing, the show has not been officially canceled. However, it would come as no surprise if that happens. Timeless was canceled once before, in May of 2017, triggering a wave of protest from loyal viewers, which prompted NBC to revive it earlier this year. In terms of sheer entertainment, with a healthy dose of history, it’s been a near-perfect show, with an engaging cast, including TV veteran Goran Visnjic (ER, among others), and Abigail Spencer. Poor ratings apparently have caused Timeless to run out of time, which is especially unfortunate, considering how those who protested so passionately for its return seemed to have lost interest, even as the quality of the storylines have continued to improve.

There are other series that have ended their runs voluntarily, specifically the sitcoms The Middle and The New Girl.  I confess I hadn’t tuned in to The New Girl (starring Zooey Deschanel) after its third or fourth season, but the series finale, at the end of this seventh season, was quite satisfying. It was nice to revisit the characters after a long absence, although I wasn’t aware at the time that I was watching the series’ final episode. It ended well for all.

The Middle, whose finale is this week,  is another of those long-running sitcoms (nine seasons) that has never made headlines, so to speak, but has been a consistent, truly funny show that gives a weekly shout-out to struggling suburban families who have let various repair jobs around the house go unfinished, due to a never-ending effort to stay within a frighteningly modest budget.

Patricia Heaton serves as the backbone of the Heck family, attempting to stave off her natural “why bother” cynicism with efforts to cheerlead her teenage offspring as they face life in high school and college.

Thank heaven for syndication, Netflix, Hulu, On Demand, and good old-fashioned dvds, where most, but not all, TV series are able to stay with us after they leave the prime-time network schedules. If you’ve missed out on any of the above programs, it’s worth seeking them out in their after-life.

  

Also on TV in the past week: coverage of yet another deadly school shooting, courtesy of the U.S.A., and a picture-perfect Royal wedding, courtesy of the U.K. It has been a dizzying contrast of images and emotions, representative of where our respective societies stand at the moment. I’ll say no more.

Until next time…

 

A Tribute to Our Funniest Sitcom Moms

In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, I’d like to show my appreciation of my favorite–and funniest–sitcom moms since the turn of the still fairly new century/ millennium.

Sitcom moms from television’s earlier decades (or “Golden Age,” if you insist), are celebrated for reasons that are becoming increasingly difficult to fathom with the passage of time. Let’s face it, most of them were not terribly funny as characters. Only in the most recent years have a number of television’s funniest and most eccentric mothers been given the opportunity to shine, in all of their dysfunctional glory. My personal faves, in chronological order:

Lois–Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). Perhaps no mother in sitcom history has instilled the “fear of God” in her children quite like Lois, played by Jane Kazmarek (by the way, there is no surname given to Malcolm’s family throughout the series’ run). With three mischievous and destructive boys, close in age, and often deliberately getting themselves in trouble to suit their own immediate needs (including Malcolm, who has a genius-level I.Q. and who should know better), and husband Hal who prefers to avoid confrontation at all costs, Lois doesn’t think twice about using various acts of emotional–and sometimes physical–

torture on her beloved sons. Her volcanic temper is legendary in the family, and among friends and neighbors (who have permanent “For Sale” signs adorning their front lawns). The boys always know they’ve gone too far when her face indicates an oncoming explosion of rage, and the subsequently harsh punishment. How Jane Kazmarek did not win multiple Emmys for her role is a question for the Ages.

Virginia Chance —Raising Hope (2010-2014), played by Martha Plimpton. This hilarious series never got the attention it deserved, but it is worth seeking out. It centers on the Chance family, especially teenage son Jimmy, who decides to raise his baby girl Hope, born out of his brief fling with a twenty-something girl named Lucy. Lucy gave birth to Hope in prison, while awaiting execution as a psychotic serial killer (and yes, within the context of the show, it is funny).  Jimmy’s mom Virginia and father Burt are happy to help, and we know Hope will be raised in a loving family. The Chances are all well-meaning, but their combined I.Q.s  don’t add up to very much. Martha Plimpton is fabulous as Virginia, who considers herself to have the most common sense among them, despite her own habit of mangling historical facts and the English language. Plimpton received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her performance.

Claire Dunphy–Modern Family, played by Emmy-winner Julie Bowen (2009-present). Anyone who knows me also knows that Modern Family battles for the top of my All-time Favorite Sitcom list (with only The Honeymooners and All in the Family challenging it for the #1 position). As Claire Dunphy–business executive, mother of three, and wife of child-like husband Phil–Bowen is a marvel to behold, seamlessly juggling street-smarts with total geekiness, and equally adept at getting one family member out of trouble while landing herself in her own cringe-worthy predicament. As a comic actress, Bowen’s eyes can convey anything from fear, to skepticism, to embarrassment, to quiet desperation, even when the rest of her face projects a happy mom and loving wife.

Frankie Heck–The Middle (2009-2018), played by Patricia Heaton. Like the Chance family on Raising Hope, the Hecks are a lower middle-class family, and have long ago stopped bothering to present themselves as otherwise. Their home is physically falling apart at the seams, yet somehow retains its coziness. Frankie, as mother of three teens and wife of laconic husband Mike, keeps a kitchen drawer full of coupons (most of which have long since expired), and has been worn down by life’s everyday struggles and minor setbacks. Still, she tries to muster enthusiasm for her kids’ rare accomplishments, and clings to the little things that bring her some degree of solace, like watching her favorite TV mini-series before the cable TV service gets discontinued for unpaid bills.

Beverly Goldberg–The Goldbergs (2013-present), played by Wendi McLendon-Covey. Based on the program creator’s real-life family (the show uses their real names and actual old home video clips), mother Beverly is the ultimate loving, smothering mom who insists on calling her offspring by embarrassing terms of endearment, even in the presence of their friends (as opposed to husband Murray, who commonly refers to his kids as “morons”).  Bev has no qualms calling her youngest son Adam her favorite, while his siblings Erica and Barry look on. McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is a whirlwind of motherly nurturing run amuck, determined not to let the ways of the world hurt her kids, while she employs whatever means possible to slow down their growth and eventual exit from the nest.

Whether she’s interfering with her kids’ life in school, or browbeating the school principle into submission for any perceived slight or reprimand he’s given them (usually deserved), Bev can be counted on to go too far, thus sabotaging her own best intentions, but is eventually forgiven for her motherly zealousness by her exhausted, but understanding, family.

Katie Otto–American Housewife (2016-present). Katy Mixon made her mark on Mike & Molly before getting the lead on this ever-improving sitcom. The Otto family resides in wealthy, trendy, and rather snooty Westport, Connecticut, due to husband Greg’s college teaching job,

where they stick out like a family of sore thumbs–for they are neither wealthy, nor trendy. Katie, however, is no pushover, and returns the town’s overall snobbishness in kind, clashing with younger, slimmer trophy wives who look down their reconstructed noses at her strictly middle-class ways, and several extra pounds. She also uses her natural cynicism and tough exterior to keep her own kids in line, and sentiment at bay, whenever she suspects they’re in the midst of putting a scheme over on her. The eldest girl, Taylor, is a jock sorely lacking in book smarts– or any

smarts, for that matter. Middle child Oliver is a corrupt business mogul in the making, and the youngest, Anna-Kat, has a touch of O.C.D., but is especially bright, and quite good at bending her parents to her will. Even when dealing with the kids’ various problems, Katie encourages them not to be swayed by their classmates’ more privileged lifestyles.

A truly mixed bag of TV sitcom mothers, for sure, but each is achingly funny, and a treat to watch in action for her own particular idiosyncrasies and methods for attaining some semblance of appreciation from her family. Tune in and check them out–in syndicated reruns, dvds, Netflix, wherever you can!

And Happy Mother’s Day…

No Laughs, Please

The old show biz chestnut really is true: an excellent comedian can become an excellent actor, but dramatic actors rarely make good comedians.

As Groucho Marx wrote in 1959,There is hardly a comedian alive who isn’t capable of doing a first-rate dramatic role.  But there are mighty few dramatic actors who could essay a comic role with any distinction…All first-rate comedians who have played dramatic roles are almost unanimous in saying that compared to being funny, dramatic acting is like a two-week vacation in the country.”

The great comedy producer Hal Roach maintained, “The great comedians imitate children. To be a great comedian you have to be a great actor, and to be a great actor you have to portray something. There is not a great visual actor that I know whose every movement is not that of a child…”

While not every comedian has the inherent skills necessary to give a convincing dramatic performance, the list of those who have succeeded is rather impressive, and even includes a few surprises, from Charlie Chaplin to Robin Williams.

With the post-war years and Television Age, many established comedians dared to take on dramas on both television and in film. Red Buttons was an established burlesque comedian who gained a national following with his own TV show in 1952, and who surprised many by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sayonara in 1954. He also made a fine dramatic contribution to the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, and, in his later years, his acting earned him an Emmy for a heartbreaking guest role on ER. Comedian Shelley Berman said of Buttons, “I could name just a few [comedians as good actors], and whenever I am asked to name them, I have named Jackie Gleason, as an actor; I remember Jack Benny being a beautiful actor, and the other beautiful actor who’s a comedian is Red Buttons.”

Ed Wynn had already achieved legendary status as “The Perfect Fool” on stage and radio, and regarded as a comedy master by his peers, almost thirty years before taking on dramatic roles in the late 1950s. In 1956, after a painstaking rehearsal process, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as Army in Rod Serling’s live TV classic Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling later cast Wynn in two episodes of The Twilight Zone. Wynn continued to find work in other dramatic roles on television, and also appeared in the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Dussell.When he had a chance to do it,” Red Buttons said, “Ed Wynn was a wonderful, wonderful actor in the twilight of his career.”

The aforementioned Groucho Marx considered it an honor to be given the opportunity to act in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” on The Bell Telephone Hour in April of 1960. He played Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner. “There were greater talents around to perform the operetta,” Groucho wrote, “but certainly no bigger Gilbert and Sullivan fan than myself.”

Two more of television’s comedy pioneers, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, also found success in dramatic roles.  In 1961, Gleason co-starred with Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Gleason gives an intense performance as Maish, the downtrodden, debt-ridden boxing manager. That same year, he played Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Gleason’s portrayal won him an Academy Award nomination. “I knew that I liked dramatic work,” he said in a 1984 interview for 60 Minutes,

“and I was fortunate enough to be successful at it. I was between two heavyweights, Paul Newman and George C. Scott. And they’re awful good. And if you don’t want to look like a wimp, you’d better wind up and throw a couple. So you had to act in self-defense.” Comedy director Garry Marshall said of him, “Jackie Gleason was mostly known as a comedian from TV but he was also a heck of an actor and did some wonderful work in films, and probably did not receive enough accolades as an actor.”

As for Berle, forever known as “Mr. Television” for almost single-handedly jump starting television’s popularity with his variety show in 1948, took the plunge into drama and received an Emmy nomination for his role in “Doyle Against the House,” an installment of The Dick Powell Theater, televised in October of 1961. In a straight role,” he explained, “there’s no going after laughs, no pauses or waiting– ‘if this is supposed to be funny shall I take three beats?’ It is much more difficult to be funny and to get laughs…” Gleason, by the way, praised Berle’s acting, saying “I have known many comedians–Berle is one–who were superb in serious drama, but there are

very few serious actors who do comedy well.” Berle made numerous appearances in TV dramas throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and, in January of 1995, appeared in an unlikely program, the youth-oriented Beverly Hills, 90210, as a nursing home patient suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sensitively portrayed a frightened man unable to maintain a firm command of his lucid moments, and received another Emmy nomination for the part.

Jonathan Winters’ comic improvisations on stage and television delighted audiences as well as his peers, and made his best-know dramatic role appear virtually effortless in an episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “A Game of Pool.” In it, he plays a deceased local pool-playing legend sent back to Earth to teach a young hotshot player (Jack Klugman) some humility.A lot of people who’ve seen me do a couple of dramatic things come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know you could act–I thought you only made noises.’ They forget that all of us can act; what else are we doing up there?”

Carol Burnett did some moonlighting from her comedy-variety show in 1974 to star in the TV drama Friendly Fire. Burnett once said,I have seen comedians switch over to drama with greater success than I have seen straight actors switch to comedy. Straight actors who aren’t really comedic force something too much.”

Another TV legend, Dick Van Dyke, will be forever associated with his classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, and several beloved Disney musical comedies. A recovering alcoholic in real life, he tackled the issue of alcoholism head-on in the 1974 TV drama The Morning After, in which he portrayed a successful man in denial of his drinking problem, until his world begins to unravel. That same year, he played a cold-hearted murderer on the Columbo episode “Negative Reaction.” In the 1990s, he found more success with his series Diagnosis Murder.

George Burns was never called upon to try his acting chops in a serious drama, but he played opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (his best friend, Jack Benny, had planned to take on the role, but died of cancer before filming began). At the age of 80, Burns won the 1975 Oscar

for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. When asked at the time to evaluate his own acting abilities, he replied, “Good acting is when Walter Matthau says to me, ‘How are you?’ and if I answer ‘Fine,’ that’s good acting.  If Walter Matthau asks me ‘How are you?’ and I answer ‘I think it fell on the floor,’ then that’s bad acting.” His Oscar win led to starring roles in comedies including Oh, God! and Going In Style.

And then there is Peter Sellers, who, to this day, stands above all others as a comedy actor, best remembered as Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films.  However, Sellers turned in a remarkably subtle and quietly magnetic performance as the quiet, simple-minded gardener Chance, in the 1979 film Being There, co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas.. Powerful millionaire Douglas and his wife MacLaine befriend him and somehow mistake his inane statements for brilliant insights. Soon even the President (Jack Warden) and TV talk show hosts fall under Chance’s spell as they hang on his every word.

Sellers read the novella, by Jerzy Kozinski, in 1972, and in the intervening years campaigned to play Chance But he revealed at the time that, the day before shooting began, he panicked about how to play the role. He said to his wife, “I’ve had this thing for six years and, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to play Chance. I thought I knew everything about him, how he spoke, how he walked, acted, thought, but I realize now that I have to go and do it tomorrow, and I really don’t know.” He figured it out soon enough. This was Seller’s next-to-last and certainly his finest among many of his brilliant film performances. It is one of incredible restraint; he speaks just above a whisper (with an American accent) and confines his physical movements to slow, deliberate gestures. The role earned him his only Oscar nomination.

The list goes on: Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Robin Williams ventured from their familiar comedy techniques to play dramatic roles with considerable success. Williams won a Best Supporting Oscar  in 1998 for his performance in Good Will Hunting, and Murray was nominated in 2003 for his role in Trainspotting. “It may sound funny,” Murray once said, “but [dramatic roles] are fun. They’re important, because they let people see another side of you. I think comedy’s a little harder. To play comedy, you have to be able to play straight. The way you modulate it and deliver it is what makes it become funny–but you have to be able to play straight.”

Jerry Lewis suffered the slings and arrows of his critics almost perpetually throughout his solo film and television career of the ‘50s and ‘60s (with the exception of The Nutty Professor). Only in his last decade or so did his comic genius receive proper appreciation, especially from his fellow comedians. But he earned praise for his dramatic performance in the 1983 film The King of Comedy as a late-night talk show host stalked and kidnapped by social misfit Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Lewis plays it straight throughout, giving an utterly believable, restrained performance, like nothing he had done before or since. He said years earlier that “the hard job is doing comedy. That’s what’s rough. Acting is a snap, but acting for an actor is hard work…because that’s all he does.” In referring to Groucho’s comment about acting, Lewis concurred, “It is like two weeks in the country. Christ, that’s a pleasure, and easy…that’s nowhere as naked as being a comedian.”

So there you have it.  Until next time…

 

 

Happy 40th Anniversary, home videos!

This year marks 40 years since the introduction of the portable video camera/recorder for the public. Today, anyone casually browsing videos on YouTube can’t help but be impressed–or annoyed– by how personal video recording has become such a part of our everyday lives, thanks in large part to the fact that we can record a party, concert, Little League game, or even a horrific accident, natural disaster, or crime just by tapping a button on a cell phone. As effortless as it is to record on video now (digitized, that is, not on tape), it’s easy to forget–as is the case with so many modern conveniences–how exciting it was to first see the prospect of home videos become a reality.

But before video cameras were introduced to the market, it behooves us to first take a step further back a few years to the introduction of another revolutionary device, the VCR.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s when TV programs could be preserved for posterity. The arrival of the kinescope, a mechanical unit created basically by pointing a film camera at a studio monitor as a television program aired live, was officially announced on September 13, 1947. It was the result of a joint project between Kodak, NBC, and DuMont. The first kinescope unit was unveiled at an NBC affiliates convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The process worked like this: after a live program was televised, and recorded off a kinescope monitor onto film, the film was then processed, and copies were physically shipped to TV stations elsewhere in the country, to air at times of their own discretion.  It was an inexpensive and relatively simple way of strengthening the concept of a true TV network among stations dotted across the country. And, while it was a somewhat crude method, the kinescope helped preserve countless classic (and not-so-classic) live TV broadcasts throughout the late ‘40s and early 1950s.But the kinescope picture quality was a frequent source of complaint by station managers, television critics, and viewers.

Videotape changed that forever when it was first demonstrated in 1956 by Alexander Poniatoff, founder of the Ampex Corporation. Almost immediately, commercial television had a far easier way to record, preserve, and distribute any program that wasn’t shot on film.

In June of 1965, Sony introduced an early commercial home video recorder set using reel-to-reel tapes within a large console unit, with a price tag of $995.00—downright astronomical in 1965.

In 1972, Sony introduced the U-Matic VCR, which used ¾” tape cartridges in a player-recorder touted in its ad copy as “a revolutionary new means of communication.” The ad goes to considerable length simply to explain the basic concept of a videotape system, its capabilities, and possibilities for broadcasting, commercial—and especially medical—use.  Ironically, the ad copy includes just a single phrase to suggest that “perhaps, someday, there’ll be a U-matic in every living room.”

In the spring of 1975, Sony introduced the Betamax, but only as part of a console with accompanying built-in TV monitor. Less than a year later, though, the stand-alone Betamax recorder hit the market, making it a far more desirable item, and greatly spiking sales. As the introductory ad explains, the Betamax “can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel” to be easily played back at a later time. Not only that, the machine’s timer “can be set to automatically videotape that program while you’re not there.” This concept seems ho-hum now, maybe even quaint, but it was almost too good to believe for TV addicts—and just about everyone else—at the time.

That same year, JVC introduced the VHS format, whose tape cartridges were bigger than Betamax tapes, but also ran twice as long—two hours to Beta’s one-hour. While there was the slightest loss of picture sharpness, a fierce competition for the public’s favor ended when VHS overtook Beta as the format of choice by the majority of American users (other home video formats competed for the market place in the early days, but soon failed). By July of 1987, fully half of the households in the U.S. included a VCR, and the number increased to over 75% by the mid-1990s.

With the VCR revolutionizing the way we watched television, it was just a matter of time, and a very brief time at that, before a portable video camera for consumers would endanger the life of the home movie camera, and become the next big thing—emphasis on the big.

The year was 1923 when, for the first time, the average person could record an event or family occasion with a movie camera. Developed by Kodak, the home movie camera and projector used black & white, 16mm safety film, and showed considerable promise. The next progressive step came in 1932, with the introduction of the smaller 8mm format (still using b&w film). Color film became available for 16mm in 1935, and for 8mm the following year. For the average user, the 8mm format remained set (and for manufacturers, profitable) for decades, with still further innovations coming along in later years, such as Super 8 in 1965, using easy-to-load film cartridges, and the arrival of Super 8 sound in 1973.

Then came the home video camera. To an early owner of the new hi-tech toy, the initial excitement of owning a first-generation video camera, whose videotapes could be viewed and enjoyed on a TV immediately after taping any occasion or event, was nonetheless accompanied by a bit of physical effort—and a sore shoulder. The “portable” video camera and recorder pictured here, made by JVC, weighed a hefty 20 pounds.  Still it was the inspiration for the first generation of amateur videographers, who delighted in recording not only family events for posterity, but many also began to explore their own creativity as aspiring cameramen, directors and actors.

In the summer of 1980, Sony chairman Akio Morita held a press conference  to present to the world a working model of a four-pound combination video camera/recorder, or camcorder, that could record while resting on the cameraman’s shoulder. The “Video Movie,” as Sony called it at first, was aimed at replacing the Super 8 film format. Video cassettes would record twenty minutes of material via a battery with a 40-minute charge capability. However, an adaptor would be necessary to play the tapes on a TV, or dub them directly onto a Beta or VHS recorder.

Sony’s competitors had no choice but to step up development of their own formats. At the same time, Sony had to be careful not to repeat an earlier mistake by resisting industry standardization, when the Betamax format found itself overtaken by VHS. Smaller formats appeared throughout the ’80s, and as video cameras became smaller, the average consumer benefitted, at the very least, by seeing the bulky portable deck rendered obsolete.

Alas, the march of technological progress into the 21st century–the DVD, the DVR–has led to the virtual extinction of the video tape (except in my household), making conversions onto discs or flash drives necessary.

But, for those of us of a certain age, that initial excitement of the home video era will always remain unique.

Until next time…

 

The real-life married couples of comedy

As I was researching information for a book I’m writing, I realized the peculiar fact of how common it was, in a particular period of entertainment history, to see real-life married couples join forces as comedy partners. Of course, most of us can think of many celebrity couples today who either act together, sing or dance together, and, let’s face it, seek attention however they can together. Some can be suspected of having married in the more to appease their publicists’ fantasies than out of feelings of lifelong love.

But I digress.

Burns & Allen.

The couples I’m referring to came to national attention on radio in the early 1930s, when that medium virtually exploded with programs starring comedians who had already made names for themselves in vaudeville.  Several of them may have begun as solo performers on the stage, but at various points in their mediocre careers in vaudeville struck gold by adding their spouses to the act, thereby setting it off in a new, and more successful direction. By the end of 1932, there were no fewer than

Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone.

five real-life husband & wife couples performing regularly on network comedy programs:  George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jesse Block and Eve Sully (whose popular stage act was very similar to that of Burns & Allen), Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone (real name: Sadie Marks), Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, and Goodman Ace and his wife Jane, who starred in the very popular and highly-praised 15-minute program, Easy Aces. Goodman wrote every script himself, creating Jane’s character as  one whose dialogue was filled with malaprops and mispronunciations.

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.

These radio stars by way of vaudeville were among the many married teams–comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats–who performed and traveled together for financial as well as creative reasons.  The case of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, who started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after they were married in the mid-’20s, was common at the time. Allen explained, “In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act. The wife didn’t have to have any talent. It was economic strategy. With a double act a comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office.  The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.” Luckily, most of the wives did have talent, even

Goodman and Jane Ace.

if some felt more comfortable as performers than others. Mary Livingstone famously suffered from stage fright, but out of all the wives, only her on-air character deviated from the “dumb dora” type. As part of Benny’s method of using himself as the butt of jokes, Mary usually got the last word in their scenes, at Jack’s expense. And, while it could be argued that married couples performing together run the risk of creating issues the rest of us don’t face, these early stars beat the odds. As Jack Benny pointed out, “We all remained married to our original mates. I know that people assume actors and actresses are bad marriage risks, yet not one couple in that group was ever divorced.”

The same goes for yet another married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan, former vaudevillians who co-created and wrote the legendary radio comedy “Fibber McGee and Molly.” The program, premiering in 1935, wasn’t an immediate hit, but within a few years, its audience and popularity increased to the point where it became radio’s top rated series in the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s. One of the many recurring gags on the show was McGee’s opening of a hall closet so fully stuffed with junk that the program’s sound effects man got a good workout conveying the ensuing avalanche that would half-bury McGee each time.

Lucy and Desi.

Television brought us other married couples who teamed to make audiences laugh, most notably Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (who divorced in 1960). I hesitate to include Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to the list, despite their long-running sitcom; they were known in the years leading up to their program as a musical couple, i.e. Ozzie was a popular bandleader, Harriet his singer. (and, let’s face it, the comedy on their sitcom barely passed as such).

Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss.

Richard Benjamin and his wife Paula Prentiss garnered much attention for the launch of their sitcom He and She in 1967, but that show lasted a single season (although they remain married to this day) due to tough competition from shows like The Beverly Hillbillies. The list of married couples collaborating on sitcoms through the decades goes on, but most latter-day examples honestly aren’t as impressive–to me, anyway. I still prefer the true legends.

Until next time…

 

Virginia O’Brien: An Appreciation

There have been many entertainers in Hollywood’s long history who, for one reason or another, and despite their talents, weren’t quite able to achieve or maintain the kind of first-tier stardom that our most famous show business legends have enjoyed, even decades after their heyday. It could be said that the Virginia O’Brien was one of those entertainers, and who could have been an even bigger star than she was in her prime.

She possessed one of the most distinctive–and funniest–singing styles of all popular singers throughout the 1940s and beyond, and carved a unique niche for herself as a comic performer, known for maintaining a deadpan, unblinking expression as she sang, regardless of a song’s lyrics or tempo. It earned her nicknames such as “The Diva of Deadpan” and “Miss Frozen Face” early in her career.

Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, she first made a name for herself while appearing in an L.A. production of the musical Meet The People.  As legend has it, her opening night jitters grew into full-fledged stage fright, to the point where she could do little more onstage than sing with a completely blank, frozen expression on her face.  It was a hit with the audience, who assumed she was doing it as a gag.

Soon afterward, she got her big break when MGM signed her as a contract player in 1940.  Just before beginning her stay at studio, she appeared on Broadway in the Jimmy Durante review Keep Off the Grass. Variety described her as “a deadpan singer who convulses the audience by removing the ecstasy from high pressure music.”

However, MGM either didn’t know quite what to do with Virginia, or simply chose to use her in a severely limited capacity.  Her sole requirement, more often than not, was to sing a novelty song or two in her trademark style, and perhaps toss a few pithy one-liners, without having much involvement in the plot.  But she never failed to shine with the limited screen time she was given, and succeeded in making a name for herself among movie-goers with the opportunities she had.

She appeared in 17 MGM films between 1940-48, averaging two or three per year, with a high of four in 1946 alone.  She played alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Lucille Ball. One of her earliest appearances came in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store.  The brothers’ film career was on the downward slide at the time, but O’Brien, young and strikingly beautiful, shined in her brief role as a department store salesgirl. As part of an overblown production number,

“Sing While You Sell,” she gives one of her funniest “frozen face” singing performances of her career, performing a swing version of “Rock-a-bye Baby” (while rather forcefully rocking a small cradle at her side–see video below). At the end of the number, Virginia and Groucho enter an elevator, and as the door closes it’s clear that she can’t restrain herself, and lets out a smile.  When asked years later what Groucho said to her, she thought for a moment and said, “Probably something dirty.”

The following year, she appeared in the first of five films throughout the ’40s that served as vehicles for Red Skelton, in which Virginia wisely moved beyond her “frozen face” routine. Some of her more memorable singing performances from the Skelton films include “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club

“Salome.”

Savoy” (from 1942’s Ship Ahoy), and “Salome,” (from Du Barry Was A Lady, the following year), a number in which she gracefully glides her svelte figure across a nightclub dance floor while singing with considerable (and amusing) expression–confirming that her talents weren’t limited to her deadpan schtick.

In 1942, she married Kirk Alyn, who would become best known for being Hollywood’s first actor to play Superman on film, beginning with a 15-part serial in 1948. They had two daughters and a son together, but divorced in 1955 (Virginia had two more marriages since, and had another daughter).

The unnerving fade-out shot of “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again.”

The 1944 film version of Meet The People features Virginia performing “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again,” a song with some of the most darkly humorous and gruesome set of lyrics ever written.  In it, she serenades her absent lover (by singing to an empty chair at the kitchen table), and lightheartedly speaks of his rather vicious homicidal tendencies toward her. Virginia manages to make it delightfully comical despite the cringe-worthy lyrics (see video below)

When given the chance, she displayed her comic acting skills well. Merton of the Movies, a 1947 Skelton picture set in the silent film era, gives Virginia considerable screen time as Phyllis Montague, an actress who takes bumpkin actor Merton (Skelton) under her wing, as the film studio struggles to make him a silent picture star.  As his chaperone of sorts, Phyllis teaches Merton the ropes of moviemaking–and, in the process, also teaches him how to kiss.

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less than impressed with the film overall, but conceded that Skelton “does manage to massage one’s funnybone in the kissing lesson sequence with Virginia O’Brien…Miss O’Brien, by the way, provides competent support as the sympathetic actress who takes the gullible Merton in tow in Hollywood.” Variety went several steps further:  “Virginia O’Brien proves herself a capable leading lady without recourse to deadpan vocaling [sic].  The erstwhile canary doesn’t have a number to chirp throughout and sells herself strictly on talent merits in the romantic lead opposite Skelton.  The manner in which she delivers should further her career.”

MGM decided in not to renew Virginia’s contract in 1948, after which she continued performing live, and ventured into television.  On December 8, 1949, she made her TV debut on The Ed Wynn Show (the first TV stop for many top entertainers of the time).  After engaging in a bit of banter with Wynn,  she launched into “Bird in a Guilded Cage.” Her friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were reportedly in the studio audience, watching from their balcony seats (they would also be Wynn’s guests just two weeks later).

Virginia appeared in only two more films, nearly 20 years apart: Francis in the Navy (1955), and Gus (1976), while continuing to perform in nightclubs, nostalgic revues with others from an earlier era, and in an occasional musical.

Entertainment historian and author Bill Cassara, member of the Laurel & Hardy fan organization Sons of the Desert and founder of its “tent” in Monterey, California, recalls a time when Virginia was a guest at one of the tent’s anniversary banquets.

“This was in the mid-80s, and every year we’d try to get celebrities—someone meaningful to Laurel & Hardy or the old-time movies.  In 1988, we were able to get Virginia O’Brien up, along with the producer of her latest LP collection of her hits. He drove her up with her husband. The night before the banquet, we received them and the other special guests at my house in Monterey. At some point in the evening, we put on her newly-pressed album. Everyone was in a good mood, and she started belting out simultaneously with her recorded vocals—it was a special moment.”

Virginia passed away at age 81 in January of 2001, leaving behind an often overlooked but fun-filled legacy of music and laughter.  Not many stars of any era have been able to do produce both, and at the same time.

Until next week…