Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.
Monday, April 27, 2009
George Burns and Gracie Allen had one of the most enduring acts in the history of show business. They were headliners in vaudeville in the 1920s, on radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and on TV in the 1950s. They noticed that whenever Gracie would act "scatter-brained" in response to George's straight lines, they got their biggest laughs, and that's how they developed their act. When THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW, aka THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW, began on CBS television October 12, 1950, it was an immediate success. The show was originally live before a studio audience for the first two years. Burns realized it would be more efficient to do the series on film and the half-hour episodes could then be syndicated. With 291 episodes, the show had a long network run until September 22, 1958, and continued in syndicated reruns for years.
George Burns: You see, to be a straight man you have to have a talent, you have to develop this talent, then you gotta marry her like I did.
The format of their TV show is simple enough. It is set in the Burn's home, and George plays the dual role of on-screen narrator and straight man for Gracie's crazy but delightful involvements with various people and situations. Each episode begins with Burns standing, trademark cigar in hand, before the proscenium arch surrounding their living room set. There he presents a brief monologue, then offers the audience a few comments regarding the situation they are about to see. Gracie's cohort in many of her predicaments is neighbor Blanche Morton, whose accountant husband Harry is as infuriated by the girls' escapades as George is tolerant. George is unflappable and simply turns to the camera, cigar in hand, and philosophizes to the audience. He watches all the action standing outside the proscenium in early live episodes, and watching the show on TV in his study at the end of the series. Burns breaks the fourth wall by commenting upon it to the viewers. A running gag is George's weekly firing of announcer Harry Von Zell after he turns up aiding, abetting or otherwise not stopping the mayhem caused by Gracie's illogical logic. Another gag is a closet full of guests' hats that they left rather than have another run-in with Gracie.
George Burns: A book salesman. Hmm. Going up to our house? Is he silly enough to try to sell Gracie a book? Yes he is--if he was smart he'd turn around and run. You heard of that play "Death of a Salesman"? Trying to sell something to Gracie is what killed him.
Typically Gracie would goof up and try to hide her mistake from her husband. Her way of hiding it is easy to see through but she'd be sure that he wouldn't find out. Also, she would misunderstand things others told her and then assume they didn't understand. Then she'd proceed to explain things to them. For example, someone would say that their doctor had to close his practice due to a lack of patients. Gracie would say that they should learn to control their anger. Then the person replies, "No, I mean they don't have enough people coming to see them for medical attention". Gracie would then say, "Well, of course, if you always get mad at them, they'll go to another doctor." It would go on and on like that until the person would give up and Gracie would be satisfied that she had explained it to them adequately
The first six episodes were broadcast from New York, but the show soon moved to Hollywood. On Burns' insistence, the show was broadcast on alternate weeks in order to provide sufficient time for rehearsals and alleviate some of the pressures of live broadcasts. After two seasons of live performances, the series switched to a weekly filmed broadcast. Although not filmed before a studio audience, the final filmed product was previewed to an audience and their reactions recorded. At a time when many series relied on canned laughter, Burns claimed that his series only "'sweetened' the laughter when a joke went flat and there was no way of eliminating it from the film. "Even then we never added more than a gentle chuckle," he said.
Gracie: My the paper is full of news this morning. I hardly know which item to explain to the readers of my column.
George: You explain the news to them?
Gracie: Oh, yes. Everyone doesn't have my uncanny grasp of world affairs. I'm not the average person, George.
George: That I've known for years.
Gracie: Some people have the minds of children and it's my duty to guide them.
George: I see.
Gracie: What would you like to know dear?
George: Not a thing. Nothing at all.
Gracie: Now you take the elections last Tuesday. Do you realize how confused those poor Republicans must be who got elected? I'll bet some of them wind up in Seattle and Tacoma.
George: Seattle and Tacoma?
Gracie: Yes. They've been out so long they won't know which Washington to go to.
Gracie never saw herself as a comedienne, but rather as an actress. The supporting cast continued in roles established in the original Burns and Allen radio program. Bea Benaderet and Hal March play the Burns' neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton. Bill Goodwin, as himself, plays the show's announcer and friend of the family, and Rolfe Sedan plays mailman Mr. Beasley, with whom Gracie gossips. During the run of the series, the role of Harry Morton was subsequently played by John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating. In the second season, announcer Goodwin left to host his own variety series and was replaced by Harry Von Zell. Musical entertainment is provided by The Singing Skylarks. The Burns' real life adopted son Ronnie later joined the cast as himself, and is cast as a drama student who tends to look askance at his parents' comedy style. Their adopted daughter Sandy was somewhat shy and not too fond of show business, though she appears in a few episodes as a classmate of Ronnie. In one episode, Ronnie's drama class puts on a vaudeville show to raise funds for the school. Gracie hosts the show while Ronnie and Sandy deliver an impersonation of their famous parents along with one of their classic routines. Since Ronnie plays himself, Gracie closes the segment with a wisecrack: "The boy was produced by Burns and Allen."
Gracie: Oh! Here's an interesting item. Frank Sinatra is going to sing at the Waldorf Hotel in New York.
George: The kid really gets plenty of work.
Gracie: Yeah, and I can't understand it. Why you're twice the singer he is.
George: Ah, Gracie.
Gracie: Oh, I realize it's not his fault. He gets tones that are thin and hollow because his chest is thin and hollow. But you get tones that are low and round because your chest...
George: Don't finish it. Don't finish it.
Gracie: That hotel should have hired you to sing.
George: (singing) "Though April Showers may come your way...They bring flowers that bloom in may."
Gracie: OOOhhh! You're murder, Jack. Mur-der! Oh, those golden notes come pouring out of you like Democrats out of Congress. (buzz) Oh, excuse me, dear. I'll see who is at the door.
To keep dialogue and situations consistent with the characters' personalities and ages, the writers stuck to policies and practices established during their radio show. The stories stayed away from topical humor, fantastic characters, and absurd situations and focused instead on more universal aspects of daily life. Plots were simple and, like their vaudeville routines, the comedy emanated from Allen's uniquely skewed interpretation of the world and the resulting confusion. Burns played the quintessential straight man to the scatterbrained Allen. Her enormous popularity came from her ability to underplay her character with convincing sincerity and illogical premises, such as sewing buttons on her husband's shirttails so no one would notice if he lost one.
Gracie Allen: Well, you see one Christmas my father caught a wild turkey and he fed him corn and chestnuts. But then we didn't have the heart to kill him so we let him get away.
George Burns: Oh, I see.
Gracie Allen: But the turkey liked the food so well that he came back each year. And that way we always had...
George Burns: A turkey for Christmas dinner?
Gracie Allen: Yes.
The program's sponsor was "Carnation Evaporated Milk" and their commercial theme stated that their product comes from "Contented Cows". The commercials were worked right into this show. For instance, Gracie would tell Blanche that she just made some delicious homemade pie with Carnation Evaporated Milk. Then Blanche would taste it and they'd talk about why Carnation Milk makes everything taste so much better. Then they'd go on with the show. At the end of the show, Burns would always say, "Say goodnight, Gracie" to which Allen always replied, "Goodnight". Despite the popular misconception, she never said, "Goodnight, Gracie" in reply. Burns was once asked why she didn't do it and replied, "Incredibly enough, no one ever thought of it."
Although Burns and Allen was never among the top-rated series, it maintained consistently high ratings throughout its eight seasons. Their show received 12 Emmy nominations: four for best comedy series, six for Allen as best actress and comedienne, and two for Bea Benaderet as best supporting actress. The show ended in 1958 when Gracie Allen's health deteriorated and she retired from show business. She suffered a heart attack in 1961 and died three years later at the age of 69. Burns continued to work as a singing comedian and enjoyed an Oscar-winning movie resurgence at the age of 80 with "The Sunshine Boys", and died in 1996 at the age of 100.
The kinescope recordings of the live telecasts from the 1950-1952 seasons of THE GEORGE BURNS AND GRACIE ALLEN SHOW have fallen into the public domain. They are available on "dollar DVD" collections, but better quality DVDs of the show are also available.
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