Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hollywood Couples/Screen Teams: Burns And Allen

One thing I didn't realize before I set up this week's Monkey poll was the extent to which both of my brothers are fans of the comedy teaming of George Burns and Gracie Allen. My older brother is a fan of their television series which ran on CBS from 1950 to 1958; my younger brother listens to their old radio show (on XM), which ran from 1932 to 1950.

I got to wondering how many people are still aware of Burns and Allen. George Burns, sure; he won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys and lived to be 100. But how many people remember he was primarily a straight man and that it was his wife, Gracie Allen, who was the real star of the show?

Both Burns and Allen began performing at an early age, Burns at the age of seven while he was playing hooky from his job in a syrup factory (we're talking the year 1903, long before child labor laws were in effect), Gracie not much older, performing with her three sisters in an Irish folk dance act called The Four Colleens.

"We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet," Burns said of his days as a child performer. "We started out singing on ferryboats, in saloons, in brothels, and on street corners. We'd put our hats down for donations. Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats."

The two performers met in 1922 during a vaudeville show and soon formed an act, with Burns feeding straight lines to Allen who had a gift for what was known in vaudeville as a "Dumb Dora" routine.

"Gracie's the kind of girl," Allen explained, "who shortens the cord on the electric iron to save electricity."

Burns and Allen made the jump from the stage to the big screen in 1929 when Warner Brothers began filming vaudeville acts for their new Vitaphone sound system, and signed a contract with Paramount the next year. The team appeared in twenty-seven shorts and feature-length films during the 1930s. The team also were a fixture on radio, first appearing as regular guests on The Guy Lombardo Show in 1932 and headlining their own show beginning in 1934.

"Say good night, Gracie" became the team's signature line.

The team moved from radio to television in 1950 and starred in The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show on CBS for eight seasons. The show was nominated for eleven Emmy Awards, with Allen herself receiving five nominations for best actress. Ill-health though forced Allen to retire in 1958 and though the show continued on for another season, the show's popularity plummeted without her presence. She died of a heart attack in 1964.

Burns continued to produce television shows and work in nightclubs until 1974 when he replaced an ailing Jack Benny in the movie version of the Neil Simon play, The Sunshine Boys. For his supporting performance, Burns won an Oscar; at age eighty, he was at that time the oldest Oscar winner ever. Burns continued to work almost up to his death, forty-nine days after his 100th birthday. He was interred next to Allen where at last she received top billing: "Gracie Allen & George Burns—Together Again."

And now, without further ado, Burns and Allen in the 1931 comedy short 100% Service.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Funny you should mention it - I just saw a 3-film Burns and Allen DVD over at my place. The quality was not very consistent, but Gracie was - consistently bongo. She was a force of nature.

And at least everyone remembers "Say goodnight, Gracie."

Bellotoot said...

Nicely done, Mr. Monkey! At the thought of Burns and Allen, "The Love Nest" starts playing in my head. I see George watching the same episode of "The Burns and Allen Show" that viewers were watching, then looking into the camera and commenting on the plot. Too bad Gracie didn't get longevity as well as talent - the 60s and 70s and 80s and 90s would have been vastly improved by her presence. Rowan and Martin signed off Laugh-In with a small (I hope intended) tribute - "Say goodnight, Dick!" . . .

Mythical Monkey said...

Rowan and Martin signed off Laugh-In with a small (I hope intended) tribute - "Say goodnight, Dick!" . . .

I read somewhere that they were very consciously doing Burns and Allen at the end of Laugh-In.

You know, speaking of Laugh-In, I often think of Artie Johnson dressed as the German soldier, peeking out of the bushes and saying "Verrrry interesting -- but stupid!" Usually after I've written a couple of thousand words on Howard Hawks or something ...

Uncle Tom said...

I HIGHLY recommend Radio Classics on Sirius/XM - great comedy shows such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello (who quite frankly are hit and miss), as well as some great dramas of which my favorite (as well as my eight year old son's) is Gerald Mohr as Phillip Marlow.

What may even be more interesting are the commercials as they broadcast many of the originals. Its disconcerting to say the least to hear Lucky Strikes and Chesterfield cigarettes claim to have the most doctors who recommend their particular brand. Its also interesting to listen to products being advertised as alternatives to war-rationed items (Dove Soap for instance claims that its four soaps in one - good for Mom and Dad, in the baby's bath, on clothes and on dishes).

Burns and Allens are indeed one of the better shows but my personal fave is Bob Hope - especially the on location broadcasts from various military installations during WWII. Whereas most of our generation know Hope from his later TV specials, et al, I for one hadn't realized just what a smart alec and how quick-witted he was.

Great stuff.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Walnuts, chestnuts, and forget-me-nuts

mister muleboy said...

he won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys and lived to be 100.

Too bad that Jack Benny died during pre-preproduction.

I would have enjoyed seeing the different movie featuring him in that role.

Indeed, Burns in that role seemed too cold for me ever to have fondness for the character.

A timely, timely comment.

Mythical Monkey said...

A timely, timely comment.

As opposed to a blog devoted to 100 year old movies?

Timeless, is the word, son, timeless.