I Saw That!

One woman's opinions about popular entertainment.

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Amateur boxing coach, Christian (but not so heavenly-minded that I'm no earthly good) singer, writer, self-defense advocate, childfree. feminist www.smartwomenboxingtraining.org

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Meanest Man In The World (1943)

Richard Clarke (Jack Benny) is one of the nicest lawyers around.  He just can't be ruthless or mean, and he sticks up for people.  But niceness is not paying the bills.  Clarke's lack of financial stability does not endear him to Mr. Brown (Matt Briggs), the father of Clarke's fiancee, Janie (Priscilla Lane).  In order to prove that he can be a good provider for Janie once they're married, Clarke goes off to New York City to make his fortune.  He brings along his butler, Shufro (Eddie Anderson).

Several weeks and no clients later, Clarke goes into panic mode when Janie and Mr. Brown come up to NYC to see him.  Clarke puts together an elaborate ruse, including renting a Park Avenue apartment, to make it look like he's a success. Janie and Mr. Brown go back home, and Janie starts planning the wedding.  Shufro suggests that Clarke turn mean in order to lure clients.  Clarke balks at this at first, then changes his mind.  The lawyer's first order of business is snatching a lollipop from a little boy on the street - and that mean act gets caught on camera and put on the front page of the newspapers.

Mr. Leggitt (Edmund Gwenn), a rich man, decides Clarke is the right man to handle his legal business based on the photo in the paper.  Clarke is given a sizeable retainer, and is asked to evict Leggitt's sister-in-law (Margaret Seddon) from her apartment.  The deed is done, but good-hearted Clarke secretly provides Leggitt's sister-in-law with another place to live.  The attorney finds himself in one crazy situation after another, pretending to be a legal shark to keep the money coming in while still trying to be a good guy.

This is a short -- a little over an hour -- movie that moves along at a steady clip as more complications pile up for the main character.  Benny and Anderson display the chemistry that worked well on Benny's radio show (which was running at the time this movie was made), and would later carry on over to Benny's TV show.  Modern audiences might be a little put off by a scene that finds Benny in blackface; unfortunately, that was a sign of that time period, but mercifully, it's brief.  Anderson gets in a racial joke earlier, telling Benny's character that he would be "whiteballed" if he showed up at the club where Anderson was a member. 

Tor Johnson of Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) fame has a small part.  Edmund Gwenn later appeared as Kris Kringle in the movie classic, A Miracle On 34th Street (1947).

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Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Jack Benny Program" (1950-1965)

One night while dealing with the usual insomnia, I noticed that a local station was running reruns of "The Jack Benny Program" during the wee hours of the morning.  I remembered the comedian from when I was a kid, but I didn't get his humor back then.  I decided to familiarize myself with his sitcom, and I've been sitting up late watching it ever since.  Benny (1894-1974) was one of the few performers of the 20th century whose career spanned vaudeville, stage, radio, movies, and television.  His radio show had made a seamless transition to TV in the 1950's.  During the early days of its run, the show didn't appear every week, often alternating weeks with other sitcoms such as "Private Secretary". It was one of TV's longest running sitcoms, and it is often considered the model for other sitcoms that came after it. 

Similar to shows like "The Gary Shandling Show", "Seinfeld", and "The Bernie Mac Show", Jack Benny played a fictionalized version of himself.  On the show, Benny was a bachelor who fancied himself a ladies' man.  Benny's TV character, as on radio, was also vain (always claiming to be 39 years of age), cheap, and easily irritated and confused by those around him.  Some plots were shows-within-shows as Benny interacted with scores of guest stars -- a who's who of Hollywood, basically - who came to perform in stand alone segments and/or skits with him.  Other plots involved Benny dealing with various incidents that took place at his home and elsewhere. 

Benny was a master at timing.  Often, he didn't have to say anything.  A look of confusion or irritation, and a hand up to his cheek was enough to express the humor.  He knew exactly how long to draw out a joke for laughs.  Other staples of the show were Benny's catchphrases of "Well!" and "Now cut that out!"  He would often make references to the fact that he was from Waukegan, IL.  I notice in many episodes he would use the expression "lookit", to get someone's attention.  Only people from the Midwest say that.  Sometimes, guests on the show would make cracks about the mincing way that Benny walked.  "Walk like me," Benny told guest star Milton Berle in one episode.  "I would if I didn't think I would get arrested," Berle grinned.  Benny was also always looking for opportunities to play his violin, despite the fact that usually every wrong note was played.  However, in real life, Benny was a decent violin player.

What made this show particularly tight was how cohesive the cast - most of whom had been on Benny's popular radio show of the 1930's, 1940's, and early 1950's - worked together.  Mary Livingston (who was Benny's wife in real life), announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, singer/dancer/actor Eddie Anderson, and voice actor Mel Blanc dished out a lot of fun on the episodes.  Frank Nelson, Herb Vigran, Joe Besser, Sheldon Leonard, and Benny Rubin were a few others who helped provide the laughs. 

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Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)

At the time this movie was released, comedian Jack Benny had long been a star on the radio.  Part of the plot incorporates a running joke from the radio show, a "feud" between Benny and another comedian, Fred Allen.  Due to a fender bender that Benny's butler, Rochester (Eddie Anderson) gets into, Benny has to use another car to get to the radio station to work.  He spots an attractive woman named Joan (Ellen Drew), and follows her.  She happens to be going to the station, too.  She and her sisters have a singing act, and they audition to get work.

Benny tries to get a date with Joan, but she doesn't want to be bothered.  When he hears that she and her sisters are going out west to take a job, Benny goes out there too.  His friend Andy Devine owns a ranch, and Benny convinces Devine to let him use it in order to pretend to Joan that Benny is a real live cowboy.  The ruse works for a minute until some real outlaws (Ward Bond and Morris Ankrum) who've been causing Devine problems show up. 

This is an amusing parody of westerns, populated by the cast of Benny's radio show.  In addition to Eddie Anderson and Andy Devine, Phil Harris and Dennis Day appear.  Don Wilson, Benny's announcer, appears during the funny opening credits.  Typical of comedies back during this time period, there are musical and dance sequences.  Some of the best ones feature Anderson.  I had seen him in Cabin In The Sky, but I didn't know that Anderson was also known as a dancer.  Veteran character actor Charles Lane plays a publicist working for Fred Allen (Allen is only heard, but not seen in the movie). 

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