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Burns and Allen
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Burns and Allen
The Burns and Allen Show
Running time: 30 minutes
Starring: George Burns and Gracie Allen
Air dates: 1936 to 1950
The show stars an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved substantial success within their respective careers.
Burns and Allen met in 1922 and first performed together at the Hill Street Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, continued in small town vaudeville theaters, married January 27, 1926, and moved up a notch when they signed with the Keith circuit in 1927. Burns wrote most of the material, and played the straight man. Allen played a silly, addleheaded woman, a role often attributed to the "Dumb Dora" stereotype common in early 20th-century vaudeville comedy. To the ends of their lives each attributed their success to the other. Early on, the team had played the opposite roles until they noticed that the audience was laughing at Gracie's straight lines, so they made the change.
In the early days of talking pictures, the studios eagerly hired actors who knew how to deliver dialogue or songs. The most prolific of these studios was Warner Brothers. whose "Vitaphone Acts" captured the 1920s' vaudeville headliners on film.
Burns and Allen had earned a reputation as a reliable "disappointment act": someone who could fill in for a sick or otherwise absent performer on a moment's notice. So it went with their film debut. They were last-minute replacements for another act, and ran through their patter-and-song routine in Lambchops (1929). This film, recently restored, is now available on video and has been re-released theatrically.
Paramount Pictures, a Hollywood company that also operated a studio in New York, used its east coast facilities to film New York-based stage and vaudeville stars. Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman, and Smith and Dale were among the "name" acts seen in Paramount shorts. Burns and Allen joined the Paramount roster in 1930 and made a string of one-reel comedies through 1933, usually written by Burns and featuring future Hollywood character actors like Barton MacLane and Chester Clute.
Motion pictures continued
In 1932 Paramount produced an all-star musical comedy, The Big Broadcast, featuring the nation's hottest radio personalities. Burns and Allen were recruited, and made such an impression that they continued to make guest appearances in Paramount features through 1937. Most of these used the Big Broadcast formula of an all-star comedy cast: International House, Six of a Kind, etc. The team even starred in a pair of low-budget features, Here Comes Cookie and Love in Bloom.
At RKO Radio Pictures, Fred Astaire was preparing his first musical feature without Ginger Rogers, and comedian Charley Chase was set to appear in a comic sidekick role. Illness prevented Chase from doing the movie, however, and "disappointment act" Burns and Allen substituted for him. The resulting film, A Damsel in Distress (1937), shows George and Gracie dancing just as expertly as Astaire. This picture evidently prompted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to cast George and Gracie in its Eleanor Powell musical, Honolulu (1938).
Burns and Allen's weekly radio show was consuming more and more of their time, curtailing their participation in movies. Gracie made a few isolated appearances on her own, but the team would not return to the cameras until TV beckoned in 1950.
In 1929 they made their first radio appearance in London on the BBC. Back in America, they failed an audition with NBC in 1930. After a solo appearance by Gracie on Eddie Cantor's radio show, they were heard together on Rudy Vallee's The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour and in February 15, 1932 they became regulars on The Guy Lombardo Show on CBS. When Lombardo switched to NBC, Burns and Allen took over his CBS spot with The Adventures of Gracie, beginning September 19, 1934.
The title of their top-rated show changed to The Burns and Allen Show on September 26, 1936. When ratings began to slip in 1940-41, they moved from mere comedy dialogues into a successful sitcom format, continuing with shows on NBC and CBS until May 17, 1950. As in the early days of radio, the sponsor's name became the show title, such as Maxwell House Coffee Time (1945-49).
Burns and Allen had several regulars on radio, including Toby Reed, Gale Gordon, Bea Benaderet, Mary "Bubbles" Kelly, Ray Noble, singers Jimmy Cash and Tony Martin, actor/writer/director Elliott Lewis, musicians Meredith Willson and Artie Shaw, and announcers Bill Goodwin and Harry Von Zell, who were usually made a part of the evening's doings, often as additional comic foils for the duo. For a long time they continued their "flirtation act" with Burns as Allen's most persistent suitor; they didn't have their real-life marriage written into the show until the 1940s.
The couple's adopted son, Ronnie, turned up on the show from time to time. He became a near-regular on their television show, playing himself but cast as a young drama student who tended to look askance at his parents' comedy style. Their adopted daughter Sandy was somewhat shy and not too fond of show business. She declined efforts to get her on the show as a regular cast member, though she appeared in a few episodes as a classmate of Ronnie. She was on the television series as Ronnie's drama classmate.
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 done live, before a theater audience. Burns, ever the businessman, realized that it would be more efficient to produce the series on film; the half-hour episodes could be sold again and again to the many TV stations sprouting up during the 1950s. The show had a long network run through 1958, and continued in syndicated reruns long after that. 291 episodes were produced.
Historians of popular culture have often stated that Allen was a brilliant comedian, whose entire career consisted of engaging in dialogues of "illogical logic" that left her verbal opponents dazed and confused and her audiences in stitches. During a typical 23-minute episode of the Burns and Allen show, the vast majority of the dialogue and speaking parts were written for Allen, who was credited with having the genius to deliver her lengthy diatribes in a fashion that made it look as though she were making her arguments up on the spot.
One running gag on the TV show was the existence of a closet full of hats belonging to various visitors to the Burns household, where the guests would slip out the door unnoticed, leaving their hats behind, rather than face another round with Gracie. Another running gag showed George watching all the action (standing outside the proscenium arch in early live episodes; watching the show on TV in his study at the end of the series) and breaking the fourth wall by commenting upon it to the viewers. Still another running gag became George's weekly "firing" of announcer Harry Von Zell, after he turned up aiding, abetting or otherwise not stopping the mayhem into which Gracie's illogical logic got the household.
In one memorable episode, the Burns children, Ronnie and Sandy, delivered an impersonation of their famous parents and one of their classic routines: their drama school put on a vaudeville show to raise funds, with Gracie herself hosting the show. Since Ronnie played himself but Sandy played a classmate on the television show, the few times he did appear, it enabled Gracie to close their segment with a wisecrack: "The boy was produced by Burns and Allen."
Burns would always end the show with "Say goodnight, Gracie" to which Allen simply replied "Goodnight." She never said "Goodnight, Gracie," as legend has it. (This "false memory" may be caused by the Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In ending: "Say goodnight, Dick." "Goodnight, Dick!") Burns was once asked this question and said it would've been a funny line. Asked why he didn't do it, Burns replied, "Incredibly enough, no one ever thought of it." People have reported hearing it.
The show ended only when Gracie finally got her wish and retired after the 1957 season. George tried to continue the show with the same supporting cast but without Gracie. The George Burns Show lasted only one season; Burns realized that viewers kept expecting Gracie to enter the scene at any time.
After trying another sitcom called Wendy and Me, Burns turned to nightclub work as a solo performer, while Gracie enjoyed a comfortable retirement; she died in 1964. Burns continued to work as a singing comedian and enjoyed an Oscar-winning movie resurgence at the age of 80 with The Sunshine Boys, eventually dying at the age of 100.
(February 3, 2013, Sunday 12:05am)