Friday, February 14, 2014

The 120th Birthday of Jack Benny

It was 120 years ago today that legendary comedian Jack Benny was born. Of course, if Jack was still alive today he would  insist that he was only 39.  It was one of the many quirks of a persona Mr. Benny created for his comedy routines and one that would become immortalised on his radio and television show. Not only was this persona perpetually 39, but he was incredibly cheap (he continued driving a 1923 Maxwell because he refused to buy a new car), petty, and vain. He continued trying to play the violin even though he was horrible at it. Of course, in reality Jack Benny was nothing like his comic persona. Not only was Mr. Benny one of the kindest, most generous, and selfless people in show business, but in reality he was very good on the violin.

Jack Benny was born  Benjamin Kubelsky on 14 February 1894 in Chicago. It would be his parents who would largely be responsible for his career in entertainment. In the hope that he would become a great classical violinist, they enrolled him in violin lessons when he was only six years old. He proved extremely proficient on the violin, enough that by the time he was 17 he was playing the instrument on vaudeville. His vaudeville career would be interrupted by World War I, during which time he served in the United States Navy. He resumed his career after the war and also adopted a new stage name, after having gone through a number of others: Jack Benny.

Jack Benny proved very successful in vaudeville. In fact, it is a little known fact that he had a brief film career before the debut of his radio show. In 1929 MGM head of production Irving Thalberg saw Jack Benny at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California at the behest of Jack's agent Sam Lyons. Mr. Benny then made his film debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Unfortunately his early film career would not prove to be a success and MGM eventually released him from his contract.

While the movies did not turn Jack Benny into a star, radio did. On 29 March 1932 Jack Benny made a guest appearance on the radio show The Ed Sullivan Show (related only to the later TV show of the same name in that it shared the same host). Jack's guest appearance was so successful that NBC's Commercial Programme Department held an audition for Jack with the advertising agency N. W. Ayer and its client Canada Dry. Both N. W. Ayer and Canada Dry liked Jack so much that on 2 May 1932 The Canada Dry Programme made its debut. It was the first incarnation of what would later be called The Jack Benny Programme.

The Jack Benny Programme would change sponsors and even networks over the years. Despite this it proved phenomenally successful. In fact, including its run on television, The Jack Benny Programme ran for a total of 33 years, from the debut of the radio show on 2 May 1932 to the end of the television show on 16 April 1965. It was on the radio show that Jack Benny perfected his comic persona of a self-centred, vain, petty skinflint who played the violin very poorly. Over the years The Jack Benny Programme developed one of the best ensembles of any radio or television show. Indeed, so central was the character of Jack's valet and chauffeur Rochester (played by Eddie Anderson) to the show that it is perhaps best to regard him as Jack's partner and equal rather than a supporting character. As a comedy team Jack Benny and Rochester were not unlike P. G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves, in which the valet is the true master of the house. There was little doubt that Rochester was brighter than Jack. It was to Rochester that Jack turned when he had to know how to spell words like "superfluous" and to Rochester that he would turn when he needed someone to get him out of trouble. Like every other character on the show Rochester belittled and mocked Jack, but at the same time it was clear that the two men cared deeply for each other. Together they made one of the best comedy teams of the 20th Century.

While there can be little doubt that Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson were the stars of the show, The Jack Benny Programme had a cast of regular and recurring characters that could make producers of other shows envious. Jack Benny's real life wife Mary Livingstone played his whip smart, wisecracking not-quite-a-girlfriend who always got the better of him. Dennis Day was the singer on the show, good natured but not terribly bright. Don Wilson was the announcer on the show, and often the target of Jack's jokes. Legendary voice artist Mel Blanc played multiple roles on the show. He is perhaps best remembered on The Jack Benny Programme as Jack's long suffering violin instructor Professor Pierre LeBlanc, but he also played uck the Plumber, the voice of Jack's parrot Polly, and assorted other characters. Other characters on the show included Sheldon Leonard as a racetrack tout, Bea Benaderet as the switchboard operator Gertrude, Joseph Kearns as Ed (the apparently immortal guard of Jack's bank vault), and Frank Nelson in various roles as clerks, doormen, and so on (he was known for answering, "Yeeee-essss?"). A running joke on The Jack Benny Programme was Jack's feud with fellow radio star Fred Allen. Despite the barbs the two of them exchanged on their respective programmes, Jack Benny and Fred Allen were actually close friends.

The Jack Benny Programme would continue to be successful after it made its transition to television. It debuted as a series of specials on 2 January 1949. It was on  28 October 1950 that it made its debut as a regularly scheduled programme. The radio version continued to air alongside its counterpart on television until 1955. As to the television version of The Jack Benny Programme, it differed very little from the radio version, with the cast and the format of the show transferred the new medium largely intact. It proved highly successful, running until 1965.

The Jack Benny Programme was still doing well in the ratings when it left the air, Jack Benny having tired of the weekly grind of a television series. Afterwards Jack Benny would make a series of specials for NBC, as well as appearing on various other television shows.

Of course, while Jack Benny's film career had an inauspicious start, the success of his radio show would eventually lead to some success in films. Along with  Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936). Perhaps Jack's best known movie role would be that of actor Josef Tura in the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not To Be (1942). Jack Benny gave a bravura performance as Tura, the high strung, vain actor who finds himself in an impossible situation. Jack's co-star on the film was the legendary Carole Lombard, with whom he had no difficulty keeping up. To Be or Not To Be is now regarded as one of Ernst Lubitsch's best films, if not his very best. There can be little doubt much of it is due to his inspired casting of Jack Benny in the lead role.

Ironically, what may now be Jack Benny's second most famous film was one that he turned into a running joke on his radio show, constantly claiming that it had been a dud. While The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) did not do particularly well at the box office, it was hardy the bomb that Jack always made it out to be. What is more, it could well be his second best film after To Be Or Not To Be. The Horn Blows at Midnight was one of those charming fantasy comedies that simply aren't made any more, in which Jack plays the trumpet player Athanael,who dreams he is an angel who is sadly given the job of blowing the trumpet that will signal Earth's destruction. Worse yet, his mission is complicated by two fallen angels who do not particularly want him to finish his assigned job. Jack does a marvellous job of playing Athanael, ably assisted by a supporting cast included such actors as Reginald Gardiner and Guy Kibbee. Despite Jack's constant jokes about The Horn Blows at Midnight, it is now a very well respected film. Indeed, it boasts a rating of 89% at Rotten Tomatoes, an extremely high rating for any film.

Jack Benny would make other notable films besides To Be Or Not To Be and The Horn Blows at Midnight. George Washington Slept Here (1942), based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, cast Jack opposite the Oomph Girl herself, Ann Sheridan. Charley's Aunt (1941) saw him play opposite Kay Francis. Of course, given the success of The Jack Benny Programme it should be no surprise that some of his films would draw inspiration from it. In fact, the Western Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)  not only featured major characters from The Jack Benny Programme, but also adapted many of its skits. Love Thy Neighbour could very nearly be considered an adaptation of both The Jack Benny Programme and The Fred Allen Show, with Jack, Fred, and Eddie Anderson playing their radio personas.

Sadly, The Horn Blows at Midnight would be Jack Benny's last starring role in a feature film. Jack Benny would make several cameos in films over the years, including the Bob Hope film The Great Lover (1949), Gypsy (1962), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1964), and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc would play mouse caricatures of themselves in the 1959 Warner Brothers animated short "The Mouse That Jack Built", which was more or less a cartoon parody of The Jack Benny Programme. The cartoon ended with an appearance of the live action Jack Benny.

Despite Jack Benny's comic persona as a self-centred cheapskate, in reality he was a very generous man who cared deeply about his friends and others. Reportedly he once donated $1 million to a retirement home for actors. In 1957 he donated a  Stradivarius violin to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout his life he would play the violin at charity events. During World War II he toured extensively on behalf of the USO. Before he died Jack Benny donated radio and television show scripts, copies of episodes of both his radio show and television show, personal and professional papers, and other memorabilia to the UCLA Library. And while his eye may have wandered from time to time, Jack Benny was apparently very much in love with his wife Mary Livngstone. His will specified that she should be delivered a single, long-stemmed rose every day for the rest of her life.

It must also be pointed out that Jack Benny was also known to take a stand against racial segregation on more than one occasion. When a hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri refused Eddie Anderson a room, Jack Benny told them, "If he doesn't stay, neither then do I." The hotel quickly relented. When a hotel in New York asked for Eddie Anderson to leave because racist guests were complaining about his presence there, Jack Benny and his entire cast and crew checked out of the hotel and found lodgings elsewhere. Of course, it must be considered that Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson weren't simply a comedy team on radio, on television, and on film, but very close friends in real life. Indeed, Eddie Anderson openly wept at Jack Benny's funeral.

It was on 26 December 1974 Jack Benny died from pancreatic cancer. His last appearance on television was on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for Lucille Ball. It aired on 7 February 1975, a few weeks after his death. Jack Benny would leave behind a legacy that only a very few other comedians could match. The Jack Benny Programme was pivotal in the development of the situation comedies of radio and television, evolving from the sketch and variety format familiar from vaudeville into the sitcom format we recognise today. What is more, it is one of the few radio sitcoms that successfully made the transition from radio to television, running for fifteen years on the new medium

Jack Benny would also have a lasting impact on future generations of comedians. The influence of Jack Benny can be seen in comics and actors as diverse as Johnny Carson, Phil Hartman, Eugene Levy, Kelsey Grammar, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course, Jack Benny's greatest legacy may well be the works he left behind. His radio show is still widely available, on CDs, in digital form, and through streaming media on the internet. His television show is also widely available, with possibly the entire run available on DVD and many episodes available through streaming media. While many classic radio and television stars have long been forgotten, Jack Benny remains recognisable even to people who were born long after his death. One hundred and twenty years after his birth, Jack Benny is still regarded as one of the greatest comics of all time.

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