Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 4 of 6

We're now at the March 28, 1943 episode of the Jack Benny Program, featuring Orson Welles' third turn at hosting the show, and you can hear he was comfortable by this time.

Follow along by downloading the episode here (right click to get from

The episode opens in a diner as the cast meet each other one at a time; the diner staff (Gilroy & Radcliff) are played by the show's own writers, Bill Morrow & Ed Beloin, who each made occasional appearances on the show as extras (including Beloin as Jack's boarder Mr. Bllingsley), occasionally even appearing as Jack's writers!

Vera Felton puts in another appearance as Welles' secretary "Miss Harrington." I really love Mary's response to Miss Harrington's low-voiced greeting: "Hello, Butch." Welles enters the diner accompanied by fanfare and a gong, befitting the pompous caricature of himself he plays on the show. Mary comes on to Orson for the first time, calling him "Baby Face," surely an apt moniker for his Gerber babyesque face in the early 40s. Orson does a repeat of last week's speed reading gag as he reads the evening's script with a single flip through the pages. Disliking the script, Orson orders it burned and intends to write his own material, but Gilroy & Radcliff suggest providing a script of their own making.

There's a running gag about diner employee Radcliff hiding under a counter so Orson won't have to look at him while he's eating; every time Radcliff speaks up, Orson orders him back under the counter, whereupon Radcliff bumps his head. The second time, Radcliff seems to miss his cue and there's dead air for a moment until his next line. The audience cracks up, prompting a quick ad-lib:

Orson: "You waited for that long enough!"

Radcliff: "It hurt!"

Orson: "Sight gag, ladies and gentlemen."

Orson orders everyone to the radio studio with "last one there's a rotten egg," a recurring Jack Benny line. In the studio, there's this gem:

Orson: "By the way, Mary, I've been meaning to ask you: how's Jack coming along, is he over his cold?"

Dennis: "If he was over his cold, you wouldn't be here, brother!"

There's a cute bit between Dennis, Phil & Orson which makes Mary laugh:

Dennis: "Say, Mr. Harris, who invented the telephone?"

Phil: "Well, Alexander Grame invented the Bell, the rest I don't know nothin' about."

Orson: "Mr. Harris, the telephone in its entirety was invented by Alexander Graham Bell. Which I can pronounce."

Gilroy & Radcliff appear with their script, which turns out to be a murder mystery sketch ("Death at Midnight, or the" *gunshot/scream* "Murder Case!"), written in the same style as virtually every other murder mystery script on the Jack Benny Program, the difference being Orson Welles assumes the role of the lead police detective (normally it would be Police Captain O'Benny). Welles assigns Dennis and Phil parts as his sergeants, whereupon Dennis immediately begins protesting his innocence; Welles reminds him he's not playing the killer: "Don't be so sure! It's always the guy you least suspect!" Mary, as usual, plays the widow of the murdered man; in these roles its usually heavily hinted Mary is the killer, yet somehow Jack and the others would overlook all the incriminating evidence against her. Don is cast as the butler, his usual part in these skits.

Rochester makes his pre-skit appearance (as usual), phoning up Orson to complain about how Welles' Chinese cook chopped up a pork chop to use in chop suey.

Orson: "The way you talk you'd think those chops were radium!"

Rochester: "I can get radium tomorrow! Let's see you get some pork chops!"

A wartime rationing gag, that. The Chinese cook ("Chong") talks to Orson, resulting in some of the usual "made-up dialect" jokes which occasionally appeared on the show in those days (ie, kinda racist). After Dennis' song, the skit finally begins.

These "murder mystery" skits usually follow this pattern: Captain O'Benny and his sergeants are in the police station and tell some police/crime gags; Mary phones them to declare her husband has just been murdered - and hints she's the one who killed him; Benny declares he'll solve the crime "or my name ain't--"; they travel by squad car, resulting in jokes over the police radio; arriving at Mary's home they begin their investigation but almost never come up with the culprit (despite Mary's frequent insinuations) and the skits usually collapse around that point, often causing Jack to claim they'll revisit it later (which they almost never did).

In this version, Inspector Welles receives a call from a woman claiming she's about to be murdered - gunfire ensues; "one of those gin rummy arguments," Welles declares. After a bit involving Dennis finding phony dollar bills (Washington is wearing Lincoln's beard), Mary calls up to report her husband's death:

Mary: "I went to the library just now and he was slumped over the radio with the Fred Allen Program going full blast!"

Orson: "Was your husband dead?"

Mary: "He must have been, he didn't turn it off!"

The first Fred Allen joke in three weeks! Even with Jack gone, the "feud" must continue! En route to the murder scene we get a gag about Hedy LaMarr being locked in her closet (which Orson revisits near the end of the episode), then arrive at the house where the butler (being Don) inserts a quick Grape Nuts commercial.

Orson: "Now I think I'll grill Mrs. Crumbdike, I have a hunch she killed her husband. You know that saying, cherchez la femme, don't you?"

Phil: "No, I don't."

Orson: "Well, you ought to learn it, it's all the rage now!"

As Orson begins interrogating Mary, he quickly falls back into the same hammy scene-stealing performing as on the previous week's show, refusing to let Mary utter more than "well..." Dennis arrives with the solution to the crime but unfortunately ate the note it was written on (having come from the diner, it was covered with mayonnaise).

As the show concludes, Mary slips another "good night, Doll" for Jack to hear. Don closes with, "this program was written by Radcliff Morrow and Gilroy Beloin with mayonnaise by Orson Welles!"

Orson made his fourth and final outing as host on the April 4, 1943 episode, which I'll visit tomorrow!

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