Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Jack Benny Without Jack Benny, Part 2 of 6

Continuing my look at Jack Benny's 1943 five-week absence from his own series: on March 14, 1943, the Jack Benny Program returned to Hollywood from its tour of New York; unfortunately, the show returned without its star, Jack Benny, who had become ill; further, his wife & fellow performer Mary Livingstone stepped away from the show to be with him. Fortunately, waiting for them in Hollywood was Phil Harris, who had been away in the Merchant Marines for three months. Even better news: the show had found an excellent temporary host in (of all people!) Orson Welles.

Listen along here (right click to download from archive.org).

Phil is barely back on the air before once again indulging in his (intentionally) bad jokes and howling "ain't that a lulu?" Some Jack Benny fans claim the show was at its best during the years when the cast consisted of Jack, Mary, Don, Phil, Rochester & Dennis; personally, I'm easy to please as long as Phil is present (especially if it's pre-Lucky Strikes) - Phil was never funnier than when he performed on the Jack Benny Program and the show lost an awful lot of pizzazz when he exited in the early 50s; as he often said, "let's face it, Jackson - you need me." Forget about Burns and Allen hijacking the previous week - simply having Phil back on the show makes this sound like an authentic episode of the Jack Benny Program.

As Dennis arrives, Phil launches into what becomes a recurring joke during Orson Welles' tenure with the program:

Phil: "Hey kid, have I got news for you! Guess who's taking Jack's place on the program tonight?"

Dennis: "Who?"

Phil: "Orson Welles, that's who! Orrrson Welles!"

You have to hear Phil's drawling enunciation for the full effect. Orson's arrival on the show is preceded by his supposed "private secretary" Miss Harrington, played by Vera Felton, a frequent supporting player on the Benny program (she often played Dennis' mother), then his "out in the open secretary" Toodlequirkle, played by Frank Nelson. The gag here of Orson's arrival being heralded by his personal staff is actually revisiting a joke from Orson's one and only prior appearance on the Jack Benny Program from March 17, 1940, wherein Orson gave Jack lessons on how to be a serious dramatic performer (and to promote Jack's appearance on Orson's show the following week).

I'm not sure how Orson became the substitute for Jack Benny - how anyone even conceived of it as a good idea - but wow, what a choice! Orson's other radio performances don't make much hay out of his comedic possibilities, but he fits the Benny Program method to the T. Jack was constantly made to appear vain, stingy and resentful of others' success, supposedly the least-talented man on his own program. Yet for all that, Jack remained lovable to audiences because they could see through the charade and realize it was all performance; this is why I think George Burns couldn't quite fit the Jack Benny mold when he tried - Gracie Allen was innately more lovable than he.

From practically the start of his career, Orson Welles went through bouts of being either attractive or annoying to the public; eventually in the post-war climate he'd be run out of town as an annoyance, but 1943 found him reasonably well-established in Hollywood; he'd recently appeared in the film Journey Into Fear and seemed to be living down the box office poison which had (unfortunately) been Citizen Kane and the Magnificent Ambersons. For the Benny Program, Orson was granted the opportunity to satirize his public persona as a young genius and renaissance man. Most cleverly, he slid into Jack Benny's place on the program without actually being Benny. Unlike Jack, his character commanded the respect of the cast; unlike Jack, he would be depicted as having serious talent and a wealth of knowledge (things Jack often pretended to possess); yet, Orson was depicted as being so proud of his abilities he would fall into hamming it up, much as Jack would - the cast were more reluctant to call Orson out (they never hesitated with Jack), but it was made clear to the audience that Orson wasn't quite as impressive as he made himself sound.

It's fun to note that while Phil would usually insult Jack, during these episodes Phil craves Orson's approval; Orson, on the other hand, shares Jack's distaste for Phil. It's a neat spin on the Jack-Phil dynamic and works very nicely.

Orson: "That was Yankee Doodle Dandy played by Phil Harris and his orchestra, and Phil, I must say that's a splendid arrangement and brilliantly executed."

Phil: "Orson, you thrill me."

Orson: "I'm glad. However, if you don't mind a suggestion, a little more andante and pianissimo in the penultimate passage would have enhanced the orchestral overtones. Is that clear?"

Phil: "No, but them big words send me like a slug of bourbon!"

After a visit from Mel Blanc, Orson begins demanding changes to the show - instructing Phil to multiply his orchestra "tenfold," including "a gross of piccolos."

Don: "But Orson, who's going to pay for all this?"

Orson: "Jack Benny, of course."

Don: "Jack Benny?"

Orson: "Yes, and he'll be glad to do it."

Dennis: "You can't be thinking of the Jack Benny we know!"

Orson: "There'll be no trouble, I spoke to Jack on the long-distance phone yesterday; he told me money was no object."

Phil: "Lemme ask ya somethin' Orson, who paid for that call?"

Orson: "Come to think of it, I did. Uh, take a note, Miss Harrington: the piccolos are out."

Following a good piece about Dennis' salary which ends with him being assigned Orson's laundry, Andy Devine arrives; Andy had been a recurring performer on the Benny Program during the late 30s but still made irregular appearances on the show at this date - surely his appearance in this episode was prompted by Jack's illness, to further prop up the Jack Benny Program as Jack's show, even if he wasn't there.

Andy tells a joke to Orson about him dating Rita Hayworth; however, later in 1943 Orson himself wound up marrying Rita (I'm not sure if they were dating at the time of this show, but it wouldn't surprise me). Orson's next attempt at ruling over the show causes him to suggest Don Wilson be the program's singer instead of Dennis Day; when Don refuses, Orson considers himself as the show's singer, but realizing this might "look egotistical," he allows Dennis to sing (but wants Don to begin singing lessons).

After Dennis' song, there's a good bit where Orson demands his picture be plastered on boxes of Grape Nuts, the sponsor's product. This actually revisits a joke Jack began the previous fall when he inherited Grape Nuts from Kate Smith and spent a few weeks complaining to the sponsor about Smith's picture being on the box instead of him; of course, Orson's suggestions are far more pretentious than Jack's ("I shall be dressed in tights with a spear in my hand.").

"Next, instead of 12 ounces of tiny, individual Grape Nuts flakes, I think each box should contain one huge 12 ounce flake."

Don asks to see Orson filming one of his movies and Orson responds by inviting the cast to his set (as shall be heard in the next broadcast). While Orson had many projects in the works, I'm not sure what he might have really been working on at the time - appearing in Jane Eyre, perhaps? Finally, Rochester phones up Orson; Rochester frequently would appear late in the program at this time (unless the cast had a skit, in which case he would phone Jack prior to the sketch). This week, Rochester claims to be with Jack in Chicago, although he'll soon "return" to Hollywood and spend some time working for Orson. After the call, Orson relents on the idea of taking Jack's place on the Grape Nuts box - instead he'll "permit" Jack to appear on the box: "he can carry the spear for me."

Orson closes with his "your obedient servant, Orson Welles" sign-off, immediately before sending a get-well wish to Jack.

In all, Phil, Don, Dennis & Rochester being joined by familiar supporting actors (Frank Nelson, Vera Felton, Mel Blanc, Andy Devine) and Orson filling in Jack's spot on the show renders this broadcast true to spirit of the Jack Benny Program, despite Jack's utter absence. Orson would continue to host for three more weeks until Jack's return; tomorrow: the March 21, 1943 episode, featuring the return of Mary Livingstone!

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