February 25, 2011
PBS has been running a series of documentaries under the title “Pioneers of Television.” We have watched three of them — on westerns, detective shows, and sitcoms — and found them informative and entertaining. Being the quarrelsome type, however, I question the use of the term “pioneers” — at least with respect to sitcoms, which were the topic of Monday night’s broadcast.
The program included segments on Jackie Gleason – specifically on the one full season of “The Honeymooners,” Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I can’t argue with the stature of those performers nor with the contributions all of them made to the development of TV comedy. But while there were some general references to the fact that situation comedies originated on radio, I don’t understand how a documentary about sitcoms can ignore Gertrude Berg.
I had a similar complaint — and wrote about it here — when the US Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring “pioneers” of television and didn’t include Gertrude Berg. I won’t repeat that post here, but Berg started her show — most widely known as “The Goldbergs” — on radio in 1929 and moved it to television in 1949. She owned, produced, and wrote the show, and she played the main character. Although it was a comedy, the show had very serious overtones, and it was the first show of its kind to introduce general audiences to the family lives of American Jews. That’s not a pioneer?
While I was watching that program Monday night, I spotted an actress named Amanda Randolph in a still from the Danny Thomas show. She played Louise, the wisecracking maid to the “Williams” family. By that time, Amanda Randolph had been an entertainer for more than 30 years — as a piano player and then as an actress in radio and movies. She was the first black actor to star in a regularly scheduled television show — “The Laytons” — which ran for a couple of months on the old Dumont network in 1948. She later had a recurring role as Ramona Smith – the mother of Sapphire Stevens – on the television version of “Amos ’n’ Andy” — the first TV show with an all-black cast, and the last one for many years. That’s not a pioneer?
Amanda Randolph was the older sister of Lillian Randolph, another groundbreaking black actor and singer. She started working in radio in the mid 1930s and became a mainstay in that medium and in television and films. She had a recurring role in the radio, television, and movie versions of the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve,” and she played Madame Queen — girlfriend of Andy Brown — in the radio and TV versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”
Lillian Randolph may be best remembered now for the role of Annie in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Somebody at PBS doesn’t remember, but I do.
January 14, 2011
One of the classes I taught last semester included a section on idiomatic expressions. A topic like that always calls attention to the difference in the ages of the students and the instructor. We came across many expressions that a person my age uses casually but that many or all of the students didn’t recognize. None of them, for instance, knew the expression “hocus pocus,” which refers to the things magicians do and say to create the illusion that they have paranormal resources.
Another example arose when, instead of instructing, I was telling the students about Marcello, the new cat at our house. We had met Marcello on the sidewalk outside a gift shop in North East, Md., and the chance acquaintance evolved into a permanent arrangement. Now, I told my students, Marcello is living “the life of Riley.”
As the words left my lips, I could read in the faces of the students that they didn’t know what that meant. My experience has been that students are a tolerant lot, and that they wouldn’t think of embarrassing the instructor by pointing that he had said something they couldn’t comprehend. They would have been content to go on living without knowing what that expression meant. So I asked them: “Do you know that expression?” They didn’t, and even though none of them asked, even then, what it meant, I told them.
That set me to wondering where that expression originated, but I didn’t have time until now to look it up. Apparently there is no definitive answer. One theory traces the phrase to a song written in 1898 by vaudevillian Pat Rooney Sr. In that song, a hotel owner named Riley looks forward the day when he strikes it rich. The phrase itself is not in the lyric of that song.
The expression does appear in a song called “My Name is Kelly,” which was written by Howard Pease in 1919. “Faith, and my name is Kelly, Michael Kelly / But I’m livin’ the life of Reilly just the same.” The fact that Pease used the phrase that way suggests that it was well known by that time. The author of a British web site, The Phrase Finder, writes that the first known instance of “the life of Riley” appearing in print in the United States occurred in 1911 in the Hartford Courant in a story about the demise of a notorious wild cow, something — I must confess — I have never heard of before: “The famous wild cow of Cromwell is no more. After ‘living the life of Riley’ for over a year, successfully evading the pitchforks and the bullets of the farmers, whose fields she ravaged in all four seasons.”
Of course, I associate the expression with the television comedy series that starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley; Marjorie Reynolds as his wife, Peg; the gorgeous Lugene Sanders as their daughter, Babs, and Wesley Morgan as their son, Junior.
Although the expression implies that a man is living a life of ease, Chester Riley worked steadily in the wing assembly division of Cunningham Aircraft in Los Angeles. He was the stereotypical bumbling father who was always in some kind of scrape. He didn’t have many happy endings, and his closing line on most episodes became one of the most popular catch phrases of the era: “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
A radio show with the same title that appeared for a few months in 1941 was not related to the later series. Film star William Bendix appeared on radio as Chester Riley from 1945 to 1951. One of the developers of that series was Gummo Marx. Bendix was making a film version of “Riley” when the show moved to television in 1949, so Jackie Gleason was cast as Riley and Rosemary De Camp as Peg. A contributing writer for that series was Groucho Marx, who had once been considered for the title role on radio. The series won an Emmy, but it ended after one short season because of a contract dispute.
The show was introduced on television again in 1953 with Bendix and Marjorie Reynolds leading the cast, and it was a hit, running for six seasons. A 2009 BBC series with the same title is not related in anyway to the American shows.
While I was looking around for information about this show, I came across two modern-day uses of the expression “Life of Riley,” both with more serious and somewhat ironic applications. One is a foundation headquartered in Sarasota, Fla., that raises funds to promote awareness of and seek a cure for pediatric brain tumors. The organization is named for Riley Saba, a 7-year-old girl who died because of such a tumor. You can visit the foundation’s web site by clicking HERE.
Another site, this one located in Great Britain, was inspired by a boy whose first name is Riley. The youngster has a form of cerebral palsy, and a group of his family’s friends formed an organization to raise funds for charities that assist kids with that or similar conditions. Riley came by his first name because his dad was attracted to the song “The Life of Riley” by the Lightning Seeds. The song was written by Ian Broudie whose own son, Riley, now plays guitar with the group. You can learn more about the charity group by clicking HERE.
July 10, 2010
Somewhere, within the past few days, I saw the name “Ken Lynch.” It almost has to have been in the credits of a movie or TV show I was watching, but I can’t remember. Maybe I was dozing off at the time. It would not be unusual for me to have seen his name, because he appeared in about 175 television shows and movies — mostly TV. He frequently played a tough cop.
His name is not a household word, but I have been aware of him at least since I was 12 years old. I can recall that, because from 1949 to 1954 he had the title role in a detective series called “The Plainclothesman,” which was broadcast on the old Dumont network. I don’t remember when I started watching that show, but it could have been at the beginning, when I was 7, because Dad bought our first TV at Izzy Kaufman’s appliance store in ’49.
Television was new, and we had no context for it, so almost anything we saw was mesmerizing. I believe this cop show was especially so because of its unusual approach – namely, that the title character, known only as “the lieutenant,” never appeared on camera. The viewer, in effect, saw the story through the eyes of the lieutenant. Parenthetically – I suppose I could have just used parentheses — Dumont also had a detective series that ran from 1950 to 1954 in which one of the characters didn’t appear on camera. That series, which was broadcast live, was “Rocky King: Detective,” starring Roscoe Karns. At the end of each episode, Rocky King would talk on the telephone to his wife, Mabel, played by Grace Carney. Viewers would hear Mabel’s voice, but never see her face. Each show ended when Rocky hung up the phone and said, “Great girl, that Mabel!”
Possibly because the only impression I had of Ken Lynch was his distinctive raspy voice, I recognized it when I was watching an episode of “The Honeymooners,” a show that was very stingy about giving credit to actors other than the four stars. This occurred only a year or two after “The Plainclothesman” went off the air, but as sure as I was that we had finally seen “the lieutenant,” I couldn’t confirm it until much more recently.
In that episode, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) witnesses an armed robbery while playing pool with his sidekick, Ed Norton, and is afraid to tell police what he saw, because the robbers might retaliate. A detective comes to the Kramden apartment to question Ralph, and that detective is played by Ken Lynch. His voice, when he tells Ralph, “If you’re not a witness, you’re not entitled to police protection. And thanks — for nothin’!” is Lynch’s unmistakable file-on-metal sound.
Having no better way to exercise my brain cells, I wondered about that for decades. It was only the advent of the Internet and its seemingly inexhaustible resources that I was able to confirm that the invisible “lieutenant” was the visible cop in Bensonhurst.
Ken Lynch was born in Cleveland in 1910, and he died in Burbank in 1990. Oddly, despite his prolific career, Wikipedia doesn’t have an English language article on him, although there is one in French, but with no real biographical information. There is a short and descriptive profile of him on the International Movie Database web site, at THIS LINK.
June 15, 2010
At last, I know. I have been wondering for decades about an actress who had a brief role in an episode of “The Honeymooners,” and last night I found out by chance who she was.
The episode – one of the so-called “classic 39″ – is a Christmas story in which Ralph Kramden saves money to buy Alice a present, but spends it on a bowling ball. Then he uses what money he has to buy a hairpin box that’s made of 2,000 match sticks glued together, believing the salesman’s story that the box came from the home of the Emperor of Japan. On Christmas Eve, before Ralph gives Alice this present, a neighbor – Mrs. Stevens – comes to the door and says she’s going to be away for the holiday and wants to give Alice a present before leaving. Of course, when Alice opens the package it’s a box just like the one Ralph bought, and the neighbor says she bought it at a novelty shop near the subway station.
The rest of that story doesn’t matter. What matters — to me, at least — is that I have always felt that the woman who played that small part was a wonderful actress. She created such a strong impression of Mrs. Stevens as warm and self-effacing that, even as a kid, I had a feeling that I’d like her to be my neighbor or even a member of my family — an aunt, maybe. Every time I see that episode, I’m entranced by that actress’s performance. But “The Honeymooners” producers were stingy with the credits, so the actress wasn’t identified.
So the other might I watched the 1949 version of “All the King’s Men” on TCM. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, and it is the story of Willie Stark, a corrupt politician modeled after Huey Long. I had not seen it before, and the first time I heard the voice of the actress playing Stark’s wife, Sally, I knew my question had been answered. A little Googling confirmed that the Kramdens’ neighbor was portrayed by Anne Seymour.
Anne Seymour, it turns out, had an extensive career. The International Movie Database lists 121 film and television appearances for her between 1944 and 1988. “All the King’s Men” was her second movie. Her last was “Field of Dreams.” She played the newspaper publisher in Chisolm, Minnesota who helped Ray Kinsella learn about Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham.
The actress’s birth name was Anne Eckert, and her family was in the theater for at least seven generations dating back to the early 18th century in Ireland. Her brothers, James and John Seymour, were screen writers. Anne made her stage debut in 1928, and she later also worked in radio drama. Though she spent the bulk of her career working in television, she played Sara Delano Roosevelt, the mother of Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1958 Broadway production of “Sunrise at Campobello,” for which Ralph Bellamy won a Tony award for his portrayal of FDR. Although Anne Seymour got good review for her work in that play, she was not cast in the film version.
September 14, 2009
We watched “Nothing in Common,” a 1986 film directed by Garry Marshall, starring Tom Hanks, Jackie Gleason, Eva Marie Saint, Sela Ward, Bess Armstrong, and Hector Elizondo.
Hanks plays David Basner, who is on a rapid rise in the advertising industry; he has money, friends, women. What he doesn’t have is any sense of self, thanks to a dysfunctional upbringing by parents — Eva Marie Saint as Lorraine Basner and Gleason, in his last role, as Max– whose marriage limped along for more than 30 years without a raison d’etre, and now, at a critical moment in David’s career, has collapsed. Both parents bring the issue to David, who has kept his distance since he left home and has never developed a relationship with either of them.
Bess Armstrong plays a high school friend and one-time flame to whom David often turns for understanding or simple emotional release. Sela Ward plays Cheryl Ann Wayne, a hard-nosed but seductive agency executive with whom David becomes entangled, in more ways than one, as he tries to land a major airline account. Elizondo is David’s boss, and Barry Corbin is the head of the airline and Wayne’s father.
All of these actors turn in strong performances. Hanks gets a chance to show his full range, from borderline nuts to pensive and insecure. Gleason, conceding a year before his death that he is an old and infirm man, uses just enough of the Charlie Bratton bombast and the Poor Soul pathos to make Max a complicated and interesting character. Gleason avoids what to him was always a temptation to chew the scenery. When he had it under control, Gleason had an intuition for drama, and he puts it to work here, particularly in brief passages in which he doesn’t speak. Eva Marie Saint, who I think is among the most unappreciated of actresses, is very moving as the broken-hearted wife and mother.
This movie takes on some difficult, almost embarrassing themes — the reasons for the failure of this marriage and the impact of a bad marriage on the child it generated — and it deals with them realistically, not looking for easy answers.
Marshall managed to achieve a delicate balance between comedy and drama that in some ways is almost tragedy. This film hasn’t got a lot of attention, but it should.
July 20, 2009
Saul Austerlitz filed an interesting story for the Los Angeles Times about the ambition of many comic actors and comedy directors to work in drama. I once attended a lecture by Milton Berle in which he talked about this subject. As do a lot of comic actors, Berle maintained that comedy was the more difficult genre inasmuch as no one is funny all the time, or even a lot of the time, whereas most of us are serious much of the time and some of us all of the time. At least, I think that’s what he said.
Berle had a few opportunities to prove that he was capable of playing straight roles. His autobiography revealed that he nursed his share of bitterness over certain events and personalities in his life, and those probably provided a well for him to draw on.
Jackie Gleason who, like Berle, made his name with the broadest of comedy, had a flair for drama and demonstrated it in “The Hustler” and “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He had already shown in a couple of his comedy characters — particularly “the poor soul” — that he could play a part for pathos, although when he tried to put that character virtually intact in a serious film — “Gigot” — the result was uninspired.
Anyway, those interested in film comics in particular might be interested in the Austerlitz piece — inspired by a new Adam Sandler project, at this link: