Sunday, February 28, 2016

The End Of February Is A Comedy Geek Birthday Bonanza

Well, it's time for the weekend blog post and Your Correspondent is looking underneath tables, beds and car seats - and possibly where former NBA player Lamar Odom disappeared to - trying to find where the #*%!&^ that writing mojo went to. That said, today's topic du jour is the fact that a slew of artists, actors, comics and musical comedy performers - every one responsible for TONS of laughs - were born in the last few days of February.

First and foremost, there was Tex Avery, a.k.a. The King Of Cartoons, born February 26, 1908 in Taylor, Texas.

Among other things, Tex Avery was. . .
  • Rescuer of various members of the Warner Bros. cartoon staff during a ski trip mishap
  • Blind in one eye, due to a prank gone terribly wrong at the Walter Lantz studio.
  • A descendant of Judge Roy Bean
  • The guy who brought the animated cartoon business out of post-Production Code of 1934 (and Disney envy) doldrums by joining the Warner Brothers cartoon studio in 1935 and subsequently creating Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.

The "Termite Terrace" boys in the summer of 1935: (from left) Virgil Ross, Sid Sutherland, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and Bob Clampett

Tex moved on to the MGM cartoon studio in 1942 and created more indelible characters there: Droopy, The Wolf and Red Hot Riding Hood (as well as the somewhat less indelible but weirdly funny anti-character Screwy Squirrel).

In the field of live-action comedy, only Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Charley Chase, Frank Tashlin and Ernie Kovacs could go toe-to-toe with Tex Avery. His timing, visual gags and concepts are still original and unequalled.

Jim Backus

Celebrated, among other things, as the voice of Mr. Magoo, the irascible old coot created for UPA cartoons (some directed by the inimitable and quite brilliant John Hubley, many directed by ex-WB animator Pete Burness), Jim Backus.

Born on February 25, 1913, Jim Backus was a remarkable character actor who excelled on stage, screen, television, radio and recordings. He could play everything from the mealy-mouthed father of James Dean's character in Rebel Without A Cause to the garrulous Thurston Howell III in Gilligan's Island to Tyler Fitzgerald, a pilot so stone drunk as to make Foster Brooks, Jack Norton, Arthur Housman AND W.C. Fields swear off old-fashioneds FOREVER, in It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.

The early Magoo cartoons in particular are a scream. The premise is not so much that the ever-cranky Quincy Magoo is nearsighted, but that he is so bullheaded that he refuses to see. Funny, that describes just about all of us fallible humans at least some of the time.

Once the Magoo character became less bilious and his rough edges got smoothed over, this cartoon buff did not find him nearly as funny, but the Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol TV special remains an all-time favorite bit of holiday entertainment.

Backus also recorded some very funny novelty records.

Tony Randall

Born on February 26, 1920, Tony Randall could handle everything from dramatic to light comedy roles beautifully. This blogger and many of his contemporaries first saw Tony in George Pal's fantasy classic The 7 Faces Of Dr. Lao, a film in which he excelled in multiple and diverse roles.

Investigating his career reveals that Tony frequently did amazing work in television - one episode of the The Alfred Hitchcock Hour cast him as a suave and charming adman who also happens to be a raging alcoholic on his way to becoming a psychopath - as well as in movies, especially the lead part in Frank Tashlin's satiric masterpiece Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

As the kinder, gentler version of Felix Unger in TV's version of The Odd Couple, Tony could also be fall-down hilarious. Randall and Klugman repeatedly get big laughs just by the way they speak, move and delineate those characters.

Jackie Gleason

Last Friday was the 100th anniversary of Jackie Gleason's birth. Many of us grew up on Honeymooners reruns and the "from Miami Beach" 1960's Jackie Gleason Show featuring Frank Fontaine and The June Taylor Dancers. Among his signature characters: Ralph Kramden, Fenwick Babbitt, Charlie the Loudmouth, Rum Dum, Joe The Bartender and The Poor Soul, Jackie's homage to two comedy greats from silent movies, Lloyd Hamilton and Harry Langdon.

Have yet to cease marveling and laughing out loud at the comic chemistry between Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners.

My personal favorite character by The Great One, hands down, is bon vivant Reggie Van Gleason III.

Betty Hutton

"A full-fledged actress with every talent the noun implies. She plays in musicals because the public, which can do practically nothing well, is willing to concede its entertainers only one talent." Preston Sturges

Born on February 26, 1921, Betty Hutton was a show-stopping musical performer and among a group of brassy comediennes - Martha Raye, Cass Daley, Mabel Todd, Joan Davis, Judy Canova - who hit showbiz like a tidal wave at the end of the 1930's. Here's Betty, already showing star power as a comic big band singer for the Vincent Lopez Orchestra in this 1939 Vitaphone Melody Master band short.

Betty and the rubber-faced (and rather Jim Carrey-like) Cass Daley both lended their shy, retiring, low-key and demure musical comedy personas to the 1942 film The Fleet's In.

Betty is best known for her successful star turn in the MGM version of Annie Get Your Gun, a vehicle originally slated for Judy Garland, who had to bow out of the project for health reasons. One conjectures Betty could have handled all kinds of character roles and dramatic parts quite well, but having excelled to such a degree in musical comedy, that was where she would be typecast.

In many of her films, Betty Hutton's skills as a physical comedienne combine with a rather remarkable ability to put over enjoyably zany songs that suit her megawatt personality to a T.

When Betty sang with great humor, as she does in this production number from The Perils Of Pauline, and tackled comedy roles with gusto, it's a good bet that Lucille Ball was watching and taking detailed notes!

William Demarest

One of Betty Hutton's key co-stars was the great character actor William Demarest, born on February 27, 1892.

One of the things that makes the Preston Sturges comedy The Miracle Of Morgan's Creek such a great film is what happens when Bill Demarest plays scenes with Betty and the ever-bemused Eddie Bracken.

Demarest's curmudgeonly yet versatile persona would make him an in-demand character actor for decades, well into the television age. Many of us born in the 1950's and early 1960's remember him as the pancake-making "Uncle Charley" in My Three Sons but later discovered his classic movie work (as we would also find Evil Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and The Apartment).

William Frawley

And speaking of curmudgeons, here's the guy whose claim to fame was playing a fella who would make the early cranky Mr. Magoo look like a sweetheart, the inimitable Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy, William Frawley, born on February 26, 1887.

The veteran character actor who preceded Bill Demarest in My Three Sons after his stint on I Love Lucy, William Frawley had a lengthy and wide-ranging career in show business (he even appeared in some silent movies), very aptly described in the following excellent article by character actor, comedy historian, cartoon voice artist and writer Eddie Deezen.

Last but not least, there's the great Zero Mostel, the gifted, versatile character actor, comedian and star of stage and screen Zero Mostel who was born February 28, 1915.

To all of the above, for the fun, entertainment and joy you created, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog can't thank you enough.

1 comment:

Dejael Long said...

Way too much fun, Paul. Thanks a million!
Your pal, Don