Friday, December 12, 2003

”And now, meet the people who live in the Burns house…George and Gracie..."

Continuing with the old-time radio sounds of Christmas, I had a two-fer last evening, starting with The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show from December 22, 1942:

This marked the first season of Burns and Allen’s new situation comedy-style format on CBS Radio—on their previous programs, the format had been an extension of their old vaudeville routines, consisting of Gracie “flirting” with the various male vocalists, bandleaders and guest stars that appeared. As this holiday-themed episode opens, George and Gracie are trimming the tree—but Gracie is concerned about the disappearance of her pet duck Herman (voiced by Clarence Nash, who also provided the famous quack of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck). She hears Herman outside, and when she lets him in, her beloved mallard is missing some of his tail feathers—which are being clutched firmly in the hand of guest star/neighbor Akim Tamiroff:

GRACIE: Well…what are you doing with Herman’s tail feathers?
TAMIROFF: Ah, it was a mistake…I was reaching for his neck…
GRACIE: That’s awful! My husband will take care of you…George, throw him out!
GEORGE (meekly) But…Gracie, it’s Christmas and…
TAMIROFF: This broken-down excuse for a man is your husband?
GRACIE: Don’t you say that! I happen to love this broken down excuse for a man!
GEORGE: Well, thanks!
TAMIROFF: Now look…I’m sneering at your husband!
GEORGE: Hey…you can’t do that…you can’t come into my house and sneer at me!
TAMIROFF (laughs) I’m in the house, no?
GEORGE: Well…yes…
TAMIROFF: And I’m sneering, no?
GEORGE: Well…yes…
TAMIROFF: And you’re going to stop me, yes?
GEORGE: Well…no…
GRACIE: Aw, that’s telling him, dear…Mr. Tamiroff, I demand to know why you were chasing Herman…
TAMIROFF: Because in my yard, I have a pond which used to be full of little goldfishes…now you have a duck which is full of little goldfishes!

Tamiroff wants Gracie to keep Herman out of his yard (“In the future, my yard is Stalingrad and that duck is Hitler.”) and to pacify her ducky pal, she tells him a story about Santa Claus. Soon, both of them doze off by the fire—which leads to a bizarre dream sequence in which Gracie and George journey to the North Pole by flying on Herman’s back.

The three of them arrive at Santa’s workshop—and jolly old St. Nicholas sounds positively morose and suicidal. (He also sounds like Elmer Fudd, which is due to the fact that he is voiced by veteran character actor Arthur Q. Bryan—whose roles on radio included barber Floyd Munson on The Great Gildersleeve and Doc Gamble on Fibber McGee & Molly.) Santa is devastated because an evil pirate—Tamiroff the Terrible—has absconded with all the toys he had planned to give the children this year. This leads into a funny singing commercial for Burns & Allen’s sponsor—Swan soap—sang by the show’s announcer, Bill Goodwin (who’s playing an elf named “Irving” Kringle), and Bryan’s Santa Claus accompanying him on boogie-woogie piano (“Why, Santa—you’ve got a cannon in your left hand…” “I’m in the gwoove tonight…ha ha ha ha ha ha…”).

Santa and the Burnses take off in his sleigh in search of the notorious pirate—but not before they are fired upon by the evil swashbuckler and brought crashing down onto his ship. Tamiroff seems to be having quite a bit of fun with his part, helping himself to a hefty slice of scenery du jour:

GEORGE: Gee…you’re…you’re mean, aren’t you?
TAMIROFF: Well, my friend…I do not like to boast…but I’m the meanest…the nastiest…the dirtiest…the most lowdown man who ever lived…
GRACIE: Aw, you’re just saying that…
TAMIROFF: No, no…it’s the truth…never—even in a DeMille picture—was there such a wicked pirate…
GRACIE: Oh, no…what about Captain Kidd?
TAMIROFF: Hah! A creampuff…
GEORGE: What about Blackbeard?
TAMIROFF: Who? Heh heh…shoe salesman! Now…do you know why I stole the toys from Santa Claus, huh? To sell them? Nah…I just took them because I’m mean…I hate people!
GEORGE: You do?
TAMIROFF: Yeah…I hate everybody…look! (SFX: stomping of foot) Wha…ouch!
GEORGE: You stepped on your own toe!
TAMIROFF: Yeah…I even hate myself!

Classic movie fans will no doubt remember Tamiroff in films like The Great McGinty (1940), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943; for which he received an Oscar nomination), and Touch of Evil (1958). In fact, Paul Frees’ vocal characterization of Rocky and Bullwinkle villain Boris Badenov was loosely based on Tamiroff’s voice and mannerisms.

Just when it looks pretty bleak for Santa and the Burnses—the three of them, plus Herman the duck, have been thrown into the pirate ship’s hold, where the purloined toys are being stored—Gracie delivers a stirring speech on the urgent need to save the metal used in most of the toys for the war effort. Tamiroff the Terrible vows to walk the straight-and-narrow, at which point Gracie awakens from her crazy dream.

After Burns & Allen, I listened to an episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as originally broadcast over Mutual Radio December 21, 1947. “The Adventure of the Christmas Bride” takes Holmes and Watson to Pensdragon Castle at the bequest of Lord Neville to attend his daughter’s nuptials—and how a ghostly bride is seen rising from a locked chest a few days before the event begins. I had never heard actor John Stanley in the role of the world’s most famous sleuth before, and his vocal resemblance to former Holmes Basil Rathbone is uncanny. (Many listeners were convinced during the show’s run that it was Rathbone, and that “John Stanley” was simply an alias.) The Doctor Watson of this particular episode is played by Alfred Shirley who, though an admired and respected radio actor, doesn’t really cut it for me—I guess I’m just too accustomed to Nigel Bruce as Holmes’ sidekick. Shirley sounds an awful like character actor Eric Blore, who was always waiting hand-and-foot on Fred Astaire in those RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals of the 1930s.

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