Jack Benny, Nazi Fighter and Lombard Lover

In the 1942 film To Be or Not to Be, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play a husband and wife who are stars of a Warsaw theater company right before Germany’s invasion of Poland. They hide as Warsaw is bombed, interact with the resistance and impersonate Nazis during a show with Hitler in attendance.

Taking advantage of Benny’s comedic talents, the film portrays the threat of the Nazis as both menace and farce, which was so controversial at the time that Benny’s own father walked out of the movie upon seeing his son wearing a Nazi uniform. The senior Benny was later cajoled into watching the film, liking it so much he viewed it 46 times.

The passage of time has led to the film’s reappraisal and it is now considered one of the best films of director Ernst Lubitch and stars Benny and Lombard.

While making the film, Jack Benny found self-deprecating humor in his wife Mary Livingstone’s reaction to himself being Lombard’s leading man:

[T]here’s one thing I can say for Mary — she’s not the least bit jealous. She was out at the Korda studio watching me do a very passionate love scene with Carole Lombard the other day, and when I kissed Carole Mary just laughed and laughed. Clark Gable was standing there and he laughed too. I’m glad that Mary and Clark aren’t narrow-minded.

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Sing Sing Warden Sang Praises of Radio

The state of New York built Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York in 1826 and it has been in operation ever since. Today it is a maximum-security prison housing 1,700 inmates. The prison’s location up the Hudson River from New York City inspired the expression “up the river,” which means someone headed to prison.

One of the most influential wardens in the history of Sing Sing was Lewis E. Lawes, who managed the institution from 1920 to 1941. Lawes was a crusading prison reformer who modernized the facility and introduced programs for the betterment of the inmates.

In 1929, Lawes wrote an essay for Time magazine touting the benefits of radio listening in prison. He wrote:

Taking into account the practices of years ago, in which inmates, when not working, were confined completely to themselves, not even being allowed normal communication with one another, it is obvious to anyone what a tremendous blessing the radio is in the lives of men otherwise restrained from any direct contact with the world outside.

And in this connection, the radio medium contains features not possessed by the most complete library. It establishes a relationship with the living, vibrating human being other than with the cold, dead print of a book or of a publication.

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Happy Birthday, Marie Windsor

The blog A Trip Down Memory Lane is celebrating the birthday today of the actress Marie Windsor, who lived from Dec. 11, 1919, to Dec. 10, 2000.

Windsor’s acting career included the B movies Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1962) and Swamp Women (1956).

Jack Benny gave Windsor her first big break in Hollywood:

Her first film contract, with Warner Bros. in 1942, resulted from her writing jokes and submitting them to Jack Benny. Windsor said she submitted the gags under the name M.E. Windsor “because I was afraid he might be prejudiced against a woman gag writer”. When Benny finally met Windsor, “he was stunned by her good looks” and had a producer sign her to a contract. After a tenure with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in which the studio “signed her, put her in two small roles and then promptly forgot her”, she signed a seven-year contract in 1948 with The Enterprise Studios.

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George Carl Performed for Johnny Carson at Age 79

Mark Evanier shares a link to a Tonight Show performance by the prop comedian George Carl, who began his career traveling with circuses in the 1920s and was still performing for Johnny Carson in 1986:

When you saw him live, Mr. Carl did about 20-30 minutes of solid comedy, all paced with about this laughs-per-second pace. When he was on TV, he always did — probably at the insistence of those who’d booked him — this six minute hunk. No matter. I could watch it again and again…sheer poetry.

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Red Skelton Got His Start Peddling Papers

At 12 South 3rd Street in Vincennes, Indiana, stands a mural of the comedian Red Skelton and his characters, including the hillbilly Clem Kadiddlehopper, the hobo Freddie the Freeloader, the henpecked husband George Appleby and the punch-drunk boxer Cauliflower McPugg.

Skelton isn’t remembered as well in most of the United States as he is in his birthplace of Vincennes, but there are still some fans of his distinct brand of pantomime humor and slapstick.

Skelton started in vaudeville as a teen in the 1920s, and he was a successful comedian for more than 50 years. He finished in the Top 20 in 16 of his 20 seasons on television on the show that bore his name. Like Lawrence Welk and Buddy Ebsen, he represented a midcentury, Middle American performance tradition.

The youngest of four brothers, Skelton was the son of a grocer who died two months before his birth on July 18, 1913. Growing up in poverty Skelton sold newspapers on the streets as a seven-year-old, which was his first performing role as he employed newsboy patter to get passers-by to buy copies of the day’s paper.

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Inside Don Ameche’s Personal Life

The radio and movie star Don Ameche was married for 64 years but it was a troubled union. He did not attend his wife Honore Prendergast’s funeral when she died in 1986, as noted in her obituary:

His son, Don Jr., said his father is currently working on a film with Geraldine Page and Shelly Winters in New Jersey and will not be able to attend the funeral services.

The couple, who had met in Dubuque in the 1930s after he attended Columbia College in that Iowa city, lived apart for the last 20 years of her life. Both were members of the Catholic church, whose teachings include the idea that getting a divorce and marrying someone else puts one in a state of “public and permanent adultery.”

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Merry Christmas from the Big Broadcast

The Big Broadcast coming up Sunday night on WAMU has several Christmas-themed episodes:

  • My Favorite Husband: Lucille Ball as Liz Cooper – Original air date December 16, 1949. CBS network. The show explores what George is planning to give Liz for Christmas, with only seven shopping days left. 7:30 p.m. Eastern
  • The Challenge Of The Yukon: Original air date December 22, 1948. ABC network. “The Man With The Red Coat” episode features a little girl who mistakes Sergeant Preston’s red Mountie suit for Santa’s costume. 9:00 p.m. Eastern
  • Suspense: Original air date December 21, 1958. CBS network. “Out For Christmas” stars Raymond Burr as an ex-con who gets out of jail just before Christmas and looks for trouble. 9:30 p.m. Eastern
  • Big Town: Original broadcast date December 21, 1937. CBS network. The show stars Edward G. Robinson as Steve Wilson of The Illustrated Press, who investigates a suspicious Christmas charity racket. 10 p.m. Eastern
  • Quiet Please: Original broadcast date December 26, 1948. ABC network. “Berlin, 1945” is a heartwarming story about a group of American G.I.’s celebrating Christmas in conquered Germany. 10:30 p.m. Eastern

Raymond Burr played a heroic lawyer for so long on the TV series Perry Mason that it was easy to overlook how effective he was in roles as a physically imposing villain. He plays one in the 1948 noir movie Pitfall as a shady detective stalking a woman.

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Scopes Trial Was First Trial Broadcast Live on Radio

The Scopes trial was the first live broadcast of a trial in American history.

Known as the “Monkey Trial,” it was a legal case in Tennessee in 1925 involving a high school biology teacher named John T. Scopes, who was accused of violating state law by teaching evolution in his classroom. The trial attracted national attention and became a significant moment in the debate between creationism and evolution. The prosecution was led by famous politician and lawyer William Jennings Bryan, while the defense was led by celebrated criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

The broadcasting of the trial required a significant amount of planning and investment, with WGN radio under manager Quin Ryan spending $1,000 a day to transmit the proceedings live (roughly $17,000 in 2022 dollars). The radio station, which was only a year old at the time, rented AT&T cables to connect Chicago to Dayton, Tennessee, where the trial was being held. This pioneering effort paved the way for future live broadcasts of legal proceedings.

In the end, Scopes was found guilty and fined $100, but the verdict was later overturned on a technicality. The trial helped to bring the issue of evolution into the national spotlight, where it remains to this day.

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