In a last-ditch effort to keep variety radio viable in the face of television, NBC produced "The Big Show," an unprecendented weekly 90-minute extravaganza. It had the biggest movie and radio stars, both old and new. They even snagged television actors who took sly jabs at the media, in between commercials by one of their three big sponsors: RCA Victor. Ironic, that.
"The Big Show" is sort of tedious to listen to. It's so carefully scripted with endless running gags -- and it's so long -- that it tends to sound like a bloated one-joke comedy sketch, which is particularly bad if the joke that week is a bad one.
The hostess is the "glamorous, unpredictable" Talullah Bankhead, and though she can hold her own when the scripts are good, she's totally unable to deal with the stinkers, and she sounds REALLY awful when dealing with sharp-witted improvisers like Fred Allen, Ed Wynn, and Groucho Marx. Being a half-drunk, bitter, middle-aged stage actress probably precludes you from being either glamorous OR truly unpredictable.
As you'd expect from comedy of the time, most of the jokes are about Bankhead's aggressive baritone (Meredith Willson always refers to her as "Well sir, Miss Bankhead"), her inability to get a date, her rivalry with Bette Davis, her Confederate sympathies, and her terrible singing voice (which may have only become a gag when the audience kept laughing at her when she sang).
The effectiveness of the shows depends entirely on the chemistry between the guests. Put opera star Ezio Pinza or Lauritz Melchior into a comic situation and you get an embarassing fizzle that never seems to end, punctuated by Bankhead's forced laughter. Put Judy Holliday in there, however, and the show's a riot from start to finish. Jimmy Durante and Fred Allen also keep things going; Durante especially seems to have genuine compassion for wobbly Talullah (always calling her "Taloo.")
The episode I'm listening to right now is from April 1st, 1951. Groucho Marx, as always, does his best to keep up with limping scriptwriters who don't know how to write for him, then degenerates into a steamroller of ad-libbed craziness. Bob Hope does a similar thing, turning his segments into short machine gun gags about Bing Crosby's weight, age, family life, and bank account (in other words, the usual Bob Hope stuff). Van Johnson is totally underwhelming; he does a poor reenactment from a generic movie about patriotic Japanese soldiers ("Go For Broke")...and Meredith Willson keeps presenting us with more of his formulaic, overwrought schlock (which is only slightly better than his sickeningly goofy novelty stuff...his "Jing-a-Ling" from show #8 invoked uncontrollable dry-heaving in me...and then he followed it with "Ting Ting-a-Ling in show #11...boy that guy could write crappy songs quickly!)
But along comes 71-year-old Ethel Barrymore. The scripts always call for rivalry between the actresses, but Barrymore -- with her grace, gravity, and prestige -- is simply SLAUGHTERING Bankhead. And it's not all part of the script, either. Maybe the final 45 minutes will be good afterall (Joan Davis is scheduled for the second half, and I love her to death).
So I'm venting, but I will be the first to say that "The Big Show" can be very good. It's ESPECIALLY good when Talullah does a serious dramatic reading of some sort, followed instantly by a cruel spoof by the comic guests (usually Holliday and Durante).