Friday, June 15, 2007

Thoughts about "The Big Show"

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).


Eric Little said...

I used to enjoy "I Married Joan" (with Jim Backus) on TV lo these many years ago.

And WHO tf ever persuaded the Beatles to record Willson's "Till There Was You"? (How many Beatle fans have THAT on their iPods?)

"Taloo," if I remember correctly from a biography I read years ago (I should boilerplate that phrase), was pretty much of a sexual omnivore, and ALWAYS hungry.

Ouch! I just got a mental image of Taloo and ole Schnozzola getting it on.

Did you know "Queen of Outer Space" is coming out in a couple of weeks on DVD?

Adam Thornton said...

(I totally missed this comment!)

I've never seen "I Married Joan," but I'd love to. I understand it's on DVD. As for "Queen of Outer Space," however, I've never had the love for Zsa Zsa Gabor that so many people have. And my cat was already called Zsa Zsa when I got her.

I admit that I love "The Music Man." "Marian the Librarian" is brilliant. But otherwise Willson seemed like an overblown hack. I have recordings of him chatting with Arthur Godfrey in the '70s, and everybody treats Willson like royalty. As for "Till There Was You," shudder!

Taloo and Durante? Yikes! Only marginally better than my previous mental image of Durante and Vera Vague.

Regardless, I love the Schnozzola, I really do.

Eric Little said...

I asked about "The Queen of Outer Space" because, if I remember correctly, it approaches a Woodian nadir of awfulness at times, but never consistently, because I think its makers knew that what they were doing was camp, and Wood never admitted it, even to himself. It stars wooden Eric Fleming as well--the only actor who could make Clint Eastwood seem like he had the range of Charles Laughton.

I can still remember being bowled over in the Tiffin Theater by watching Robert Preston sing "Ya Got Trouble." Wow.

And I love Durante too. ;)
"Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." And walking off down a darkened stage lit only by a few spotlights.