George & Gracie

Happy Chocolate Sale Eve, everybody! And Valentine's Day, if you celebrate that. I think I've only once actually had a boyfriend on V-Day, and in retrospect I should have dumped him long before that happened. 

In honor of couple-dom, however, today's post is about one of the quintessential couples of showbiz, George Burns and Gracie Allen. They were a mixed couple, unusual for the time; George was born Nathan Birnbaum to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Romania, and Gracie was one of four Irish Catholic sisters. They met in 1923, and at first their partnership was strictly business -- Gracie was engaged to someone else at the time. They went on tour first as a traditional vaudeville act, where George played the wacky comedian and Gracie was the straight man, but after noticing that Gracie was getting more laughs on the setup than George was with the punchlines, they flipped the characters around.

"And all of a sudden, the audience realized I had a talent. They were right. I did have a talent -- and I was married to her for 38 years."
-- George Burns
The "dizzy blonde" bit was already a common archetype in vaudeville days, but Burns & Allen modified it slightly: Gracie's character wasn't stupid, she was just off at right angles to reality. It takes quite a bit of intelligence to pull of a dumb blonde who's so crazy she wraps back around to making a weird kind of sense. First you have to know what response the audience expects, so you can avoid giving it; then you have to figure out a response that completely misses the point in some way that is also technically completely correct. If you look at this stuff written out, the main difference between Gracie Allen and Dorothy Parker is that Dorothy makes it clear that she knows what answer you want and just isn't going to give it to you, whereas Gracie is pretending it never crossed her mind. Marilyn Monroe used to do it, too (infamous press conference answers: "What did you have on [for the photoshoot]?" -- "The radio." and "What do you wear to bed?" -- "Chanel No 5."), and nowadays Sarah Millican is a pretty reliable source, who also has hands-down the most adorable Geordie accent I have ever heard.

"All I ever had to do was say, 'Gracie, how's your brother?' and she talked for 38 years. And sometimes I didn't even have to remember to say, 'Gracie, how's your brother?'"
-- George Burns
Part of the reason Gracie was so good at it was that she was also a bit like that in real life. George stepped out on her once and only once; he regretted it immediately, bought her some piece of furniture she'd been wanting out of sheer guilt, and did his damndest to make sure she never found out, feeling that he'd already upset himself enough to never do it again and that it wouldn't help anything to upset her over it as well. He thought he was successful until years later, when he overheard her making a comment to one of her friends, "Sometimes I wish George would go out and have another affair -- I could really use a new coffee table."

She married him in the first place because he made her cry at a Christmas party. If she cared about him enough to cry over him, she reasoned, she must be in love.
"S. S. Van Dine is silly to spend six months writing a novel, when you can buy one for two dollars and ninety-eight cents."
-- Gracie Allen, reviewing Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case
Burns & Allen were a part of the pop culture landscape for decades. They successfully transitioned their vaudeville act into short films, then into a longer radio format, and then into a wacky, fourth-wall breaking television sitcom. The shorts are an interesting look into the attitude towards film at the time -- they reuse gags for several of them, on the assumption that, like their stage act, the performances are ephemeral, and nobody would ever go back and check. The ending of "Lambchops" is an early example of what later became George's rather meta monologues on TV; playing with the medium and the audience like that wasn't very common at the time. Note that Gracie's not blonde yet, either -- but she is dressed as a fashionably twitty flapper girl. Stereotypes change!

I find their sitcom absolutely hilarious, which is unusual for me. Usually I think sitcoms are twitch-inducingly stupid. It's uncomfortably sexist by today's standards, but I forgive that much more easily than the current sitcoms that have that problem -- I know a lot of people like The IT Crowd, but the entire premise of the show is that the IT department is saddled with a technically-incompetent woman who didn't have the sense or spine to stand up and say, "Excuse me, I think I'm being interviewed for the wrong job," five minutes into the first episode. At least George and Gracie were doing this before the idiot housewife gag was Officially Frowned Upon. They tend to pick up on all the things that were already clichés and then twist them into pretzels before they're done.

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