On This Day in 1944: Jack Benny, Urging Americans to Keep Their Wartime Jobs, Catches Rochester Moonlighting in Allen’s Alley

Well, last night I finally sat down to watch the first two episodes of the BBC’s current fifteen-part adaptation of Bleak House. While I certainly miss Dickens’s omniscient narrator, the intricacies of the plot and the interweaving of destinies are effectively translated into swiftly edited images and bathetic cuts. Most characters are quite as I recalled them or imagined them to be, with the notable exception of Lady Dedlock, who comes across as rather too contemporary. Saints, sufferers, or scatterbrains, Dickens’s women are notoriously two-dimensional and are most in need of a revision to suit today’s audiences.

As a result, however, they are no longer Dickensian, and bear more resemblance to the far more compelling women in the fictions of Dickens’s fellow novelist and friend, Wilkie Collins. So, when I caught my first glimpse of the secret-harboring and quietly scheming Lady Dedlock as played, icy and aloof, by Gillian Anderson, I felt that she was a potential Collins heroine trapped in a Dickensian plot. I sensed this to be an odd mixture of the sentimental (Dickens) and the sensational (Collins), not unlike, say, a clash between the humor of Jack Benny and the wit of Fred Allen—which is just what American radio listeners experienced on this day, 29 October, in 1944.

For years, comedian Jack Benny and satirist Fred Allen (pictured above, in my own humble attempt at portraiture) engaged in a mock rivalry, acted out on their respective programs, in print, on stage and screen. It was a well-orchestrated multi-media sparring match, fought with insults, wisecracks, and violins, which did much to further the success of both performers.

On said evening, the Jack Benny Program, whose comedy was increasingly serial and situational, slipped quite comfortably into the format that was a defining feature of the Fred Allen Show,: the topical, topsy-survey world of Allen’s Alley. Each week, Allen asked the denizens of his fictional alley a “question of the day.” Benny’s most urgent question was which singing talent should become the featured entertainer on his weekly program. On his way to the NBC studios, Benny runs into Allen, who invites his rival to take a poll in his famed Alley, the “cross section of public opinion.”

Among those answering Benny’s question that night are the huffy, opinionated Mrs. Nussbaum, who offers little assistance by insisting that there is no talent greater than a certain John Charles Shapiro, a crooner performing at Goldberg’s Delicatessen, “by appointment only.” His rendition of “Was You Is or Couldn’t You Possibly Be My Baby” made her swoon like no Sinatra tune ever would.

Somewhat more helpful is her neighbor, the pompous poet Falstaff Openshaw. After delivering a few of his choice verses (“The rose has gone from your cheeks darling, but your neck still looks like a stem” and “The Siamese twins are going screwy, one’s voting for Roosevelt, the other’s for Dewey”), Allen’s resident bard puts the reason for Benny’s difficulties into rhyme: “The reason you can’t get a singer, I’ll be frank, Mr. B., here is why: / A singer won’t just work for L-S-M-F-T [“Lucky Strikes means fine tobacco,” the slogan of Benny’s sponsor], you gotta pay M-O-N-E-Y.”

Allen and Benny are about to leave the Alley when the ode-toting Openshaw offers them a cup of tea. Whom did the two encounter in the poet’s abode but Benny’s butler, Rochester, who is supplementing his paltry salary by secretly churning out verse for Benny’s rival. Wit and humor blend well in this episode; escapism and reality, however, are once again at odds.

Having just caught one of his employees making some money on the side and having been unable to find a new regular for his program, Benny delivers a curtain speech in honor of Navy Day (27 October): “Our men are out there fighting while I’m talking to you now,” Benny addresses his audience, reminding them that “we here at home we must continue to back those men up by sticking to our wartime jobs and giving through the many channels at our disposal.”

Neither the stingy Benny nor his moonlighting valet Rochester were particularly good role models in that respect; but I’m sure their encounter in Allen’s Alley that night brightened the spirits in many a bleak house.

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