Anything They Can Do . . . to Make You Feel Better

Well, leave it to a couple of old troupers to make me feel a little less sorry for myself. This New Year’s cold is making me feel miserable, cranky, and just about as fresh as a Jackie Mason standup routine. As those subjected to my groanings and whinings will only be too glad to corroborate, I am not one to suffer in silence. Mind you, I groan and whine even without an audience, of which I was deprived this afternoon (save for our terrier, Montague, who showed no signs of interest, let alone compassion). I reckon those noises serve chiefly as a reminder to myself that I am still numbering among the living.

On days like this, when the food tastes stale, I resort to a few extra doses of comfort culture. I seem to derive the greatest pleasure watching or listening to the old. Exposure to youth, in those moments of premature decrepitude, seems rather too cruel to endure.

After a reassuring hour or so with The Golden Girls, I needed to give my burning peepers a rest; so, I quickly went through my old-time radio log and came across this episode of the Big Show, originally aired on this day, 7 January, in 1951. Among Ms. Bankhead’s guests were Fred Allen, joking about his retirement and health problems, Edward G. Robinson, who was heard in a digest of Cornell Woolrich’s After Dinner Story and lamenting years of typecasting, as well as the fabulous Marlene Dietrich, with whose Scarlet Empress I caught up last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (a few days ago, I reencountered her in Stage Fright). Now, Dietrich was even older than the hostess of the Big Show—and Bankhead and her team of writers did not let her forget it for a minute.

Marlene, in turn, was permitted to mock Tallulah’s age-imposed invisibility (“I hear so little about you since you have hidden yourself away in radio”) while rubbing it in that she had just been interviewed by the Woman’s Home Companion. “Are they changing the name to Old Woman’s Home Companion?” Bankhead retorted. “Now let’s face it, darling,” she went on to tear at Dietrich’s glamorous persona, “false eyelashes, mascara, powder, rouge, lipstick . . .” “Yes, darling,” Dietrich purred, “but the rest of it is all me.”

“Let’s stop pretending and tell the truth,” Dietrich declared.

There’s no use denying it. I am not quite as young as I used to be. Everybody knows that I am a mother, and now I’m a grandmother. The silly idea women have that they must lie about their age is ridiculous. I don’t care if everybody knows how old I am.

Upon which Dietrich admits to 32 and Bankhead to 31. That cleared up, Dietrich (who performs such “miracles in numbers”) is invited to sing “Falling in Love Again” . . . “just the way [she] sang it 35 years ago,” before she was born.

Culminating in a rendition of “Anything You Can Do,” the Bankhead-Dietrich face-off is another exercise in self-effacement, which quickly became the trademark of The Big Show. Just the kind of kick in the old pants I needed . . .

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