The Whole Ball of Wax: “Life With Lucy and Desi”

She wasn’t funny, and she wasn’t all that nice. That’s what those stepping behind the microphone for a new hour-long BBC radio documentary have to say about the “real” Lucille Ball, comedienne, businesswoman, and small-screen icon. Not exactly a revelation, to be sure; but you might expect less after reading the blurb on the BBC’s webpage for the program, which revises history by calling I Love Lucy “a zany television series which ran for twenty five years.” Well, let’s not heckle and jibe. The anecdotal impressions of those who can justly claim to have seen both sides of Ms. Ball make “Life With Lucy and Desi” a diverting biographical sketch, however moth-balled the gossip some twenty years after the actress’s death.

“She wasn’t the nicest person all the time,” biographer Tom Gilbert puts it mildly; but to say even that much apparently triggers complaints from many Lucy lovers, to whom journalist Mariella Frostrup apologizes in advance. Frostrup’s voice is enough to win anyone over, even though it might make at once forgive and forget what she is saying. Hers has been called the “sexiest female voice on [British] TV”—and the hot medium of radio only accentuates her seductive powers. So, where was I?

Right, “Life With Lucy and Desi.” It wasn’t all love and laughter—especially not for children. Actress Morgan Brittany recalls a scene on the set of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968) in which Ball lost her temper when one of the kids dared to laugh and ruin a difficult take. Native Americans in traditional garb and images of birds likewise irritated her, as did bodily contact. “She didn’t like people being near her,” Gilbert observes.

She seemed somewhat out of touch as well, even though she got to run the run-down RKO and signed off on Star Trek, a program she assumed, as Gilbert asserts, to be about performers entertaining the troops during the Second World War.

“Life” is further enlivened by numerous recordings from Ball’s career in television, film and radio. My Favorite Husband, I am pleased to note, has not been left out of this phono-biographic grab bag, even though the snippet from the radio forerunner to I Love Lucy airs without commentary; nor is it always clear what it is that we are hearing—no dates or episode titles are mentioned—the clip from My Favorite Husband, for instance, is not identified as being been taken from the 4 March 1949 episode—and the selections seem not merely random, but hardly representative of Ball’s finest moments in this or any medium. When you hear her sing “It’s Today” (from the stage hit turned film dud Mame), you’d wish someone would “strike the band up” to drown out the wrong notes.

The argument this documentary seems to make is that Lucy would not have been Lucy if Desi had not been Ricky. Ball had talent, Brittany concedes, but might have ended up like “Baby” June Havoc, whom Brittany portrayed in Gyspy—a fine performer who never quite reached stardom and who, though still living, is not nearly so well remembered today as to be celebrated—or critiqued—in a radio documentary of her own. She might just have remained the “Queen of the B’s.”

The inevitable Robert Osborne aside, the lineup of folks who knew or at any rate worked with Ball also includes “Little Ricky” Keith Thibodeaux, Peter Marshall (who walked out on a chance of working with Ball), Allan Rich (who played a Judge on Life with Lucy; not, as Frostrup has it, on the Lucy Show) and writer Madelyn Davis (formerly Pugh), who still gets fan mail for having created the durable caricatures that were “Lucy.”

No mention, of course, is made of Hoppla Lucy, viewings of which constitute my earliest television memories (Hoppla being the German dubbing of The Lucy Show). Long before I had breakfast with Lucy when truncated (make that mutilated) episode of her first and finest television series aired on New York’s Fox Five every weekday morning, a truncated version of myself sat down to watch Lucy bake a cake and making a mess of it. I haven’t watched it since, but can still tune in the laugh it produced. Who cares whether or not what I saw was the real Ball. I sure was having one.


Related recordings
My Favorite Husband (4 March 1949)

Related writing
“Havoc in ‘Subway’ Gives Commuters Ideas”
“‘But some people ain’t me!’: Arthur Laurents and ‘The Face’ Behind Gypsy

Re: Boot (A Mental Effort Involving Distant Cousins)

Like many a woebegone youth of my generation—once known as the No Future generation—I entered the crumbling empire of Evelyn Waugh’s fictions by way of that lush, languid serial adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. It wasn’t so much what I saw as what I had missed that made me pick up the book. Owing to my mother’s loyalty to Dynasty, which aired opposite Brideshead on West German television back in the early 1980s, I was obliged to fill whatever holes our weekly appointment with the Carringtons had blasted into Waugh’s plot. Even more circuitous was my subsequent introduction to A Handful of Dust. In keeping with the title—and in poor housekeeping besides—a tatty paperback of it had been cast to steady a wonky table in the community room of a nurse’s residence at the hospital where I carried out such duties as were imposed on me during the mandatory twenty-month stretch of civil service any boy not inclined to be trained for military action was expected to fulfill.

For twenty months, I, who ought to have been eating strawberries with Charles Ryder, served canteen slop and sanitized bedpans at a Cologne hospital. Was there ever a locality less deserving of the name it gave to the art of concealing our stenches, of which Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once “counted two and seventy” in Cologne alone? My head was not held very high during those days, which probably led me to investigate just what propped up that misshapen piece of furniture. For once, though, I had reason to lament being downcast. A Handful of Dust turned out to be a rare find.

Counting the weeks to my release, I could sympathized with its anti-hero, the hapless Tony Last, trapped as he was in the wilds of the Amazon, forced to read the works of Charles Dickens to the one man who could have returned him to civilization but, enjoying his literary escapes, refused to release him—a scenario familiar to regular listeners of thriller anthologies Suspense and Escape.) Like Mr. Last, I had gotten myself in an awful fix—and up a creek that smelled the part.

So, when I think of Evelyn Waugh’s early fictions now, at a time in my life when I can more closely associate with his later Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, what comes to mind is the comparative misery of my youth and the pleasures derived from the incongruities at the heart of his late-1920s and 1930s novels, satires like Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and Black Mischief (1932). While not inclined to relive those days by revisiting such titles, I could not turn down the chance of another Scoop (1937), the first installment of a two-part adaptation of which is being presented this week by BBC Radio 4.

Ever topical, Scoop is a satire on journalism, war and the money to be made in the Hearstian enterprise of making the news that sells. Finding himself in the midst of it all is William Boot, whose sole contribution to the field of journalism is a “bi-weekly half-column devoted to Nature.” Decidedly not mightier than the sword, his pen produced lines like “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole. . . .” Not the rugged, muscular prose you’d expect from a war correspondent.

It was all a deuced mistake, of course, this business of sending Boot to report on the crisis in Ishmaelia, a “hitherto happy commonwealth” whose Westernized natives no longer “publicly eat human flesh, uncooked, in Lent, without special and costly dispensation from their bishop.” The chap who was meant and eager to go among them was William’s namesake, one John Courteney Boot, a fashionable novelist who “kept his name sweet in intellectual circles with unprofitable but modish works on history and travel,” works like “Waste of Time, a studiously modest description of some harrowing months among the Patagonian Indians.”

Absurd situations and wicked caricatures aside, it is Waugh’s prose—the pith of impish phrases like “studiously modest”—that makes a novel like Scoop such a font of literary Schadenfreude. “Amusingly unkind,” the London Times Literary Supplement called it. As it turns out, the joke’s on us once the narration is removed.

Condensing the wild plot in suitably madcap speed, Jeremy Front’s radio adaptation retains little of the narration, sacrificing not only wit but clarity to boot. What is left of the Waugh’s exposition may well lead the listener to believe that John, not William, is the central character. Indeed, like Waugh’s dimwitted Lord Copper, head of the Megalopolitan Newpaper Corporation, listeners are apt to (con)fuse the two.

Unlike Front, Waugh takes great pains to set up the farcical plot, dropping first one Boot, then another, and makes it clear just how the unequal pair are matched:

“The fashionable John Courtney Boot was a remote cousin [of William],” Waugh’s narrator informs us, but they “had never met.” Too eager to get on with the story, Front omits these line, relying solely on the juxtaposition of the two characters, who, during those first few minutes of the play, are little more than names to us.

However bootless the lament, I wish those stepping into the wooden O of radio today would put themselves in the shoes of their listener. Before experimenting with fancy footwork, they should consult a few classics to arrive at the proper balance between dialogue and narration. Otherwise, a potential Scoop can seem like such a Waste of Time—especially to those whose concentration is impaired by plot-obstructive reminiscences . . .


Related recordings
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Suspense (9 Oct. 1947)
“The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Escape (21 December 1952)

“Here is your forfeit”: It’s Hopkins’s Night As Colbert Goes Private

“Our guest stars might well have been tailored for the celebrated parts of Peter and Ellie,” host Orson Welles remarked as he raised the curtain on the Campbell Playhouse production of “It Happened One Night,” heard on this day, 28 January, in 1940. Quite a bold bit of barking, that. After all, the pants once worn by bare-chested Clark Gable were handed down to William Powell, who was debonair rather than brawny. “Mr. William Powell surely needs no alteration at all,” Welles insisted, even though the material required considerable trimming. Meanwhile, the part of Ellie, the “spoiled and spirited heiress” whom Peter cuts down to size until he suits her, was inherited by Miriam Hopkins. It had “certainly never been more faultlessly imagined than tonight,” Welles declared. Indeed, as I was reminded by Andre Soares’s interview with biographer Allan Ellenberger on Alternative Film Guide, Hopkins numbered among the leading ladies who had turned down the role and, no doubt, came to regret it, given the critical and commercial success of It Happened, which earned Claudette Colbert an Academy Award.

Now, Welles was prone to hyperboles; but, in light of Colbert’s memorable performance, his claim that the part had “never been more faultlessly imagined”—in a radio adaptation, no less—sounds rather spurious. As it turns out, raspy-voiced Hopkins (whom last I saw in a BFI screening of Becky Sharp) does not give the spirited performance one might expect from the seasoned comedienne. Her timing is off, her emoting out of character, all of which conspires, along with the imposed acceleration of the script, to render disingenuous what is meant to be her character’s transformation from brat to bride; and while Powell, a few fluffed lines notwithstanding, does quite well as the cocky Peter Grant (it was “Warne” when those pants were worn by Gable), the only “spirited” performance is delivered by Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the lively score.

In short, there is little to justify Welles’s introductory boast. Was the Wunderkind getting back at Colbert for standing him up two months earlier, when Madeleine Carroll filled her place in “The Garden of Allah”? What’s more, Colbert appeared to have passed on the chance to reprise her Oscar-winning role for Campbell Playhouse, something she had previously done, opposite Gable in one of his rare radio engagements, for a Lux Radio Theater reworking of the old “Night Bus” story.

That same night, 28 January 1940, Colbert was heard instead on a Screen Guild broadcast in a production of “Private Worlds,” in a role for which she had received her second Academy Award nomination. During the curtain call, Colbert was obliged to “pay a forfeit” after incorrectly replying “The Jazz Singer” to the question “What was the first full-length all-talking picture to come out of Hollywood?” For this, she was ordered to recite a tongue twister; but it wasn’t much of a forfeit, compared to the sense of loss both Colbert and Hopkins must have felt whenever they misjudged the business by rejecting important roles or by risking their careers making questionable choices.

In The Smiling Lieutenant, the two had played rivals who ended their fight over the same man by comparing the state of their undies; now, Hopkins seemed to be rummaging in Colbert’s drawers for the parts she could have had but was not likely to be offered again. Well, however you want to spin it, radio sure was the place for makeshift redressing, for castoffs and knock-offs, for quick alterations and hasty refittings. It catered to the desire of actors and audiences alike to rewrite or at any rate tweak Hollywood history. Go ahead, try it on for size.

"Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter": A Visit at Kaltenmeyer’s

K A M M A N. I am sure a lot of readers of Radio Guide magazine would have found “Bruce ___, ‘Professor Kaltenmeyer’ as easy a crossword puzzle clue as “Jane ___, comedienne” or “___ Wallington, announcer.” From 1932 onwards, Bruce Kamman played the good-natured and much put upon teacher of the gang at Kaltenmeyer’s Kindergarten, a weekly comedy program that originiated from WMAQ, Chicago. Kaltenmeyer’s is one of those popular programs that have all but disappeared into thin air, the exception being the 12 December 1936 broadcast (which you may access on Jerry Haendiges’s invaluable “Same Time, Same Station” site). Reminiscent of and anticipating German schoolboy comedies like Heinrich Spoerl’s Feuerzangenbowle or Erich Kästner’s Das Fliegende Klassenzimmer (both 1933), Kaltenmeyer is a winsome trifle of a show. Each week, the Kindergarten opened with the catchy signature “Just for Fun”:

Kaltenmeyer’s starting,
Let’s all go to school.
In this kindergarten,
Where nonsense is the rule.

Indeed, much of it is nonsense, some of it song. Fibber McGee and Molly team Jim and Marian Jordan were featured on the program; until the fall of 1936, they were among the Professor’s international crowd of poopils. The 12 December 1936 broadcast (an excerpt of which was later rebroadcast on Recollections at Thirty) includes the somewhat incongruously wistful “Sweetheart, Let’s Grow Old Together” and offers at least one memorable pun involving the definition of the word “indisputable,” which one Kaltenmeyer’s rambunctious kids (adults all) manages to put into the following sentence: “Indisputable weather we’re having.”

It is Bruce Kamman’s voice, though, that adds “indisputable” charm to the nonsense. It is the kind of Sig Ruman-Frank Reichert voice—warm, avuncular, and too Jean Hersholt to be altogether ridiculously, let alone threateningly Teutonic. According to Francis M. Nevins’s The Sound of Detection, the Cincinnati-born Kamman, who entered radio as early as 1920, would continue his broadcasting career off mike, namely by producing and directing episodes of the Ellery Queen mystery-cum-celebrity quiz program.

Kamman’s days as Kaltenmeyer came to an end once the Germans began to wage war in Europe. In 1940, well before the United States entered the Second World War, Kaltenmeyer stopped saying “Auf Wiedersehen.” The character was removed from the Kindergarten, and what was left of the show folded soon thereafter.

I guess, when you make a career of sounding like Sig Ruman, you were expected to start shouting “Sieg Heil!” or hiss sinisterly and subsequently expire, rather than be permitted to send kindly greetings like “Bleiben Sie wohl und halten Sie sich munter” (“stay well and cheerful”) to the American people, whatever their heritage or dialect. Clearly “good old days” recalled in the theme song were over.

Now, let’s all go to back to the school that was radio and solve the puzzle . . .

Cardboard Sentiment

I have yet to write a card this season; and considering that half of my greetings are to be flown overseas, I should really put pen to shiny paper any day now. In Germany, where I am from, it is tradition to wait until the last possible moment to post seasonal greetings, whatever the season. It is not customary there to display received mail for weeks on dusty end, certainly not prior to the event they are designed to commemorate. So, when is the right time to drop off those sentiments? The ever earlier reminders that are the shop windows can hardly be a guide in the matter.

“To save the postman a miserable Christmas, we follow the example of all unselfish people, and send out our cards early.” Thus noted the imaginary writer of The Diary of a Nobody (1892) in an entry dated . . . 22 December? The postal workers, no doubt, were less than pleased by the way in which the sentiment found implementation.

“Most of the cards had fingermarks, which I did not notice at night,” the same writer observed, a potential smudge on his reputation against which he resolved to guard henceforth by buying “all future cards in the daytime.” Another noted nobody determined not to purchase any cards at all. His name was Fibber McGee; and on this day 6 December, in 1949, he was found hard at work making his own holiday cards. To be sure, it was not his big idea to be creative or thoughtful that temporarily turned him into one-man Hallmark factory.

“Boy-o-boy,” Fibber told his wife, the doubtful Molly, “I sure wish I’d a-thought of this before. Look at the money I’d a-saved if I’d a-made my own Christmas cards every year.” Fibber did not merely paint the designs, including a beardless Santa Claus; he also dreamed up the accompanying sentiments. Among the rhymed excuses for his schlock art (words for which writer Don Quinn deserves and received some credit), are:

St. Nicholas had his beard cut off
as up on the roof his reindeers trample
because how can a guy with whiskers on
show little shavers a good example?

“I got a million ideas as good as this one,” Fibber boasted. “Well, I should hope so,” Molly replied.

For the Mayor of the town, Fibber paints the picture of a pork barrel with a hand in it; and for a friend who has been avoiding him for reasons soon to be apparent, he sketches a fish swimming through mistletoe, a symbolism explained in verse:

I hope the fish I hereby show
recalls the fin I loaned you last July.
And though he swims through mistletoe,
I ain’t gonna kiss that fin goodbye.

Ultimately, Fibber has to wash his hands of the whole Christmas card business, dirty as they are with paint and glue. Like the Nobody before him, and like millions of people everywhere, Fibber resorts to store-bought sentiments, even though the ones he has his hands on were pre-owned. The seller proved savvier than old Fibber. As Nobody’s experience with “fingermarks” suggests, even the purchase of new cards can be a challenge, especially when one has to face a shop

crowded with people, who seemed to take up the cards rather roughly, and, after a hurried glance at them, throw them down again. I remarked to one of the young persons serving, that carelessness appeared to be a disease with some purchasers. The observation was scarcely out of my mouth, when my thick coat-sleeve caught against a large pile of expensive cards in boxes one on top of the other, and threw them down. The manager came forward, looking very much annoyed, and picking up several cards from the ground, said to one of the assistants, with a palpable side-glance at me: ‘Put these amongst the sixpenny goods; they can’t be sold for a shilling now.’ The result was, I felt it my duty to buy some of these damaged cards.

I had to buy more and pay more than intended. Unfortunately I did not examine them all, and when I got home I discovered a vulgar card with a picture of a fat nurse with two babies, one black and the other white, and the words: ‘We wish Pa a Merry Christmas.’ I tore up the card and threw it away. Carrie said the great disadvantage of going out in Society and increasing the number of our friends was, that we should have to send out nearly two dozen cards this year.

May a joyous season be in your cards, fingermarks ‘n all!

Once More Round the Horne

I just got back from Brighton, England, the popular seaside resort that is pretty much the gayest town in all of Britain. So, to speak in the cheek-lodged tongue of Polari, I was bound to have a “fantabulosa” time. And how “fantabulosa” was it for an old “omi-palone” like me to have Round the Horne playing just round the corner at Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Considering that Round the Horne is a British radio series whose last original episode aired back in 1968, I could hardly believe my “ogles” when I read that it was on while I was visiting. I was thrilled to get my “lills” on a pair of tickets to “aunt nell” some of the wittiest comedy act never seen by millions.

Round the Horne: Unseen and Uncut is an ingeniously—if deceptively—simple production. It merely presents two of the sixty-six 45-minute broadcasts from this much-loved and well-remembered BBC program (1965-68), separated by an intermission that only the most humorless of stick-in-the-muds would take as an opportunity to make a hasty retreat. The scripts are taken directly from the original series. You would not want to tinker with lines composed by Barry Took (Laugh In) and his writing partner Marty Feldman. You certainly would not have to.

The second act (or half, rather) builds on the first, allowing viewers to pick up the rhythm of the show, pick up on the slight but clever variations, and pick their favorite among the recurring characters, a line-up including Fiona and Charles, an aging pair of actors who reprise their preposterously Cowardesque silver screen dialogues (“I know you know I know”) in that posh and most unnatural anti-vernacular of BBC English; folk singer Rambling Syd Rumpo with yet another rendition of his Jabberwockian tunes; and, of course, Julian and his friend Sandy in all their Polari-riddled glory that was enjoyed by millions but understood and shared by only a few whose nature made them appreciate the subversiveness and desperation of such artifice. After all, homosexuality was still illegal at the time.

Of course, the production is not at all simple. The performers are called upon to impersonate well-known radio (and television) personalities, including Kenneth Horne (played by Jonathan Rigby), Kenneth Williams (Robin Sebastian), and Betty Marsden (Sally Grace). Standing behind a row of microphones, without any other props of scenery to speak of, the six cast members (not including the singers and orchestra members) have to sound the part and deliver their borrowed lines with an enthusiasm that is thoroughly rehearsed without sounding disingenuous. Along with the harmonizing quartet known as Not the Fraser Hayes Four, the seen voices of this stage show are fully deserving of a hearty cheer of “fantabulosa!”

However convincingly the experience of attending a live radio broadcast (or a recording session thereof) in a studio is being recreated, though, one aspect of such productions has been overlooked or obscured. Hidden from view were the indispensable sound effects artists whose presence would have completed the picture. I would have settled for an extra pressing a number of buttons while seated among the musicians who were in full view at all times. Instead, the recorded yet well-timed effects (from footsteps to horses hoofs) came from a loudspeaker, its makers or purveyors unseen and, a mention in the playbill aside, unacknowledged.

The production might also have benefited from a few glances behind the scene, with actors walking on, preparing for their roles or having a chat before each broadcast. No dirt, just an element of realism. Since Took’s widow serves as “script consultant” for this touring show, some insightful biographical notes might have been worked into this simulation. Kenneth Williams’s life, in particular, is worth exploring in a stage drama. According to the playbill, the “action takes place” at the “BBC Paris Recording Studios in Lower Regent Street, London”; but what there is of action hardly speaks as loudly as the words. This is “theater of the mind”; and once it is taken out of the wooden O of your cranium, you begin to wonder whether what you see is really what you get as you make an effort to wipe your “oglefakes.”

That said, I was glad for this chance to catch up with Round the Horne—and at such an opportune moment to boot. It so happens that, this Friday, 28 November, BBC Radio 7 is rebroadcasting the 7 March 1965 debut of the program, with subsequent episodes to follow sequentially in the weeks and months to come. My “aunt nells” are ready for it . . .

Politics and Plumbing

Doesn’t Republican rhetoric sound tired these days? The material isn’t fit for Vaudeville. The same old folksy (make that fauxsy) references to the mythical Joe Sixpack or average Joe, plumbing and otherwise. Shouldn’t that at least be the average José by now? It all strikes me as so 1950s in its white picket-fenced-in parochialism. Tuners-in are treated to the same bromidic anecdotes that are meant to stand for what supposedly matters or to distract from what truly does.

To candidates like McCain and Palin, what matters surely isn’t the presumably average Joe or Jane, at least not as anything other than statistical figures adding up to a sufficient number of votes. What matters to Republicans is the maintaining of a status quo serving those at the top who, if they deem it fit, let a few crumbs fall from the table at which few sit and most serve. Republicans tend to appeal to our meanest instincts, greed and selfishness, for which reason they rely on the lowest common denominators in their campaign speeches and their less-than-reassuring assurances.

No new taxes? “Read my lips,” perchance? The line is familiar, even if the letdown seems to have been forgotten by most. Less government? Tell that to the average Janes whom you deny control of their own bodies and destinies. I, who might have been a US citizen by now had it not been for conservative politics, would rather have big government than a world controlled by large corporations whose profit-marginalization of humanity is not only harming national economies but, what should be more important to us than mammon, our shared, global ecology.

Joe the Plumber? Sure, he exists. That does not make the figure any less of a fiction, a campaign speech commodity. Listening to the final Presidential debate, I was reminded of a certain “expert plumber” who stood up against a ruthless politician clawing himself into office; a cat, no less. Back in 1940, when socialism was not quite the dirty word that it is today, playwright Arthur Miller (a revival of whose All My Sons opens on Broadway tonight) created such fierce opponents in his radio fantasy “The Pussycat and the Expert Plumber Who Was a Man” (previously discussed here). Tom, the Pussycat in question, is a questionable campaigner who shrouds his feline identity in threats and promises; he gets elected mayor in a nasty contest relying on the exposure of past wrongs in the lives and careers of elected officials, however irrelevant such revelations might be to the act of governing.

Tom aspires to the Presidency . . . until he is confronted by a fearless plumber, a citizen who exposes him for the sly customer he really is. Beaten, Tom returns to his home. The “difference between a man and a cat,” he concludes,

is that a cat will do anything, the worst things, to fill his stomach, but a man . . . a man will actually prefer to stay poor because of an ideal. That’s why I could never be president; because some men are not like cats. Because some men, some useful men, like expert plumbers, are so proud of their usefulness that they don’t need the respect of their neighbors and so they aren’t afraid to speak the truth.

As long as there is cream there will be cats that keep their paws on it while they purr about prosperity for all. Send in some stout-hearted plumbers who refuse to be campaign fodder and, rather than having pulled the fur over their eyes, set out to realize the ideal of draining the arteries in which the cream is clotting. And don’t let cream-licking felines make you believe that an ideal such as this is nothing but the stuff of pipe dreams . . .

Beyond M: Max Ophüls’s Lachende Erben (1933)

“One excellent test of the civilization of a country,” Victorian poet and novelist George Meredith remarked, is the “flourishing of the Comic idea and Comedy; and the test of true Comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.” To him, the “equality of the sexes” was, above all else, the requisite for “[g]ood comedies.” In this respect, the Germans were “rather monstrous—never a laugh of men and women in concert.”

While not entirely convinced by Meredith’s argument, I have often deplored the state of humor and wit in German film. The Germans are by no means a people of agelasts (non-laughers), let alone misogelasts (laugh-haters); but their comedy is generally crude or hostile. It tends to be discriminatory rather than discriminating. Those who displease us—and I have to include myself among the Germans, as much as I have distanced myself from Germany these past two decades—are being “ausgelacht,” that is, laughed out, as if banned from our midst, and stripped of their dignity.

German laughter is often elicited by the misfortune of others. And while such bemusement is not alien to Americans and the British, it is telling that English had no word for such a response to the world until it imported Schadenfreude. Laughing off the thought that what befalls others may happen to us may be an expression of fear; but I am not sure whether it is a fear of otherness or the fear that we might well find ourselves in the position of the ridiculed sufferer. What, to pick up Meredith’s idea, can a German movie produced in 1933 tell us about a civilization about to reach its darkest age?

Americans or the British might find it difficult to comment on the state German film comedy of the 1930s, considering how few of these films are known beyond Germany; far more familiar to them are earlier melodramas, ranging from gothic horror and dystopia to social realism. Even if the name of a highly regarded filmmaker like Max Ophüls is attached, German Lustspiele (comedies) are virtually uncharted territory for international audiences not in need of a regional map. Ophüls Lachende Erben (“Laughing Heirs”) is distinctly German; yet, to my surprise, it also has all the wit and charm of a 1930s Paramount comedy.

As a talkie, Lachende Erben makes full use of dialects, of which there are so many in German that it caused me great distress as a child to whom moving a mere fifteen miles or so meant being confronted to a language foreign to my ears and tongue. In Ophüls comedy, though, modern technology, from trains to telephones, is shown to bridge and unite the nation without obliterating regional differences. What keeps people apart, instead, is an obsession with the international language of finance.

The world depicted in Lachende Erben is a decidedly modern one; and the challenge is to master modernity without sacrificing humanity to it. It is the world of advertising, of commerce and industry. A train speeds through the German countryside in the opening scene; on board are Peter (Heinz Rühmann; pictured above) and Gina (Lien Deyers; seen right)—and, as far away from their destination, their destiny, they might be, the two are bound to come together at last. Along the way, in keeping with the by then already classic boy-meets-girl formula, there are numerous complications.

After all, Peter and Gina are in rivalling camps, representatives of competing wine merchants. Peter is an advertising man, but enough of a dreamer to brave the occupational hazard of falling in love with the competition. Gina has her own thoughts on the subject; impressed by Peter’s cockiness, she very nearly engages him as an adman; but when he loses his edge to please her, she gives him the brush-off.

Still more difficult is it for Peter to refrain from drinking the wine he is expected to peddle. Yet that is just what his uncle’s will stipulates. Reading, as it were, from the beyond and heard through a gramophone, the departed informs his unsmiling heirs that Peter is to inherit the Bockelmann fortune if he can manage to remain sober for an entire month. This becomes as much a test of Peter’s stamina as it is an opportunity for greedy relatives to deprive him of his inheritance. Resigned to throw away his fortune by reaching for his uncle’s wine, it is Peter who has the last laugh.

Lachende Erben nicely balances wit and humor, sentiment and satire. It is a comedy rooted in the belief that unity can be achieved through a respect for difference, that, while the world is getting smaller, there is room enough at the table for all—and wine, women and song besides. Perhaps it all looked a little more spacious since the women in this comedy were unencumbered by children, an independence at odds with Nazi dictum.

As a crowded nation on the verge of conquering new territory, Germany became preoccupied with Lebensraum (living space), and thoughts of cooperation made way for war and genocide, for a false harmony achieved through the suppression of diversity. The room was widened forcefully, but seats at the table were becoming exclusive. Max Ophüls (along with Ernst Lubitsch and the aforementioned Douglas Sirk) was one of the creative minds who chose to desert it, taking with them the hope of comedy that, in Meredith’s terms, might have prevented Germany from failing the test of civilization. The heirs who took his place had little to laugh at and gave the world less.

Pardon Me, I’m With "Stupid"

I don’t know what possessed me when, on a trip up to Manchester last week, I walked into a store and purchased a 21-DVD box set of shorts and feature films starring Messrs. Laurel and Hardy. Silent two-reelers, early talkies, as well as their reworkings in Spanish and French. Even rediscovered snippets of a German version of Pardon Us titled Hinter Schloss und Riegel. I guess, discovering Oliver Hardy’s feminine side a few weeks ago up in Ithaca, New York, and stumbling upon Hal Roach’s grave in nearby Elmira got me into this fine mess.

As mentioned earlier, I generally turn to Harold Lloyd for laughs generated by flying pies, pratfalls, and assorted pickles. After years of copying earlier masters, Lloyd hit on just the right formula with his clever combination of slapstick, wit, and romance. None of the sentimentality that makes the coy and ingratiating Chaplin such a turn-off for me.

Sure, the romance in Lloyd movies is of the old boy-meets-girl variety. By comparison, the emphasis in the works of short-tempered Mr. Hardy and his feeble-brained pal is on male bonding. Years ago, I taught a course examining definitions and boundaries of friendship in American culture. I might well have included this odd couple in my discussions. What, besides a chance at getting even after suffering insult and sustaining injury through mutual ineptness, kept those two together?

Shorts like “Helpmates” reveal that Hardy did not have a happy home. Well, by the end of it, he does not have much of a home at all, once Laurel, the home wrecker, is through with his botched efforts to assist in cleaning up after a wild party held in the absence of Hardy’s formidable missus. “Our Wife,” in turn, suggests that Laurel and Hardy are best wed to one another; and “Their First Mistake” shows them as a couple raising the baby Hardy adopted to keep his marriage from falling apart. Too late. Returning with the infant, Hardy discovers that he has been abandoned by his wife, who accused him of thinking more of Stan than of herself. “Well, you do,” Laurel agrees. “We won’t go into that!” his friend retorts.

No doubt, their violent, destructive streak is their way—and Roach’s as well as America’s—of dealing with men having feelings for one another in a manner that might be deemed bad mannered or puerile, but that does not raise suspicion in mainstreamed minds. Their Tom-and-Jerry-foolery was a precursor to those 1980s buddy movies. Screwball comedy without the girl.

“Should Married Men Go Home?” another of the pair’s outings invites viewers to debate. I did not ponder such questions much when last I watched Laurel and Hardy in action. I had never even heard the two of them speak in their native Englishes. What I heard them say had been in German, in which language they are known as “Dick und Doof” (Fat and Stupid). Not the kind of sobriquets to instill respect for their craft or encourage intellectual engagement.

Well, it was I who ended up looking pretty “doof,” staring at various screens on which I expected Laurel and Hardy to appear. “Me and My Pal,” the title selected for this evening’s small-screening, simply refused to emerge in anything other than an unintelligible mosaic of greenish pixels. So far, my picture of their relationship, its secret and extent, is hardly much clearer than that . . .

As Jane Airs; or, Going KUKU

“Jane Woodfin has worked for a West Coast radio station, in practically every known capacity, for more than twenty years—a period which almost spans the life of modern radio.” That is pretty much all I know about the wit that penned Of Mikes and Men, a narrative promising the “humorous inside story of early radio, when announcers doubled as soundmen and microphones went dead once a program.” I should not be quite so petty or perplexed—but the broadcast historian in me still doesn’t know quite what he’s reading. At least, “humorous” is an entirely appropriate tag for Woodfin’s tale, that, tall or not, was published in 1951, when radio was still the source of mystery, romance, and adventure, but only in a programming sense.  Otherwise, it was a big business, a well oiled if somewhat past its prime machinery that bore little resemblance to the “anything goes”—or “nothing quite works”—broadcasting of the 1920s recalled by Woodfin.

Of Mikes and Men, which I picked up at a bookstore in Dryden, New York (aforementioned), opens like a prequel to Remember WENN. You know, the nostalgic sitcom set in a broadcasting studio, which aired on AMC during the mid-to late 1990s. Woodfin’s narrator, presumably the author, relates how she, penniless and none too skilled, got a job at a radio station in Portland, Oregon just after Wall Street laid that infamous “Egg.” Perusing the want ads, the young woman applied for the only position offered to female job searchers—that of “continuity writer” at station KUKU.

Not that she had any idea what a “continuity writer” was. She beat out a number of applicants and, being paid partly in cash, partly in the goods the station’s sponsors tried to peddle, was expected to deliver not only advertising copy and chatter (the so-called “continuity”) but also her own cooking program. That Jane, as her friend and neighbor points out, would be lost without a can opener, was something she kept to herself, until the audience, trying to follow her recipes, found out as much while gazing at the indigestible mess sticking to their pots and pans.

This is all rather jolly and preferable to leafing through I Hid It under the Sheets, the at times exasperatingly ungrammatical and disorganized reminiscences of journalist, sports writer, and radio listener Gerald Eskanezi, which I mentioned previously. At least, Woodfin knew how to turn a phrase and tell a story. So, why am I not just sitting back and enjoying that story?

For one, I am wondering just whose story it is. I mean, is it based on actual experiences? Is there anything between the covers that might tell me something factual about what it was like working in broadcasting before radio reached what is generally referred to as its “golden age”? Or is it a calculated, well timed antidote to the run-of-the-mill radio of the post-war years with whose Hucksterism Americans became so thoroughly disenchanted?

Playing it sly, Woodfin dedicates her book to those who presumable worked with her by stating:

To my dear friends and co-workers in early radio who will attempt in vain to find themselves in the pages of this book. You aren’t here. I couldn’t put you in because you are normal. But you may recognize some of the screwballs we both knew.

Station KUKU? I assumed Woodfin’s book to be an account of an early radio comedy of the same name. It was created by Raymond Knight, one of whose later Cuckoo programs you may find in the Internet Archive. According to the aforementioned Messrs. Gaver and Stanley, Knight began broadcasting on 1 January 1930 and distinguished himself by being one of the first radio satirists to poke fun at the medium. Groucho Marx reputedly thought him to be “the best comedian on the air.”

Turns out, Of Mikes and Men does not concern Mr. Knight, who broadcast from the East Coast. Nor have I come across any names that I recognize as referring to an actual radio pioneer. Still, leafing through Woodfin’s book, wondering whether Jane ever aired, I feel not unlike the earliest reader’s of Jane Eyre, who assumed the novel to be a biographical account of a governess in love with her master. That Woodfin loved the radio, and knew it well, I do not doubt. I was just hoping for a bit of dirt I could trace to some of the real men and women behind those carbon mikes; but then I remembered my Aunt Ilse, the baby crier, bit my captious tongue, and let Woodfin keep hers firmly lodged in her unblushing cheek. Besides, those distinctions between fact and fiction, well nigh incomprehensible to today’s reality-TV audiences, went out of fashion in the days of the Spanish-American War . . .