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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Lonesome George

Like Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, George Gobel’s story can be told in different ways. The one we usually hear is that he was a flash in the pan, inexplicably popular and then— suddenly and forever washed up. (In that version, Gobel rhymes with Berle.) That’s the popular telling of the tale. Let’s face it, we love a good riches-to-rags story.

But I think it’s more accurate to say that Gobel shot to stardom thanks to a happy combination of his own talent and a solid writing staff. His success didn’t last forever, no, but The George Gobel Show did last from 1954/56 to 1959/60, not a bad run. And he gets bonus points for being the most arrestingly original comedian on the air at that time.

Up ’til then, television comedy had been dominated by loud comedians, zany antics and lots of yelling and arm-waving. But after a great many hours in the company of Berle, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello and other full-volume comedians, America was ready for something milder. Something different. Something suburban, wearing a crew cut and a grey flannel suit. Enter Mr. Gobel, a somewhat nervous, somewhat hesitant comedian whose most frequent facial expression was one of concern bordering on worry, but who nevertheless really knew what he was doing.

His show was a little of this, a little of that: the format was part monologue, part sketch comedy, part situation comedy. Really, anything could happen. He might tell a story, or sing a song. He could ad-lib very well when something went wrong. He could do wry, sophisticated material, or something approaching slapstick. Watching the few pirated episodes now in circulation, you never know what’s going to happen next. It won’t be anything very explosive, but it will be something no one else in television was doing.

 

The George Gobel Show hit the air in September 1954 as part of NBC’s Saturday night schedule. Successful almost immediately, it was the eighth-highest rated show that season. It stayed hot the next year too, as the fifteenth-highest rated show of 1955/56.

But the rumble of creative destruction was already making itself heard. His only real cast member, the charming singer Peggy King, left the show after that season. Worse, his direct competition on CBS was its freshman hit Gunsmoke. Worse yet, his creative staff was shaken up and some excellent comedy writers walked (or were thrown) out the door. The real point of no return was probably the loss of writer-producer Hal Kanter.

Gobel was chased out of the Saturday night line-up by Marshal Dillon after the 1956/57 season, and his show was re-invented as a Tuesday night variety hour thereafter. That lasted for a couple of years, but the momentum was gone; it returned as a half-hour Sunday night comedy in the fall of 1959, this time on CBS. That was the end of the line, and the final episode aired on June 5, 1960.

During his prime, Gobel had been eagerly signed by Paramount to shoot a couple of movies between seasons. But audiences can always sense when a movie isn’t going to work, and without the input of the creative staff that had made The George Gobel Show so great, the films were dead on arrival.

I keep thinking of Harry Langdon, another unique comedian whose success was undeniable, but all too brief. Like Langdon, George Gobel carried on and did some fine work in his later years, albeit in a steadily dimming spotlight. Viewers of my generation remember him as a fixture on The Hollywood Squares throughout the 1970s, where he was still funny, still a quirky original, and still quietly rocking that crew cut. But times had definitely changed in the years since Eisenhower. The stars of comedy now were young, hip, dynamic and frequently raw… the opposite of George Gobel.

Still and all, he had the perfect exit line, not only for himself but for a lot of us. It was on a 1969 Tonight Show appearance: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in 1950s Shows

 

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In the Beginning

In the Beginning

In the beginning there was theater.

The theater was everything. The marriage of art and literature, an ancient institution. Shakespeare, Broadway.

And then the movies came along. Everybody who couldn’t get a career going in the theater migrated to the new medium. The early movies were generally cheap, crude and intellectually barren, and theater devotees regarded the motion picture like it was something that plopped from the back end of their carriage horses.

But people loved the movies. They loved the lack of pretension, the simplicity, the brevity, and above all the pure entertainment value. Broad comedy and plaintive melodrama were easy to take after a long day of hard labor. Soon, people were watching screens more than they were watching stages. A lot more.

In time, the movies grew up. They slowed down, took on nuance and subtlety. They got longer, more complex and more sophisticated. Great artists emerged.

But as the motion picture began enjoying its new dignity, another new medium came along. The devotees of the motion picture frowned. Most of them have been frowning ever since.

You see where I’m going with this.

When I first became interested in silent film, the Chaplin Mutuals were sixty years old: fascinating, wonderful and impossibly alive (considering they were relics of a vanished civilization). The more I explored early cinema, the more treasures I discovered, and the more intriguing that world became. None of my friends had any particular interest in old movies. But new friends came along.

And now here I am, looking back sixty years once again, drawn to another new world and the treasures within it. My film-buff friends are mainly indifferent to vintage television, and most of them will watch Song of the Thin Man or The Road to Morocco for the ninth time, rather than try a Gunsmoke or a Route 66 —  even though these small-screen productions were shot on film by fine Hollywood professionals, using the same cinematic techniques and conventions as the big-screen productions that get all the respect.

That’s fine. I haven’t turned against vintage cinema. Admittedly it’s been consigned to my back burner for the past year, but the love and fascination are still there. Still, I don’t want to spend my life watching the same 200 movies over and over again. And life is too short to watch the thousands of bad and indifferent movies (as some people I know do, simply because “they’re rare”).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that vintage TV is better than vintage cinema (or, for that matter, better than old-time radio, another love of mine). A lot of TV is garbage. But there’s a lot to enjoy, too. It’s worth looking into.

 
 

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