Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The plot against Harry

If announcer/second banana Harry Von Zell is to be immortalized for anything during his lengthy career in radio, movies and TV, it will probably be for his long-running role as sidekick/whipping boy to George Burns and Gracie Allen in their successful television sitcom that ran on CBS-TV from 1950 to 1958. (Von Zell also appeared in the short-lived The George Burns Show that ran for a single season following Gracie's retirement.) Harry came a little late to the Burns and Allen program (he started in the fall of 1952), but since very few of the syndicated episodes featured kinescopes of the live years (1950-52), it was almost like he had been with the program from the get-go.

Radio was really Von Zell’s métier; he worked on numerous shows as announcer and foil to radio greats like Fred Allen (Town Hall Tonight), Eddie Cantor (It’s Time to Smile), Dinah Shore (Birds Eye Open House) and Joan Davis. He was with Cantor the longest, having signed an exclusive contract with “Banjo Eyes” and was pretty much with him the entire forties (until Cantor agreed to host the quiz show Take It or Leave It in the fall of 1949). Harry also made a reach for the brass ring of stardom on two occasions: a self-titled sitcom (that exists in an audition show recorded March 18, 1946) written by the future Leave It to Beaver team of Bob Mosher and Joe Connelly, and the lead role in a syndicated sitcom, The Smiths of Hollywood, in 1947. The list of Von Zell’s radio credits is endless…and yet his best-known contribution to Radio’s Golden Age might be the occasion when he mangled the name of the 31st President of the United States as “Hoobert Heever.”

Often on the radio shows in which he appeared, Harry would be called upon to support the stars in small comedic parts, which helped him immeasurably in getting outside work in the “flickers” as a character actor. Though he had already made appearances in films like It’s in the Bag! (1945; with his old boss, Fred Allen) and The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry (1945), 1946 could be considered the year in which he made his big break into movies—having been hired by Columbia Shorts Department head Jules White to appear in a series of comedy two-reelers. As he relates in Ted Okuda and Ed Watz’s excellent compendium, The Columbia Comedy Shorts:

[White] had heard me on the air and had a proposal to make. His idea was to produce a series based on the experiences encountered by a well-known radio personality, and [he] wished to place me under contract to play the role. I was not enthused by the idea, but when he explained that he was prepared to assign me a staff of expert comedy writers and $500 per subject, I changed my mind.

Owing to the fact that it’s been some time since I paid the Columbia shorts a visit, I sat down with half-a-dozen of the Von Zell comedies last night. Two of the shorts—all of which were purchased from Greg Hilbrich at The Shorts Department—I had not previously seen, including Harry’s debut two-reeler, So’s Your Antenna (1946). Unfortunately, even though the studio gave Von Zell special consideration (all of his shorts have an opening title card with his picture and the words “Harry Von Zell in”; I think the only stars at Columbia that received the same treatment were the Stooges) in his new series, Antenna was not an auspicious debut. It’s not only the worst Von Zell short I’ve ever sat through (I’ve yet to see two other shorts, Radio Riot [1949] and Microspook [1949]) it’s one of the worst Columbia shorts period. Harry plays a radio personality hired by a pair of goons to help them rob a bank on the basis of hearing Harry emote as “Hoodlum Harry”; most of the short focuses on a lengthy and painfully unfunny sequence with Von Zell menaced by a deranged ex-con (Ton Kennedy) who sees pink elephants when he’s tipsy. Avoid this one at all costs.

Von Zell’s follow-up, Meet Mr. Mischief (1947), was a much-improved effort; while there are better shorts in Harry’s series I sort of have a soft spot for this one because it contains some amusing OTR references. Harry, an announcer with an annoying penchant for practical jokes, is being stalked by a fanatic (Ralf Harolde) who claims to represent a cult that worships the head of a long-since-departed ruler…who bears a strong resemblance to Von Zell. As Harry runs down hallways, trying to escape his headhunting pursuer, he opens one door looking for a place to hide and is nearly hit by an avalanche of pots, pans and assorted bric-a-brac. “Doggone that Fibber McGee!” he wails in frustration. He then turns a corner and notices a large photo of Eddie Cantor set up as a display, and begins to furiously salaam the picture of his boss until Harolde arrives. “Hey! You’re always running around, looking for heads—why don’t you take that one!” pleads Harry, pointing to the display.

Okuda and Watz have heady praise for the Von Zell shorts, referring to them as “one of the best series the department produced in the 1940s.” They illustrate this by opining that the Von Zell vehicle Rolling Down to Reno (1947) is a more entertaining short than the original, Pardon My Berth Marks (1940), which starred Buster Keaton. (They’re certainly not saying that Harry was the superior comedian of the two, only that the Columbia style fit him far better than Keaton. Personally, I think Berth Marks is just a wee bit funnier, and one of Buster’s better Columbias.) Reno is good fun, it’s just that the flaw with the Von Zell series is that they have a tendency to parrot the same shorts Hugh Herbert was cranking out for the studio at the same time (the marital-misunderstanding plots were also being beaten to death at RKO by Leon Errol). Fortunately, Columbia had people like director-writer Edward Bernds on board, who was able to take typical shenanigans like The Sheepish Wolf (1948) and make them stand out via first-rate direction and scripting. (Wolf is notable for some “high and dizzy” hi-jinks along the ledge of an apartment building between Harry and a jealous, sword-wielding husband played by serials veteran George Lewis…not to mention the incomparable Vernon Dent as a gendarme who utters the falling-down funny line: “I don’t have to use common sense—I’m a policeman!”)

Of the Von Zell shorts I’ve seen, the top honors go to Radio Romeo (1947), another jealous-wife-misunderstands outing that, once again, rises above its clichéd plot with a fresh-and-funny approach to the material courtesy of writer-director Bernds. (Harry, who broadcasts an “Advice to the Lovelorn” program, is asked by listener Lynne Lyons for advice on how to keep her husband home at nights. After giving her the once-over, Harry cracks: “If your husband won’t stay home nights, he needs more help than you do.”) The final short among the ones I purchased was also Harry’s final Columbia two-reeler, His Baiting Beauty (1950); it, too, goes back to the marital-mix-ups well and the results are pleasant if not too inspired. I did enjoy seeing Emil Sitka play a normal character (or what passes for normal in a Columbia short) instead of an elderly eccentric for a change, and Dick Wessel also scores as Harry’s oafish brother-in-law/wrestler (and believe me, Wessel cornered the market on oafs) who mistakes Emil for Harry and gives him “the business,” believing that he’s cheating on his sister (Christine McIntyre).

Harry Von Zell’s brief stint at Columbia no doubt laid the groundwork for future employment in motion pictures, with critically-lauded performances in films like The Saxon Charm (1948) and For Heaven’s Sake (1950), as well as roles in the Bob Hope vehicles Where There’s Life (1947) and Son of Paleface (1952). His distinctive voice was always hard to disguise; he was the narrator of such box-office bombs like Boy. Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz (1968; both of these turkeys were directed by George Marshall), and he’s in a particularly memorable scene (his voice, that is) in the underrated Judy Holliday film The Marrying Kind (1952). I will say that I’ve been on the lookout for several years trying to track down How Doooo You Do!!! (1945), a PRC cheapie that features him and Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon on vacation from the Cantor program and investigating a murder of an agent with a cast that includes Ella Mae Morse, Cheryl Walker, Claire Windsor, Frank Albertson, Charles “Ming the Merciless” Middleton, Matt McHugh, Keye Luke and Fred Kelsey in what was surely The Busy Body of its day.

No comments: