Sunday, July 11, 2010

This is a life?


Amanda at Time Machine to the Twenties was kind enough to mention the ol’ blog in a post over in her neck of the woods on Friday, one that talks about the Christie’s auction of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum memorabilia. The item that she referred to that caught my eye almost immediately was this—the book that commemorated Roy’s appearance on TV’s This is Your Life…originally telecast January 14. 1953.
What I found so interesting about this was the serendipity of having just watched this telecast the previous day. While I was reviewing the Fugitive episode “Stranger in the Mirror” for Stacia’s Shatnerthon, I came across a “bonus disc” that the individual I purchased The Fugitive “rootpeg” set from had included—and out of curiosity, I stuck the DVD in the computer's player to see what was on it. (Had I taken the time to look at what was written on the disc I would have learned that it contained TIYL shows—but you know me, I rarely read the directions unless it’s absolutely necessary…or when something’s on fire.)

There were five shows on this disc—the Rogers show being the last, and there were also visits with Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd. I’d seen the Keaton, Lloyd and Stan & Ollie telecasts previously—both the Keaton and Lloyd tributes were shown on American Movie Classics back when they had non-interrupted classic films on their schedule, and the Laurel & Hardy fete is included as an extra on the Kino release of The Flying Deuces (1939). (I believe both the Keaton and Lloyd shows are also showcased in the Kevin Brownlow-David Gill documentaries Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius—I’m positive about the Keaton material, because I have the documentary on Region 2 DVD. My copy of the Lloyd doc is nestled securely somewhere in my father’s storage shed, so it’s been a while since I’ve viewed it—but I’m about 90% certain the TIYL material is on it.)

For those of you who don’t remember This is Your Life, a little background is probably in order: the series began on radio in the fall of 1948 over NBC and ran a couple of seasons sponsored by Philip Morris (the program was also heard on CBS for four broadcasts in May 1950). Hosted by Ralph Edwards, who had achieved great celebrity as the emcee of Truth or Consequences, Life was actually inspired by a Truth show in which a wounded veteran in a hospital in Hawaii received a recreation of Saturday night in his hometown via telephone from his friends and family. This was so well received that a second show followed not long after involving a paraplegic who was reunited on stage with his family and friends…including the doctor who had delivered him.

So Edwards took this idea and ran with it—and though its radio run was relatively brief, This is Your Life resurfaced two years later in the new medium of television…and this version was successful enough to last nine years on NBC-TV. There were also a pair of syndicated runs for the venerable television warhorse—one in 1971-72 and the other in 1983-84 (this version, though produced by Edwards, was hosted by actor Joseph Campanella). As I mentioned earlier, reruns of the old 1952-61 run were a staple of AMC’s programming at one time—because the program was a live affair until the start of the 1959-60 season, however, the episodes telecast were old kinescopes that had been recorded off a TV monitor.

Audiences may not remember that while celebrities were often the focus of the episodes of This is Your Life, for the most part the show also concentrated on ordinary Joes and Janes from all across the country. Obviously the celebrities held a lot more interest, rerun-wise, than Mr. and Mrs. Average American—though OTR historian John Dunning describes in On the Air a show in which an elevator operator was surprised when his family and friends would get on and off stopping at the various floors in the building where he worked…sounds like a broadcast that’s worth checking out. Some of the classic celebrity encounters were assembled for a 2005 DVD release that had the seal of approval from the Ralph Edwards estate—both the Roy Rogers and Stan & Ollie testaments are on this, along with tributes to Lou Costello (which I also caught on AMC), Bette Davis (AMC as well; this one is a real hoot), Milton Berle, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price.

I’ll say this for the This is Your Life shows I watched—they’re heavy on the schmaltz, but you’d almost have to be a robot not to cry during them. The Roy Rogers telecast contains a lot of “Niagara Falls” moments—the scene where Roy is reunited with his Mom and Pop and three sisters is particularly eye-dampening, and I also liked the reunion between the King of the Cowboys and the original members of the Sons of the Pioneers. One of them, Karl Farr, remarks “it's amazing how far it was between meals” during those salad days of performing, with Pioneer Lloyd Perryman adding: “We never counted any sheep to go to sleep, we always counted roast lambs.” The Pioneers and Roy also perform their signature song, Tumbling’ Tumbleweeds—a truly magical moment. (One of the original Pioneer members was Pat Brady, who later became Roy’s sidekick in movies and particularly on TV. I noticed that at the auction they had Pat’s beloved “Nellybelle” jeep for sale—I wasn’t aware that although Pat drove it on the TV series that it actually belonged to his boss.)

There are also some humorous moments, too. The program starts out with host Edwards introducing the Reverend Bill Alexander to the studio audience, and Rogers is on hand to say a few words for his old friend since he’s the man responsible for manacling him to Dale Evans. But when Roy learns to his amazement that this “tribute” to Alexander is in actuality a ruse to put his life under the purview of “proctologist” Edwards, his reaction to this is simply priceless. Later in the show, when Ralph asks Roy if there was anything significant that happened during the making of Cowboy and the Senorita (1944), you hear Dale’s voice from backstage: “If he doesn't, he just better not come home tonight!” (Her delivery of this made me laugh out loud.)
(Because the Good Lord in His ultimate wisdom saw fit to create YouTube on the seventh day, here is the entire Rogers TIYL telecast for your edification…)

The show with Laurel & Hardy (12/01/54) isn’t one of the finer moments of Life; although it’s novel in that it’s the only live appearance ever made by the legendary comedy team the half-hour is a pretty dull affair, and only really comes to life when they bring out Leo McCarey for a few anecdotes about The Boys’ early two-reeler days. If you’re not familiar with the story, Stan Laurel wasn’t too happy about being “ambushed” by Edwards—they had been lured up to a hotel room for cocktails with a lifelong friend, Bernard Delfont, and when Edwards’ intrusive camera burst into the room from the kitchenette Oliver Hardy was so stunned he thought it was a holdup and put his hand on his pocket containing his wallet. Stan had been trying to negotiate an appearance on television for he and his partner for some time but this was not what he had in mind—he didn’t care for the spontaneity (Laurel was a stickler for meticulous rehearsal) and he abhorred the fact that Edwards was getting their services gratis (he later remarked to biographer John McCabe: “I was damned if I was going to put on a free show for them!”). The only real enjoyment the comedian got out of the whole incident was the fact that Edwards, who talked up the party to be held afterward in their honor like it was going to be the social event of the season…never even showed up. (Who would pass up an opportunity to be at a party with Laurel & Hardy in attendance?) “It was a farce, the whole damned thing,” Stan later grumbled. “Just like a bloody home movie!”

So if Laurel seems a bit subdued during the proceedings (he barely says more than a dozen words), now you know the reason why. To his credit, however, he was far more gentlemanly about the whole thing (and in later years, mellowed out considerably after receiving so many compliments about the show) than, say, legendary radio commentator Lowell Thomas…who was not at all happy at being surprised by the obnoxious Edwards. When Ralph tried to assure him that he would get a kick out of what was about to come, Thomas returned in a hostile manner: “I doubt that very much!”

In the case of Stan Laurel, his wife Ida had her hands full trying to arrange the appearance on This is Your Life without him knowing about it—and since the comedian was sort of a homebody at that time, she had to resort to a bit of clever subterfuge to contact the show’s producers (she ended up discussing the show’s plans with her brother, speaking only in Russian). For the most part, the folks at TIYL jumped through hoops to keep the subjects of their telecasts from knowing what was to happen—there were apparently only two times in the history of the program when the guests knew about it in advance. One of them was Eddie Cantor, who had a heart condition and I guess it would have been bad form to surprise Banjo Eyes with news that would likely give him a stroke while on national television…and live, at that. The other was Lillian Roth, whose long battle with alcoholism was deemed too personal to spring on her as a surprise. The inspirational Roth segment, which was fully sanctioned by Alcoholics Anonymous, was one of the most popular TIYL programs—it was rebroadcast twice after its initial telecast.

Sometimes plans to fete a celebrity had to be shelved because the subject found out about it in advance—this was the case with Ann Sheridan. Carl Reiner said after his appearance he knew about it beforehand, but they went ahead with it anyway. Boss Edwards took great pains to inform his staff that what was sauce for the goose was not sauce for the gander—his life was off-limits, and any attempt to pull a switcheroo and make him sit in the special honoree’s chair would be met with swift reprisal (namely, he’d fire the whole lot of them). (This sort of makes me wonder what kind of skeletons Ralphie Boy had in his closet to start with.) But all things come to those who wait—Mike Douglas, who once had Ralph on as a guest, parodied TIYL by making Edwards the focal point in a mock version of the show.

Edwards was a popular figure on radio what with Truth or Consequences and all, but at the risk of having his fans come after me with torches and pitchforks he could really be an unctuous (and clueless) essobee. There’s a real uncomfortable moment during the Buster Keaton telecast (04/04/57) when Edwards asks Keaton (after chronicling that the Great Stone Face’s life took a downward spiral after being divorced by Natalie Talmadge and Keaton crawled inside a bottle): “What about your picture career, Buster—what happens to it?” After about a nine-month pregnant pause, Keaton croaks, “Well, it just came to a stop.” What the hell did you expect him to answer, Edwards, you dick? (I’ll bet Buster was wishing he had Lowell Thomas with him.)

There are some wonderful bits on the Buster show—my favorite is when they bring out siblings Louise and Harry and Buster playfully mock-strangles his sister…and when Mrs. Keaton (Eleanor Norris) arrives on cue, he starts to relax a little more. (TIYL so surprised Keaton that he nervously fumbles at fixing his disheveled tie throughout the telecast before Eleanor’s arrival—she finally makes the necessary wardrobe corrections.) There are some wonderful tributes paid to Keaton from the likes of Louise Dresser, Donald Crisp, comedy director Eddie Cline…and even Red Skelton, who has nothing but lavish praise for Buster—something that I found a little startling given Skelton’s notorious disdain for writers. (I haven’t been able to determine whether or not Red was sincere—for the most part he seems to be but if he’s just putting on a show he’s a far better actor than which he’s been given credit.)

The only disappointment with the Keaton segment is when Donald O’Connor makes an appearance (in full Keaton regalia)—and it’s not because I dislike O’Connor, because he’s a splendid talent…it’s just that his presence serves as a reminder of how lousy The Buster Keaton Story (1957) was, which O’Connor is there to promote. (The only benefit of that stinkeroo of a movie bio was that it provided Buster with the much-needed wherewithal to buy a house and some property so that he wasn’t going to wind up in some depressing nursing home.)
Of the five This is Your Life shows on the disc, my favorite was the first—in which “the king of comedy,” Mack Sennett, is paid tribute. The Sennett show (03/10/54) may very well be the perfect Life telecast—brought to the show on the pretense of appearing on a fictional TV show dealing with book-writing, Sennett is at first glad to see Edwards, remarking that the host is his favorite. But when Ralph tells him that oh-so-familiar phrase: “This is your life…”


…well, Mack doesn’t take it as well as they’d hoped. But instead of sitting through an uncomfortable half-hour watching the comedy pioneer seethe in anger, he begins to soften when they bring out his childhood sweetheart, Rose Guilfoil Clark, whom he hasn’t seen in over forty years…and the joy at remaking her acquaintance is clearly all over his face. It continues when they bring out his old friend Dell Henderson—a writer-director-actor whom comedy buffs might remember as the fruity and frustrated orphanage director who’s forced to spend a wild train trip with the kids in the Our Gang comedy Choo-Choo! (1932). Henderson tries to tell a funny anecdote that sort of gets stepped on during the proceedings, and Edwards announces jubilantly: “If we told all the Mack Sennett stories—the lore of Mack Sennett would fill two hours.” (Maybe you should have thought about that beforehand, Ralph.) “I wish you could come to the party afterwards,” Edwards tells the television audience…and boy, don’t think I wouldn’t have liked to, either.

There’s a parade of celebrities—some of them no doubt unknown today, but who will be very recognizable to classic film and comedy buffs—brought out to speak fondly of Sennett: Minta Durfee (Arbuckle), Sally Eilers, Louise Fazenda, Phyllis Haver, Jack Mulhall, Franklin Pangborn (whose tribute to his old boss is really heartfelt) and Alberta Vaughn. But my favorite is the group of individuals posing as the Keystone Kops (who, when they first make their appearance, provoke a “This is awful!” response from Mack)—Vernon Dent, Heinie Conklin, Hank Mann, Andy Clyde and Chester Conklin. They chase a man through the studio at several points during the telecast…and the pursued individual turns out to be legendary director Del Lord (whom Sennett dubs “the old champ” and “the greatest comedy director in the business”)—a name not unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever sat down and watched a Three Stooges comedy unspool.

One of the last celebrities to come out and talk up Sennett is a former employee who—like so many of the Sennett stars that went on to greater glories: Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harry Langdon, Gloria Swanson, Carole Lombard…this list could continue ad infinitum—would eventually have the tables turned on him for a tribute…the third genius himself, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd’s story (12/14/55) is interesting because he apparently had challenged Edwards in the past, saying the host would never be able to pull the TIYL stunt on him…and Ralph gets the last laugh by surprising the hell out of Lloyd at the Brown Derby. Sadly, Lloyd’s show is a fairly sedate affair—the best moments are at the beginning when he’s heckled by the man seated in the booth next to him…the one, the only…Groucho! (Grouch is joined by his You Bet Your Life producer, John Guedel, and daughter Melinda.) Marx provides some choice ad-libs (my favorite is when he wants Ralph to ask Harold: “Ask him if he drives a DeSoto”—a reference to Groucho’s sponsor) to the point where you kind of wished they just let him run with it (at one point Edwards scolds Groucho in mock-anger: “Groucho, this is not your show!”). Still, there are some nice moments on hand—but what made me laugh is the fact that Lloyd’s old boss, Hal Roach, shows up to pay tribute…something he did not do for the Laurel & Hardy show (where they had to make do with Hal Roach, Jr.). Lloyd again mentions that he had goaded Edwards in the past, and Ralph jokes that Lloyd has been on TIYL so many times he’s practically a regular. (They allude to a party they had for Bebe Daniels, whom I can only assume must have been a participant on TIYL at one time…though the information on this telecast is non-existent at the IMDb.)
The schmaltz factor of This is Your Life naturally led itself to parody and send-up; the program was spoofed in such venues as The Flip Wilson Show, Sesame Street, The Electric Company and The Wonderful World of Disney. The folks at Warner Brothers’ “Termite Terrace” satirized TIYL in the Bugs Bunny cartoon This is a Life? (1955)—but for my money, the funniest of them all is the classic take-off, “This is Your Story,” performed on Your Show of Shows…the bit where “Uncle Goopy” (Howard Morris) clings to Sid Caesar’s leg like a demented leech still makes me fall off the couch with laughter to this day. (And the part where Caesar faints when approached by Carl Reiner—my mother used to do that gag all the time whenever she pretended to fall asleep.) Here it is in all its gut-busting glory…ain’t YouTube wonderful?
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5 comments:

Amanda said...

Very cool post! I loved watching the You Tube clips of This is Your Life.

Thanks so much for highlighting my blog!

Best Wishes,
Amanda

Matthew Coniam said...

My favourite bit when Groucho is muscling in on Lloyd's life is when he gets Edwards to ask him if he's got his bowling ball with him, which Edwards does, seemingly sweetly ignorant of what the question means. It is, of course, a somewhat tasteless reference to the special ball Lloyd had made to accommodate his disfigured hand...

As for tearjerking shows, yes, Rogers was certainly one, but the one that really got me was Lou Costello's. You hear all the time that Lou was an SOB, but here he comes across as the nicest guy that ever lived, and all the testimony seems completely genuine. Strange...

Rick Brooks said...

Great post, Ivan. I realized Edwards was kind of overbearing from watching some of these shows, but it was still kind of startling for me hearing my first "Truth or Consequences" radio episode recently and discovering how over the top he was on that.

Stacia said...

"This Is Your Story" just about killed me. Howie Morris was a nut, and I love him for it every day.

D. Hayes said...

There was indeed an episode where Bebe Daniels was the subject. This episode, from the 1950s, has survived. Early in the program, Hal Roach goes through the usual procedure of speaking from off-stage, allowing Daniels to recognize him without his name having been stated, followed by Roach stepping on stage to continue reminiscing. Daniels gets emotional, stirred to say something along the lines of, "Those were wonderful days, with you AND HAROLD." Roach grasps that Bebe is pining for Harold as though a long-lost love. Roach remarks, "He's right here," and motions behind his back to grab Harold. Harold Lloyd comes out on stage without reading aloud the usual voice-only scripted statements, and warmly reunites with Daniels.