Although they are best remembered for their successful radio and television programs, George Burns and Gracie Allen made many movies in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Gracie (above) was the bigger star, even appearing in films without George.
Burns outlived her by 32 years, and worked in films (including 1975’s The Sunshine Boys and 1977’s Oh, God!) almost until his death at the century mark in 1996. Their time together — 42 years as comedy partners and 38 as a marital duo — was precious, spanning four entertainment platforms: vaudeville, radio, television and, of course, the movies.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to finish our week with an affectionate remembrance of one of Hollywood’s most famous couples.
The 27-year-old Grace Allen of San Francisco met the former Nathan Birnbaum of New York City when his vaudeville comedy act was falling apart in New Jersey. She liked him from the start, and the two decided to team up in 1922.
Burns soon noticed two things: vaudeville audiences fell in love with Gracie (as did he), and that her daffy non sequiturs delivered in an insistently innocent high-pitched voice became the crux of their act. George would dryly deliver the opening monologue chocked with one-liners only to be interrupted at will by Gracie. Audiences loved his impeccable comic timing balanced by her dizzy observations.
Success in radio followed and, in 1950, in television when the CBS domestic comedy series, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show began its astonishingly durable eight-year run. (How many other tube shows can claim such longevity?)
The series featured Bea Benaderet as the neighborly Blanche Morton, Fred Clark as her husband, and Harry Von Zell as the show’s announcer. It concluded on Sept. 22, 1958, when Gracie retired from show biz (six years before her death of a heart attack). As noted in Les Brown’s Encyclopedia of Television, the show lived on via 239 syndicated reruns, and became a staple of local station programming for years later.
Burns continued with a comedy series of his own, The George Burns Show on NBC, but the show expired in 1959 after a single season. But many subsequent appearances over three decades followed in a variety of tv formats.
Then, there were the Hollywood movie appearances of the classic era, mostly featuring Gracie and George together — notably RKO’s Damsels in Distress in 1937 with Fred Astaire, and the Paramount comedies, College Holiday in 1936 and College Swing two years later with Bob Hope and Martha Raye.
But what may surprise today’s classic movie fan is the fact that Gracie was considered a bigger attraction than her husband, and appears solo in such titles as MGM’s Mr. and Mrs. North (in 1942 opposite William Post Jr.) and 1944’s Two Girls and a Sailor (with Van Johnson and June Allyson). Paramount actually worked her name into the title of 1939’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case.
No doubt that George and Gracie were among the most engaging couples in show business, ever. One reason was their shared humor. Gracie once said that George “would never chase another woman. He’s too fine, too decent, too old.”
Say goodnight, Gracie. And you too, George