The Jack Benny Program

TV classics: The Jack Benny Program

USA 1950-65, 15 seasons,  343 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS & NBC, black & white. Sponsors: Lucky Strike, Lux, Lipton Tea, Jell-O and others, Cast: Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, Mel Blanc, Frank Nelson and various recurring guest stars

Plot summary: As one of America’s most beloved comedians, Jack Benny entertained his audience on radio before he found fame in fifteen consecutive TV seasons on CBS and NBC.

Review: Like many of his contemporaries, Jack Benny originally started out on radio before he took television by storm with a show based on his continued radio success. Reliable as a source of hilarity and entertainment, the comedian created one of those early hit shows the majority of America refrained from missing back in the days. Welcoming many stars of his time, including Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Burr, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope, Jane Mansfield, Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe, James and Gloria Stewart or Danny Thomas, the show guaranteed diversion and relaxation and succeeded for remarkable fifteen consecutive seasons.

With some episodes now in public domain and the rest eagerly awaited by Jack Benny fans to be released on DVD, today, the comedian is still regarded as one of America’s greatest performers and one of Hollywood’s generous stars. His show, though not easy to categorize, offered previously recorded, as well as live broadcasts and aimed at entertaining the audience often on his own behalf. Judged as easy formula entertainment by some, The Jack Benny Program did a wonderful job diverting an entire generation and their children from their daily hardships in a time that was less cushioned than many people imagine today. Never dwelling on cynicism, Jack Benny offered a good half hour of gags and laughs, while always trying to deliver the best material for the audience to enjoy. Supported by a decent cast and beloved recurring characters, the comedian managed to leave a mark on his audience despite his irregular television appearances in the early 50s. After ending his radio commitment, The Jack Benny Program was broadcast more frequently until his farewell, at the height of his popularity, in 1965 on NBC.

For old fans and new ones alike, selected episodes are available on DVD. Selected radio episodes are available on the Internet Archive.

The Jack Benny Program sample episode with guest star Bob Hope

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Magnificent Obsession

Talkie of the Week: Magnificent Obsession

USA 1954, 104 minutes, color, Universal International Pictures. Director: Douglas Sirk, Written by Robert Blees and Wells Root, Based on the book by Lloyd C. Douglas. Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Agnes  Moorehead, Otto Kruger

Plot summary: When Bob Merrick learns that he survived an unnecessary accident that indirectly took the life of celebrated humanitarian Dr. Phillips, the millionaire decides to change his life and follow the doctor’s example of taking care of others and their struggles. Rejected by Dr. Phillips’ family for his attempt to help them in times of hardship, Bob ultimately manages to prove his sincerity and falls in love with Helen, the late doctor’s widow, despite her initial rejection.

Review: Based on the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsessions had already been adapted for the silver screen in 1935 when Douglas Sirk decided to pick up the story for his technicolor remake. Originally starring Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, Sirk’s version from 1954 presented Jane Wyman and and a practically unknown Rock Hudson in the leading roles. Commercially successful in theaters, the film received mixed reaction from critics for the emotional story and the director’s choice of material. While Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson conquered the screen with a chemistry that resulted in another collaboration of the two stars in Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows one year later, reviews often stressed the sappy quality of the motion picture, a fact that didn’t stop the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences to nominate Jane Wyman for an Academy Award for her performance.

Recorded for radio several times before Magnificent Obsession re-entered with stars such as Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert and Myrna Loy, the story itself grew into a classic story about loss, love, grace and altruism. Rock Hudson’s first significant movie role brought him well-deserved recognition and kicked off a career as one of Hollywood’s most charming leading men. It was the fourth Oscar nomination Jane Wyman received for her portrayal of Helen Phillips, an honor Grace Kelly in The Country Girl ended up winning that year.

Magnificent Obsession is a film that works the emotional scale of its audience by merging drama with romance in a way that is now a lost art. Be prepared to stock up your supply of tissues before you watch it, the score and moving performances will make you sob if your heart beats for this kind of gem.

Available on DVD. Magnificent Obsession trailer

My Favorite Wife

Talkie of the Week: My Favorite Wife

USA 1940, 88 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Garson Kanin, Written by Bella & Samuel Speweck, Leo McCarey, Based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Enoch Arden”. Cast: Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick

Plot summary: When Nick gets married seven years after his first wife went missing at sea, he does not reckon to end up being a bigamist by the end of the day.

Review: After seven years on a lonely island with the only other survivor of a shipwreck, Ellen Arden returns home only to find out that her husband got married to another woman. Unwilling to let go of him without a fight, she follows him to his honeymoon destination and stirs up his new life. As silly and entertaining as it sounds, this screwball classic was based on a poem by Arthur Lord Tennyson and received three Academy Award nominations including Best Story. And rightly so. Led by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, the cast lived up to the decent script and turned My Favorite Wife into a success.

Using their chemistry to create a direct opposite to the nature of Nick Arden’s relationship with his new wife, Dunne stressed the warmth and sass of her character which benefited Grant’s despair and confusion. Convincing as always in his comedic roles, Cary Grant switched from disbelieving to enamored to jealous within a few short scenes, always allowing his fellow cast to sparkle next to him. Gail Patrick (who would later produce the Perry Mason TV series) did a beautiful job as his new wife Bianca, rejecting her unexpected rival and despairing at a marriage that turns out to be invalid. Randolph Scott gave an equally brilliant performance as Ellen’s former shipwreck partner, annoying Grant’s Nick Arden out of his wits.

Successfully remade as Move Over, Darling with Doris Day, James Garner, Polly Bergen and Chuck Conners in 1963, My Favorite Wife is one of those gems that never get old. With its stellar cast and excellent writing, the film is still diverting and funny on DVD today. It’s the perfect movie for a lovely spring night when you crave a smile and feel like watching a good movie with a couple of friends who enjoy the classics.

My Favorite Wife trailer

Ford Television Theatre

TV classics: Ford Television Theatre

USA 1952-57, 5 seasons, 195 episodes, 30 minutes each, NBC and ABC. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Cast examples: Gene Barry, Joan Bennett, Barbara Britton, Raymond Burr, Bette Davis, Richard Denning, Irene Dunne, Barbara Hale, Brian Keith, Angela Lansbury, Maureen O’Sullivan, Larry Parks, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Stanwyck et al.

Plot summary: Like many anthology series of the time, the Ford Television Theatre presented a new story with a new cast of actors in different genres each week.

Review: Like many of its sister anthology series, the Ford Television Theatre presented a new story with a new cast of actors in different genres each week. Originally a radio program, the show was first broadcast like on TV in 1948 and picked up for a full run of 195 half-hour episodes in 1952. The show got its name from its sponsor, the Ford Motor Company and was often introduced by a commercial that presented the latest Ford models. Ford Television Theatre managed to attract a great variety of movie and working actors, including Barbara Stanwyck, Irene Dunne or Claudette Colbert.

Unfortunately rather hard to come by these days, the episodes differed in quality and are definitely still a matter of preference and taste. Barbara Hale’s appearance on Behind the Mask, for instance, increased the resonance of the episode for me which offers a storyline about a medical impostor that’s too complex for the format. Man without Fear on the other hand made perfect use of its thirty minutes and lived of its concise story and brilliant cast including Raymond Burr as a haunted fugitive who confronts the man who got him into prison. The Ming Llama presented Angela Lansbury with her captivating talents but failed to live up to the story’s apparent inspirational source, The Maltese Falcon.

All in all, it’s safe to say that Ford Television Theatre offered a decent collection of episodes with a great mix of stories from all kinds of genres. Some were based on true stories, others were plain entertainment, ranging from suspenseful to corny. Footnote on a Doll with Bette Davis as Dolly Madison was one of the latter and due to Ms. Davis’ reliably gripping performance, it’s one of my favorites. Remember to Live is another episode I greatly enjoy, especially because it made use of Barbara Hale’s background as an artist. Fugitives with Raymond Burr in a small role completes my current list of favorites, surprising enough not for his convincing as always delivery but for the main plot he’s only a side note in.

But no matter if you share my preference in actors, their talents and style, Ford Television Theatre created entertainment for everyone. So if you get a chance, check out some episodes and see how they affect you. Favorite actors or not, I’m sure you’ll discover more than just a single gem.