Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lost Jewels

by Geoff Collins

You can't always believe what you read in the papers - or even in books. This is from The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon:

They arrived in London after a crossing during which Houdini was so seasick that Bess had to tie him to his bunk during the brief periods when she left him, for fear he would try to throw himself overboard.

The World's Greatest Escapologist!!! This remarkable man who could break free from manacles, prison cells and underwater torture chambers was immobilised when his wife tied him to the bed. Yeah, sure. Which brings us, by the World's Most Tenuous Link, to the following...

Lor lumme, Miry Poppins! All us Cockney geezers ennarf gettin' in a roight two-an'-eight abaaaht this new book wot James Maguire's wrote abaaaaaht Ed Sullivan. Impre-bleedin'-sario or summink, Oi fink it's called. Gorrr bloimey, it's made me feel so tom-an'dick Oi've gorn roight orft me singin' an' darncin', so Oi 'ave. An' anuvver fing...

That's about enough of that, I think. More on the subject of comical Cockneys later. But for now, let me state that Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (published by Billboard Books) is a superb job, meticulously researched and highly entertaining in its evocation of Sullivan's career and the twenty-three-year run of his really big big show. Naturally, there are those annoying, niggling little errors; for example, the photo on page 73 is printed the wrong way around - or did tough-guy Ed sometimes wear women's jackets? You could almost excuse Mr. Maguire for misspelling the name of Frank Shuster, as Wayne and Shuster are comparatively if undeservedly obscure (I say "undeservedly" because of their scholarly "affectionate look" 1960s television documentaries on Benny, Hope and Crosby, Bill Fields, the Marxes and the Universal monsters) but Fredric March? And Bud Abbott? A & C are American icons despite the variable quality of their vast output - but it's worth buying this book just for the account of the man in Long Island who watched Bud and Lou on The Colgate Comedy Hour and then shot his television set. Give that man a medal!

Fortunately Mr. Maguire didn't mention Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss. Nobody, even in their native country, spells their names correctly, not even Columbia Pictures (in the credit sequence of their 1943 movie Rhythm Serenade) or the dedicated but often sloppy Northern Comedy website The gang at itsahotun want to pretend that Rhythm Serenade doesn't exist, but it does, and I've seen it. Don't be jealous, readers; it might contain a Jewel but it's no gem. Jimmy (would-be comical idiot) and Ben (pop-eyed straight-man, perversely funnier-looking than Jimmy) devote their few scenes as "comic relief" to Northern-accented rip-offs of Abbott and Costello material, including a near-verbatim rendering of the Mustard routine. Even when Jimmy and Ben starred in their groan-inducing pair of Mancunian cheapies in '49 and '50 they were still at it. Here's their take on "Pack and Unpack", from Stick 'Em Up, which is a truncated reissue of Let's Have a Murder:

Stick 'Em Up (which is almost what Jewel and Warriss should have told their writers to do with their scripts) is a 1959 reissue, a 97-minute feature cut down to under fifty minutes; so to enable the audience to follow the plot - as if they'd want to - many of the comedy scenes had to go. And they've gone forever, as there's only one surviving print. (What a Carry On has even more plot and even less comedy, in a really battered old copy.) Here are Jimmy and Ben in action again, in a brief routine that's slightly more original despite its resemblance to "Jonah and the Whale" and Jimmy's obvious wish to be the English Lou Costello. How many times did these boys watch One Night in the Tropics?

Do these Third Banana clips constitute America's first-ever glimpse of Jewel and Warriss? No; for they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show during its early Toast of the Town period, episode #5.9, November 4, 1951. I wonder what American audiences made of this road-show Bud-&-Lou with their weak comedy and their strong regional accents. (In an incredible example of British comedic diversity, Michael Bentine was also a guest on that same programme, and his autobiography hints at the fact that they, like himself, had a tough time.) Maybe America thought they were Cockneys. Unlikely? Here's another quote, this time from James Maguire's Sullivan book, describing the Beatles' second appearance on the show:

To end their set, Paul said hello in his charming cockney accent and promoted the band's new album, then sang lead vocal on the up-tempo "All My Loving" with sweet harmonies by John and George.

Charming cockney accent? The Beatles are from Liverpool, two hundred miles north of London. To be a genuine Cockney you must be "born within the sound of Bow Bells" which narrows it down a bit and even excludes Charlie Chaplin, unless there was a particularly strong north wind blowing that day. The four Sullivan shows featuring the Beatles are all generally available on DVD in their entirety, and for Third Banana fans their interest lies not especially in the Fab Four, but in the other acts on the bill. Ed's show was a television version of vaudeville, the latest trends rubbing shoulders, not always too comfortably, with the most ancient acts in the business. As an Englishman - and 150 miles more of a Cockney than Paul McCartney - it pleases me greatly to know that the complete archive of a thousand Sullivan shows in the Library of Congress includes performances by vent Arthur Worsley (a classic turn; he looked glum and "said nothing" while the dummy subjected him to a tirade of abuse), Charlie Drake, Norman Wisdom, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise, and - bless 'em - Jewel and Warriss, as well as the American legends such as Eddie Cantor and Smith and Dale.

Speaking of legends - and until I can prove it, we'll bypass the one about Ed introducing Jimmy and Ben as "Jewel and his Walrus" - urban mythology insists that the artists who shared Sullivan's stage with the Beatles didn't do too well due to the impatient intolerance of screaming teenagers, but this isn't generally the case. Morecambe and Wise (not announced as Morrow, Camby and Wise, after which Ed reportedly looked around to see where Camby was) are far from their best, but this was before their new scriptwriter Eddie Braben transformed Ernie Wise from the dullish straightman to "a real person", the pompous "trendy playwright" who's actually mundane, conventional and dimmer than Eric. And the Beatle-obsessed audiences are quite kind to veteran Welsh powerhouse Tessie O'Shea and sly old charmer Myron Cohen and his Jewish shaggy-dog stories. The incident in Mr. Saturday Night in which Billy Crystal's character gets booed offstage seems to be based on the experience of McCall and Brill. They get away with it but their terror is there for all to see, like two rabbits caught in the headlights. They were so traumatised that they ran off to Florida and didn't work again for many months.

In my country, far too much early television has been wiped or dumped due to lack of foresight or inadequate storage facilities, so it's reassuring to know that many acts still exist in the Sullivan archive. All we have of Jewel and Warriss' thirty-year career are three inept movies, two of which only exist by accident in shabby chopped-up reissues. A 1951 New York clip with a live audience must surely reveal a lot more about this forgotten duo. My advice is: watch any Sullivan shows you can. You're bound to see something rare and surprising. And especially, read James Maguire's book. It's really really good.

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Blogger East Side said...

Sullivan audiences were kind to acts following the Beatles if they were well-known (the acts, that is). McCall & Brill were unknowns compared to Myron Cohen and even Tessie O'Shea. The Ed Sullivan Show was great; nothing remotely like it has come along since.

You're right, the Morecambe & Wise bit isn't particuarly good. But by the time their show became a summer replacement on ABC (retitled "Picadilly Palace" because it was in the "Hollywood Palace" slot), they were hilarious. I was stunned to see only two writers listed on the credits. Never understood how they could turn out such great material week after week -- and how M & C could regularly deliver it pitch-perfect.

5:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jimmy and Ben were cousins, and claimed to have been born in the same bed in Sheffield, Yorkshire.

John Cooper.

3:37 AM  

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