Burns and Allen Deconstructed: Classic TV with a Darker Subtext

On the surface The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) appears like your typical early sitcom in the pioneering days of television. Gracie (Grace Allen) is a nutty and unsuppressible ditz who’s always mixing up words and meanings to delightfully malapropic comic effect, while her accountant husband, George (George Burns), is the cigar smoking straight-man. But look a little deeper and you see a subtly surreal meta tragedy of mythic proportions.

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What I am about to recount to you are my observations surrounding the legendary sitcom. Granted, my findings are based only on personal experiences and not necessarily founded in actual science.

George (Burns, that is) exists in seemingly two different worlds. First there is the husband and straight-man role he occupies quite serviceably, but he also dons the role as the semi-omniscent narrator to the events of the show. The laughter induced by a recent scene ends, the lights go down, and George appears in front of a curtain—passing through the looking-glass—and he begins to explain things to the audience directly. He summarizes and he fills in missing scenes and he puffs his cigar. It appears as though he has one foot firmly planted in a different reality. But is the other side of the curtain the real reality or are the laughs only in his mind?

If the audience is indeed real then is George Burns some sort of droll demigod? He is privy to certain information on the stage, but not all. He knows events that recently occurred and he knows some things that he was not even present for and occasionally he knows a few minutes into the next scene that will arrive shortly, but he rarely knows the ultimate outcome of these scenes. He only knows where he just came from, what other characters are doing right now off-screen and he knows everything that happened earlier and some things that have yet to transpire. He is borderline psychic, but even if he knows the route things will take he is still doomed to go through the motions and see them through to the end.

I knew this would happen.

I knew this would happen.

Here is the show in a nutshell: George Burns narrates half the events as they really happen before they happen but then he gets interrupted by the action as its happening, like the “tape delay” has caught up with him and is sucking him back four minutes into the past. What a hellish existence.

After a few laughs and a few cigar puffs Burns leaves the audience and returns to the sitcom world where his powers are meaningless and unknown. What if he could tell them all: “Hey, I knew you would say that” or “Don’t let her in. She doesn’t really have pie”? Surely they’d take him for a madman. I am certain Gracie would have some wry misinformed quip to lighten the mood should they conflagrate him a witch.

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George Burns is a trapped victim living between two dimensions each equally alienating in their own way. There exists, however, another disturbing element to the Burns and Allen Show. Like many sitcoms and variety shows of the era when TV was new, commercials were oft times eerily interwoven into the events of the plot. Television had yet to fully separate the programs from the sponsors and the results were a Twin Peaks-esque nightmare of drama-driven advertising. Frequently characters will appear with strange quasi-hidden posters or product samples. Claiming to have some relation to the Burns and Allen storyline they would invite themselves in, skitter through their phony setups only to reveal their ulterior motives. It’s forecast pretty loudly so it’s hard to miss an impending in-show commercial, yet they always manage to surprise me with their thinness and surreality.

Burns knows this scam (I think), yet he is powerless to stop it. Perhaps he is aware that if he stops the advertisers from doing their bizarre ritualistic spiel then Carnation Instant Milk Powder will pull the plug on the money-flow that sustains Burns and Allen. Essentially to stop them is suicide. But what quality of life does he really have? Who is George Burns really? Does he sleep in the world of separate twin-beds, sitcom setups, and no toilets or does he make camp in front of the curtain?

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George Burns might have been a sort of failed Messiah. Perhaps he had it in his power to open up everyone’s eyes. He could have told the characters of the sham they were living. He could have given them the Pleasantville revelation that they are merely acting out a fictitious plot for the amusement of a savvy 50’s television audience. Maybe Burns could take Gracie and the cast by the hand and lead them to the other side of the curtain and open their eyes. But would this revelation not blow their mind? Think of the Square from Edwin Abbott Abbott’s mathematical masterpiece “Flatland.”

On occasion he does manage to pull Gracie to the other side, but her dimness of wit makes her ill-equipped to get a handle on things and she merely blathers on in character. Can she not recognize her salvation when it is at hand?

There is the risk that the studio audience on the other side of the curtain is just the hallucinatory manifestations of a deranged and deeply introspective George Burns. But how come Gracie pretends she can see it too when he transports her?

Maybe it’s a risk worth taking. They could escape the advertisements and the tinny laughter. Maybe color would even be granted the weary travelers. Would that then be Nirvana? Not the band, but the utopic state of being in the afterlife. Maybe the band. The British Nirvana from the 60s though, not the other one.

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It is mere folly to speculate as Burns proved to be a failed Messiah. He never did bring divine revelation to his fellow cast members of this sick play. Maybe he was just a lost lesser X-Men who never realized his potential. Perhaps he never knew the others were not semi-psychic. How alone he must have felt.

No, George Burns was no Messiah.

But he did play God later.

…John Denver was a terrible actor.

http://vintage45.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/the-george-burns-and-gracie-allen-show-1950-58/

http://culturalproductionblog.com/?p=391

http://www.popscreen.com/v/61X0t/The-George-Burns–Gracie-Allen-show

http://www.oocities.org/4christ.geo/tour/cast_list.html

http://www.homevideos.com/movies/ohgod

Originally published for The Alternative Chronicle on April 18, 2013.

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Fairytale Makeover Theater Presents: Blancanieves y Los Siete Matadors Corto

Spain.

The 1920s.

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Her father was the best toreador alive. His name was Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and he loved a woman who just might qualify as the hottest actress to give birth in a movie. Ever. Seriously Inma Cuesta is a fox. Don’t get too attached though. She dies. Spoilers. Is it a spoiler if it’s in the prologue?

The child survives, but the wealthy and recently paralyzed (emotionally and physically) Antonio is a widower. In swoops the evil step mother. Naturally. Fairy tales never have positive step mother characters. She will make life a living hell for the cuckolded Antonio and his precocious daughter. What is the child’s name you query? ‘Tis the film’s protagonist and namesake, Blancanieves (2012).

That means Snow White in the Spanish.

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Blancanieves, directed by Pablo Berger, is a Spanish re-imagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White. In addition to it being Spanish it is also a silent melodrama. And no, they’re not just cashing in on the success of The Artist (2011). In fact, crafty filmmakers have been making silent pictures all along. From the rebellious Charlie Chaplin (Modern Times) to the innovative Pierre Étaix (Yoyo) to the surreal Guy Maddin (Archangel), great filmmakers have been using the unique language and aesthetic of silent cinema to convey wonderful stories all throughout the sound era.

Also most of the characters for this adaptation are bullfighters. Now far be it from me to perpetuate the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. I’m just reporting the facts of the film.

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I hate to use the cliche of, “if you think you know the story [of Snow White]…think again.” But it totally applies here. This is not Disney. (Although the bullfights are somewhat sanitized and cleansed of blood). This is a tasty tragedy of the freshest variety. Blancanieves, or Carmen as she is called (played by Macarena García as an adult and sadly not as hot as Inma Cuesta), runs away from her evil stepmother (played with delicious malevolence by Maribel Verdú from Pan’s Labyrinth). . . but not until about halfway through the movie. There’s a lot of build up and backstory here.

A band of independent circus dwarfs—who are also matadors. I know!—discover Carmen but she has amnesia and remembers nothing. She joins their happy troupe and becomes a great matador herself. Because it’s in the blood. You may think you know the rest of the story, but there’s enough surprise and intrigue to keep you guessing.

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This movie boasts ravishing cinematography and rich imagery of epic bullfights and ornate upper-crust Spanish living spaces cleverly juxtaposed with ramshackle nomadic circus environs. And the erotic flamenco pulse of speedy guitar strings wound with sex-fire coupled with a pair of manic castanets gives Blancanieves added atmosphere you can almost sink your teeth into. I want to bite this movie is what I’m saying.

I really enjoyed Blancanieves. This is exactly what we should be doing with classic stories. Like Ray Tintori’s Death to the Tinman or The Coen Bros. O, Brother Where Art Thou! While the final moments of this film I found to be beautiful and touching they did leave me wanting a bit emotionally. But with the kooky premise, splendid acting, creative turns, and gorgeous style I can forgive it. I love magic, matadors, midgets, and silent movies so this was pretty good for me.

Go see Blancanieves. It’s a special treat. And now I shall return to scouring the internet for more pictures of Inma Cuesta.

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http://cafeteravirtual.blogspot.kr/2012/11/blancanieves-una-tragedia-con-desparpajo.html

http://www.screenrush.co.uk/films/film-196004/photos/detail/?cmediafile=20264057

http://magneticeyes.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/a-cristina-g-rodero-photograp-inspire-for-blancanieves-2012/

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on April 16, 2013.