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.

burnsandallen

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.

carnation

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?

burnsallen4

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.

burnsallen5

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.

Advertisements

See, Here’s the Thing…from Another World

The face of science fiction is an ever-evolving curiosity. Every era brings something new and exciting. Whether it is Jules Verne or Isaac Asimov that tickles your fancy, you like your science fiction clever and full of wonder. If you like space aliens, suspense, and sharp dialogue you will love the Howard Hawks’ film, The Thing from Another World (1951).

When you examine the ambitious roots of the sci-fi flick it’s really quite a wonder. Science fiction, by nature has to be audacious. That’s what I loved about the Victorian era of science fiction: space was still full of immeasurable potential and possibilities. When Georges Melies made his amazing Trip to the Moon in 1902 the world got a taste for what worlds beyond could look like. The bulk of early science fiction movies explored the wonder and awesome possibilities of outer space. By the time the 1950s rolled around space still held a lot of wonder and excitement, but there was also increased fear and the movies became more ominous, foreboding, and frightening. The movies began reflecting fears of communism, wars, etc. Rather than bold scientists traveling to the moon, this next tier of science fiction dealt more with the warning and horrors of spacemen coming to our planet. . . and turning out to be not so friendly. I think this concept was best encapsulated in The Thing From Another World.

The Thing has it all. An alien flying saucer crash-lands in The Arctic Circle near a military research base (or something. . . it really doesn’t matter). An alien (James Arness), encased in a block of ice, is retrieved from the spacecraft. It is brought back to the base to be studied more closely. Before long, an absent-minded soldier (suspecting the creature to be staring at him through the ice) flees his post and leaves an electric blanket on the ice block. Naturally the thaw is accelerated and the creature escapes his frozen prison. It soon becomes very apparent that this is a miraculous yet dangerous discovery so we naturally get the classic tri-corner conflict: the military who wants to destroy it to protect humanity vs. the scientist who is blinded by the possibilities of contact with an alien race and will sacrifice humanity to keep the contact alive vs. the reporter who just wants to get the scoop.

The alien is ubiquitous, but rarely seen—except for a few key scenes—and requires the blood of animals and people to sustain life. The scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), soon discovers that the space creature is more plant than animal. The scientist also discovers (but keeps it to himself) that the alien has shed spores to grow more creatures like it. Carrington, believing the creature to be superior to mankind, wants to communicate with it and allow it to take over the earth. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), will not allow the creature to go on killing innocent people. The reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), can’t get a single clear picture of the monster. And there’s your trifecta.

Did I mention that the monster was also radioactive? Didn’t have to, right? Because it’s a 50s science fiction movie! You already knew. The radioactivity shtick is more than just a gimmick to be topical in this movie, however. They use it in a very clever way. There is a Geiger counter that ticks and crackles louder and louder whenever the creature gets closer. This adds a welcome dose of suspense and it is used to great affect.

As a blizzard limits their mobility, the monster continues to suck the blood of the captain’s men and sled dogs while it also systematically cutting off their power, forcing the people into smaller and smaller confines on the base. If you saw Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) you may spot some similarities: a rarely seen phantom monster bumps off characters in gruesome ways while slowly cutting off the supplies and places to hide and getting closer and closer. Same thing, except instead of being trapped in outer space they’re trapped in a research base in the frozen arctic. The 1982 remake of The Thing put its own twists on things. John Carpenter’s The Thing is more of a reimagining of the Howard Hawks original. The remake has the creature replicating people and infiltrating the base in even more horrific ways. It’s a gross out feature with some great, disturbing special effects from Rob Bottin and Kurt Russell in mascara. Some days I like John Carpenter’s version even better than the original, but not today.

So we’ve covered the basics of this film: a blood-sucking six-foot vegetable man is roaming around the tundra and many people are all locked inside a rapidly shrinking base awaiting their fates. The scientist wants to preserve the monster at all costs and the military wants to stop it from killing again. All the classic moves, but what makes this particular film stand apart from the hundreds of other spaceman movies that came out around this time? Answer: the characters and the writing. While a lot of 50s sci-fi horror is campy and loopy and loves its stoically wooden protagonists, The Thing From Another World is firstly interested in the people. It’s not all about the monster out there in the snow. This movie is more about the human struggle to find reason and understanding amongst each other. There is a lack of trust between many of the main characters (mainly from Dr. Carrington) and this leads to many a great debate about the significance or insignificance of the human race. I’ve painted the characters rather broadly in this article, but I assure you they have much more dimension than the strict ideologies they represent. Then there’s the writing. When I first saw this film at around age 14 I was actually really impressed with the sharp, witty dialogue. I was used to the more hokey aphorism-riddled verbal interplay of the standard old-timey B-movie (a genre I actually really like) and was taken aback that they had gone for more. The story is fascinating and tightly woven and the characters are all fully realized (there may be a bit of melodramatic acting here and there, but that’s all part of the fun).

The Thing from Another World is also genuinely suspenseful and thrilling. It has some very memorable and chilling scenes. Whether it be a group of soldiers and scientists standing around the shadow of the flying saucer buried in the snow, or an ice-covered eye glaring relentlessly at a frightened guard, or a twitching severed vegetable hand on an operating table, or ominously pulsing alien pods growing in a closet, this film has the cards to play and knows exactly when to play them. We don’t see the monster often, but you won’t be bored with the human element (a criminal mistake of many a forgettable B-movie is to make the monster immensely more enjoyable than the people and then never showing it). It’s not by chance that The Thing is regarded as a classic. I think it is one of the best representations from this genre.

So if you loved Alien (1979) or John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) or if you love the older classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) or if you just always wondered what they were watching on the TV set in that one scene from Halloween (1978) then check out The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s a very enjoyable film and I think you’ll like it.

picture references:

ferdyonfilms.com

eons.com

homestead.com

dvdtimes.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 6, 2010

For Your Consideration: Mr. Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood. The name is infamous. It is synonymous with crap movies. It is also the title of Tim Burton’s best film.

Ed Wood gained posthumous notoriety for being the world’s worst movie director of all time. While I’m inclined to think that he was strikingly inept at his trade, I cannot quite give him that illustrious title. He was not the worst director of all time. He stunk, but there have been stinkier. Coleman Francis for instance. I feel unfair even saying that he stunk as I actually genuinely enjoy some of his movies.

Action!

His films were bizarre yet personal and plagued by financial setbacks. Films Glen or Glenda (1953), Bride of the Monster (1955), and Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959) may be his most famous and I confess that at some level I do admire these schlock-fests. Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Ed Wood (1994) chronicled some of the life of the notorious filmmaker and the making of these three films in particular. Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) plays Wood and Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) got the Oscar for his magnificent portrayal of an aging, morphine addicted Bela Lugosi. Burton’s movie also features folks like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Patricia Arquette (Medium), Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), and Bill Murray (Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). Burton’s Ed Wood is a quirky yet affectionate comic portrait of a misguided man struggling in Hollywood and all the baffling trials of putting a movie together, albeit bad ones. Shot in sumptuous black and white by Stefan Czapsky (Batman Returns) and cleverly scored by Howard Shore (The Return of the King) and sporting snazzy production design it is almost ironic that the film is so fantastic and talent-filled.

Bad movies fascinate me because most bad movies are forgettable. It takes talent to make a memorably bad movie. There has to be a perfect balance of delusion and ineptitude to get it to work right. I applaud the Mystery Science Theater 3000 guys for keeping bad movies that would have otherwise been forgotten around just a little longer. Ed Wood immortalizes Ed Wood in a way that might have never happened. Glenda, Bride, and Plan 9 are also fun to watch by themselves. But knowing your Ed history (as a floundering cross-dressing film hack) helps make them more interesting.

Are you quite comfortable?

Of his three most famous, Bride of the Monster might be the least interesting, perhaps because it is the most familiar. Mad scientist + monster guy + girl = standard sci fi horror derivative mayhem. A half-dead and quite feeble looking Bela Lugosi (Dracula, Island of Lost Souls) plays Dr. Vornoff (mad scientist) and wrestler Tor Johnson is the manbeast, Lobo. Will Vornoff succeed in creating a race of atomic supermen? Yawn. Not original enough. Still, it’s not bad for a movie that’s awful. It has its points, but Plan 9 from Outer Space is just so much loopier that it blows it out of the water.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is the story of aliens trying to resurrect the dead to scare humanity into not making the Solaranite bomb—a bomb that humanity has never even heard of. Take everything that was good and accessible about The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and make it ridiculous and you got yourself a movie. Awful special effects, obtrusive continuity errors, and hammy bad acting compliment the convoluted plot and unwieldy dialogue. It famously features the last footage the great Lugosi ever shot (about 2 minutes maybe) and was stitched into this film after he died. A double played him for the rest of the movie. Tor Johnson is also in it as well as TV’s Vampira. It’s silly and memorable. Basically great fun and you will laugh.

Joan Rivers on bath salts!

As wonderful as Plan 9 is, out of these famous three my favorite has got to be Glen or Glenda. It was only Wood’s first feature and it’s got it all. Science fiction, mystery, Satan with moth antennae, flashbacks, Bela Lugosi, buffalo, wildly inaccurate science, transvestism, sex changes, S&M…bondage…uh, suicide…okay so having it all might not necessarily be a good thing.

Wood wrote, directed, and starred in this nigh incomprehensible mess of mismatched ideas. I like it because not only is it horrendously done, it actually resembles something special: a movie with a personal—albeit somewhat deranged—touch from Mr. Wood himself. As a real life transvestite he brings us unnervingly close to the subject matter. He also conjectures that hats are the cause of baldness. Lugosi may be our Virgil-like guide on this weird trek but Mr. Wood provides us with a few other narrators trying to explain multiple storylines to different audiences just for good measure (but it’s nothing like The Saragossa Manuscript). The way it’s edited actually makes Lugosi’s narrator seem more like a pervy retired mad scientist suffering dementia in a detached environment than anything else. In addition to the several main plots there is a bizarre ten minute wordless fetish sequence of a woman whipping another woman tied to a couch. . . added in for punch, I guess. It’s a tremendously wretched collage of broken ideas and unrelated sequences that I actually really respect for being so blindingly strange. It’s a movie I can watch by myself and still laugh at.

Just like Orson Wells.

There are some bad movies I can’t recommend enough. Glen or Glenda is one of them.

If you have an attraction toward bad movies than I’m sure Ed Wood is already on your radar. Troll 2, The Room, Ben and Arthur, and Birdemic are great, but sometimes you just crave classic crap. I can’t get into “The Asylum” production company because they know better and purposely make bad movies. I’ve said it before: the best bad movies have incredible deluded passion propelling them. Now Ed Wood was not the worst filmmaker ever and he wasn’t even the first truly awful filmmaker, but his films were more than bad. They were weird and that weirdness makes them memorable.

I put it to you. What is worse? Memorable crap or forgotten mediocrity?

Pull the string! Pull the string!

Go watch some Ed Wood movies and then go watch the movie Ed Wood. You’ll get some of the best of the worst along with Burton’s best.