June 13, 2012
Mystery of Milton Berle’s career remains unsolved
I taped Always Leave Them Laughing (1949) off TCM and watched it last night.
As I’ve said repeatedly: “cold” (and abrupt/slightly menacing) can actually work on television; think of Carson, Parr, Letterman, Martha Stewart, Bob Barker…
Berle fits right in to that description.
But still: Is it really possible that in the early days of TV, they just let anybody on?
Because he is NOT funny.
Yes, he is a surprisingly good dancer. Yes, his Cole Porter impression (“singing” “Miss Otis Regrets”) is pretty fun. (And the butch female club owner in the tux was a surprising touch.)
But that’s it.
Interestingly, the corny “message” of the movie is that a true comedian doesn’t just tell jokes — he touches hearts. (Puke.)
I’d be afraid to let Milton Berle within ten feet of my heart.
What were people thinking? Did he have blackmail fodder on somebody?
Anyway, the movie itself is a fun if questionably accurate look at the dying days of vaudeville. If you like “Comedians… They aren’t like you and me…” psychobabble, there’s a bit of that too. And lots of people get called “kid.” It’s that kind of flick:
Berle’s fellow comics are portrayed as ball-busting, perpetually broke scroungers, hoping an old veteran (“Cowardly Lion” Burt Larr) dies so they can take his part on Broadway. Not entirely unbelievable. Except they all seem to be WASPs — no Jewish or Irish surnames.
(The screenwriters? “Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose; from a story by Max Shulman and Richard Mealand.”)
Speaking of which: if Broadway shows really were like these ones in the “good old days,” we need to stop bitching about Cats.
PS: Always Leave Them Laughing does boast some minor (mediocre) Sammy Cahn songs (“You’re Too Intense” is a shaky premise) and OK Gershwin ones (along with the Cole Porter, above).
The working title of Always Leave Them Laughing was “The Thief of Broadway,” referring to Kip’s good-natured pilfering of other people’s material. That’s highly ironic, since Berle had been charged with the same offense; his large stake in this production – he had “every kind of star approval you could have on a picture,” according to his autobiography – was probably the reason for the title change. Berle claimed that he’d started the gag-stealing rumor himself, to milk attention from a feud with comedian Richy Craig, Jr., in the newspaper columns. (Judging from Craig’s subsequent obscurity, this is a feud Berle definitely won.) Yet he was ticklish about the issue as late as 1975, when his memoir was published. Remarking on a Bert Lahr sketch that he reprised in the RKO musical New Faces of 1937, Berle stressed that the producer had bought rights to the routine from its author. “I said words that Bert Lahr had first said on a stage,” Berle wrote, “but they were David Freedman’s words, and their use had been paid for. Yet I heard grumblings and lousy remarks that Bert Lahr was making about me for stealing the sketch from him.” Maybe so, but gag larceny has been part of Berle’s reputation for ages, prompting columnist Walter Winchell to dub him The Thief of Bad Gags and leading Jack Benny to say that taking a joke from Berle wasn’t stealing but “repossessing.” Bob Hope sometimes joked that Berle “never heard a joke he didn’t steal,” and Always Leave Them Laughing itself reprises a frequent Berle gimmick whereby someone else would crack wise, Berle would mumble, “I wish I’d said that,” and the other would say, “You will!”