This 1979 NBC comedy special with Walter Matthau hosting 50 Years of Comedy in the Movies is wonderful stuff….with tremendous footage of America’s 1st lady of comedy and the silver scree, Mae West….along with her movie sidekick/co-star and comedic legend, W C Fields….with outstanding footage of the legendary comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
MaeWestwas an American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, and sex symbol whose entertainment career spanned seven decades….who was well-known for her lighthearted bawdy double entendre and breezy sexual independence. West made a name for herself in vaudeville and on the stage in New York City before moving to Hollywood to become a comedian, actress and writer in the motion picture industry….as well as appearing on radio and television. The American Film Institute named her 15th among the greatest female stars of classic American cinema. West was one of the more controversial movie stars of her day….who encountered many problems….especially with censorship…. so, she bucked the system by making comedy out of conventional mores….as the Depression-era audiences admired her for it. When her cinematic career ended, she wrote books and plays and continued to perform in Las Vegas, in the United Kingdom, on radio and television and to record rock and roll albums. She was once asked about the various efforts to impede her career, to which she replied….“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
W. C. Fields was an American comedian, actor, juggler and writer….as Fields’ comic persona was a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist….who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs and children. His career in show business began in vaudeville….where he attained international success as a silent juggler….when he gradually incorporated comedy into his act….and was thus a featured comedian in the Ziegfeld Follies for several years. He became a star in the Broadway musical comedy Poppy (1923)….in which he played a colorful small-time con man….with his subsequent stage and film roles were often similar scoundrels or else henpecked “everyman” characters. Among his recognizable trademarks were his raspy drawl and grandiloquent vocabulary. The characterization he portrayed in films and on radio was so strong it was generally identified with Fields himself….which was maintained by the publicity departments at Fields’ studios of Paramount and Universal….and was further established by Robert Lewis Taylor’s biography, W. C. Fields, His Follies and Fortunes (1949).
In 1939, Universal Pictures approached Mae West to star in a film opposite W. C. Fields….as the studio was eager to duplicate the success of Destry Rides Again starring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart with a comic vehicle starring West and Fields. Having left Paramount 18 months earlier and looking for a new film….West accepted the role of Flower Belle Lee in the film My Little Chickadee in 1940….and despite the two stars’ intense mutual dislike for each other….partly due to Fields’s very real drinking problems and fights over the screenplay….My Little Chickadee was a huge box-office success….which outgrossed Fields’s previous films, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and The Bank Dick (1940). Despite this, religious leaders condemned West as a negative role model….by taking offense at lines such as “Between two evils, I like to pick the one I haven’t tried before” and “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
Burns and Allen was a legendary American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen. They worked together as a successful comedy team that entertained vaudeville, film, radio, and television audiences for over forty years….as the duo met in 1922 and married in 1926. Burns was the straight man and Allen was a silly, addle-headed woman. The duo starred in a number of movies including Lambchops (1929), The Big Broadcast (1932) and two sequels in 1935 and 1936….and A Damsel in Distress (1937). Their 30-minute radio show debuted in September 1934 as The Adventures of Gracie….whose title changed to The Burns and Allen Show in 1936….as the series ran until May 1950….when after their radio show’s cancellation, Burns and Allen reemerged on television with a popular situation comedy….which ran from 1950 to 1958.
Burns and Allen’s radio show was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1994. Their TV series received a total of 11 prime time Emmy Award nominations and produced what TV Guide ranked as the # 56 show on its 1997 list of the 100 greatest episodes of all time. They were inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988.
Any way you cut the pie, this 50 Years of Comedy in the Movies hosted by Walter Matthau….is a special gem in our vaunted ImaSportsphile video library….with special highlights of treasured memories from days gone bye.