The Best of Benny: 1942-43 (GRAPE NUTS FLAKES Season One)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday and the continuation of our official coverage on the best of The Jack Benny Program, or as this season was originally titled, The Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny. Every other month, I’m sharing my selections for the best offerings from this classic old-time radio comedy, which I credit for really establishing the sitcom as we now know it. For while the series regularly employed skits and the casual variety-esque patter — you know, fare that generally typified most of the era’s radio comedies — the Benny Program‘s wonderfully crafted and nuanced personalities came to allow for situational humor that directly capitalized on these characterizations, making use of the history that the show had established to develop actual scenarios and, eventually, stories. And with the show now following its group of characters through motivated plots, the situation comedy was born.

But in addition to the revolutionary narrative and structural tropes this series established, it also had the distinction of being the most consistently hilarious (in my opinion, as always), of its radio contemporaries. Given the timeless appeal of Jack Benny, it’s no surprise how popular this series remains to this day, with many internet sites and communities offering truly invaluable information and discussion on every aspect of both the television and radio incarnations of the Benny program. Some of the resources that have proved of tremendous assistance to me during my Benny coverage include several Facebook groups, including the one for The International Jack Benny Fan Club, run by Laura Leff, whose trilogy of encyclopedias on the series remains a wealth of insight. Also, the recaps provided by the good folks at Jack Benny in the 1940’s (which also includes the ’30s and ’50s too) made indexing and studying the show much easier. And, above all, special thanks to reader WGaryW, who graciously granted public access to a huge collection of episodes, many of which are quite rare. The episodes featured in these posts are sourced from those copies. (Check them all out here; additional rarities here.)

Still sponsored by General Foods but no longer a weekly half-hour advertisement for JELL-O (which was so popular during the war years that it didn’t need to be promoted by one of the nation’s finest radio comedies), the 1942-’43 season of The Jack Benny Program finds the series entering its most tangibly unstable two-years of its larger half-decade of transition. This theme of liminality is one that we discussed briefly in our look at the year prior, but this season — and the following — serve as a more evident bridge in the show’s aesthetic, as Benny is between his two most identifiable products: JELL-O and Lucky Strike, both of which accompany different comedic and narrative sensibilities. Additionally, these two Grape Nuts Flakes years (next season will be for Grape Nuts And Grape Nuts Flakes) fall smack dab in the middle of America’s entry in the Second World War, forcing a complete overhaul in the writing staff. This particular season is the last for Ed Beloin and the drafted Bill Morrow. These men joined Benny’s show in 1936, turned it into a comedic powerhouse, and came to chart the course that would allow the series to develop the template for the situation comedy. Their years, especially in the late ’30s, were filled with all the experimental joys provided by a show that’s helping to define a genre, and though next season will bring about the staff that truly cemented this storytelling evolution (turning the series into a sharper, less rough-around-the-edges enterprise), the departure of these two chaps marks the end of this frantic, funny, and excessively forward-thinking period. So, these Grape Nuts seasons house the big turnover — and suffer for the accompanying pains.

But these two particular years also mark a time of instability in front of the microphones as well, for the country’s entry into the world’s war not only led to the dismissal of Morrow, but also saw Phil and his Orchestra joining the Merchant Marines — taking him off the show from December ’42 to March ’43. As with Dennis’ entrance into the Navy in April ’44 (sparking a longer, nearly two-year absence), the loss of a regular player hampers the comedy considerably, for it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the series is down one of its humorous assets and is therefore not allowed to fire on all of its figurative cylinders. In fact, you’ll notice that very few episodes highlighted below come from this Phil-less stretch, for there aren’t many commendable entries from this period. Actually, however, the ’42-’43 season is a weaker showing, in general, than most of the seasons we’ve already covered — especially those from ’38 onwards. Aside from Phil’s departure, this season must a) contend with the high expectations that the past several years have fostered, b) sell a product, Grape Nuts Flakes, that simply isn’t as comedically memorable as JELL-O, and c) continue to adapt to the realities of wartime, which force the cast out on the road for much of the year — an energetically draining, narratively limiting, and comedically repetitious task. The result is a lot of episodic unevenness, with most entries boasting several stellar moments couched in otherwise good-but-not-great trappings.

Fortunately, there’s a big improvement in the final seven (or so) weeks of the season, following Jack’s bout with pneumonia, which rendered him bedridden and unavailable to perform for five Sundays. After an entry in which Burns and Allen assume the hosting responsibilities, the show goes bold and hires Orson Welles to “pinch hit” for the next month. We’ll talk more about his work below, but essentially his presence, while not always conducive to big guffaws, helps restore a creative spark to the year — one that continues once Jack returns and elevates the comedy. (It also helps that Phil returns at this time, too.) Thus, the season ends up okay, after all — no thanks to all the volatility caused by war. You see, as the show has naturally been moving away from the vaudeville/variety combination of song, patter, sketch and into something more dependent on the situation comedy format (as we’ll see in the Lucky Strike years), the war halts this trend, pushing it off onto the next team of writers, the next sponsor, and the years in which America is back at peace. In the meantime, this is another year of special historical significance — a country and a comedy in a period of unsurety, where laughter is the best medicine.  So, without further ado, out of all 35 original episodes (all extant) from the ’42-’43 season — plus a bonus entry for The Camel Comedy Caravan that features the entire cast and plays like a normal broadcast — I’ve listed my picks for the 16 strongest. They are featured below in airing order.

 

01) October 04, 1942: Jack and company head to the studio for the first show of the season.

Although the first several weeks of the year reveal the show to be operating at a generally weaker quality (and to a degree unlike we’ve seen in past seasons — where the bumpiness gave way to greatness), the premiere outing is one of the show’s strongest — filled with confidence, classic guests, and the start of a fun running gag about a fake soap opera: Sally Sutton.

02) November 15, 1942: The show gets a visit from Dennis’ new girlfriend: Dorothy Lamour.

As regular readers of Sitcom Tuesdays know, I’m not inherently wowed by a big name guest appearance; however, often times when celebrities appear on this program, they bring with them an energy that lifts the proceedings. In this case, Dorothy Lamour’s inclusion not only has everyone buoyed, but because she’s associated with Dennis, there are lots of laughs.

03) November 22, 1942: Jack heads to the premiere of his new film in a horse and buggy.

One of the arcs that defines the first several months of the season is Jack’s purchase of a buggy (mentioned in the premiere) and a horse (secured from funny Andy Devine’s parents), and with the premiere of Jack’s latest picture, George Washington Slept Here, this installment wisely marries the two together for an outing that’s not perfect, but narratively memorable.

04) December 06, 1942: The gang does a maritime sketch as Phil joins the Merchant Marines.

Phil Harris’ final excursion this season until his return three months later, this entry marks the last time until mid-April (once Jack himself returns from his illness) that the entire ensemble is intact. But beyond this fact, the script itself has extra laughs, with a funny “Liberty Ship” sketch and a couple of great gags — like Jack wearing Joan Bennett’s pajamas.

05) December 13, 1942: In New York, Jack goes out on the town with Gary Cooper.

Even though I mentioned above that the Phil-less offerings are generally weak because of their feeling of incompleteness (which is why only four entries from this three month period are included), this is the year’s first classic. Set in New York, Gary Cooper guest stars and goes out on the town with Jack — then they end up at a burlesque show. Lots of fun!

06) January 17, 1943: Jack is preparing to perform that evening at Carnegie Hall.

Broadcast on the same evening that Jack performed at Carnegie Hall in a benefit for Infantile Paralysis, this entry makes wonderful use of its master of ceremonies’ less-than-stellar violin playing (which is always an easy, but terrific, source of comedy). I’m less enthused about the satire of Information, Please, but the entry still stands out more than the rest of January’s.

07) February 28, 1943: The cast does a parody of Kit Carson.

The last episode with Jack before his five-week bout with pneumonia (from all the traveling), this entry doesn’t operate with the same level of humor that will typify those following his return. But it is one of the more enjoyable excursions from this Phil-less period, with a couple of well-utilized gags (Jack’s judo, especially) that makes the script seem tightly written.

08) March 07, 1943: Don tries to persuade Gracie Allen to substitute for an ailing Jack.

Without either Jack or Mary, their good friends (and another of radio’s — and television’s — finest comics) George Burns and Gracie Allen take over the show, as the ensemble of the Benny program tries to convince Gracie to fill in for Jack on that night’s show. The outing plays a bit like a Burns & Allen entry, but the latter’s dynamic with Dennis Day is not to be missed!

09) March 14, 1943: Phil returns from the Merchant Marines and Orson Welles fills in for Jack.

Phil’s return only adds to the excitement featured in this installment by the fill-in master of ceremonies — Orson Welles, who’d guested several years before — while appearances from Frank Nelson, Verna Felton, Mel Blanc, and Andy Devine help keep the energy high. As it turn outs, Welles’ presence alone is enough to creatively re-spark the series, even though he’s not hilarious (some of his humor falls flat) and his appeal remains mostly novelty.

10) March 21, 1943: The cast visits guest host Orson Welles at the studio.

My pick for the best of Orson Welles’ four-week stint as Jack Benny’s “pinch hitter,” this entry sees the return of Mary (who’d been out with Jack over the prior two weeks), and follows the show’s ensemble as it visits Orson Welles at the studio where he’s producing a new film. Lots of little moments make this entry worthwhile — including Dennis’ encounter with a cab driver.

11) April 11, 1943: Jack has the cast over to rehearse for his return broadcast.

Jack’s first broadcast since February is set in his bedroom, as the ensemble visits him to rehearse his return show. Orson Welles makes his last appearance as well, and this episode is most notable not just because of how glad we are that Jack’s back, but also because Jack manages — for the first time — to loosen up Orson, who cracks over a few bloopers and ad libs.

12) April 25, 1943: Rochester has entered the horse Jack sold him into the Kentucky Derby.

Coming in the year’s aforementioned string of final shows that represent the season’s best, this entry resumes the story of Jack’s horse, as we learn that he sold it to Rochester (for four dollars), who’s since entered it into the Kentucky Derby. Now the gang wants in on the action (as does Jack, who gets advice from Bea Benaderet as a fortune teller). Solid.

13) May 09, 1943: Rochester needs money for a double date with Louis Armstrong.

Were I to choose an MVE, it would be this entry, which features the most material,  that we’ve heard thus far, afforded to Rochester. Following his horse’s defeat, Jack’s valet has been hiding out downtown. He finally calls Jack when he needs money to double date with Louis Armstrong, saying that he needs money to buy his mom flowers for Mother’s Day. This leads to a phone call where Satchemo pretends to be Rochester’s mother. (It’s hilarious.) Also, we learn that Dennis considers Jack like a mother, as the guys prepare to go to a burlesque show.

14) May 16, 1943: The gang performs a sketch called “Rancho Benny.”

One of the best entries broadcast from a service base, this installment is humorous from beginning to end (and even features Rochester singing a number from his latest picture, Cabin In The Sky). The possible cultural insensitivity in the Rancho Benny sketch is allayed by the sheer character-driven hilarity that comes from our known players in these roles.

15) May 23, 1943: Jack remembers the time he did a parachute jump.

While I’m not enamored of the flashback sitcom scene that serves as the episode’s centerpiece (in which Jack does a parachute jump — that’s an ostentatious story on any series), this installment finds its merit in some great material afforded to Dennis (quickly becoming the ensemble’s funniest) and a stellar gag about Jack being a pin-up for the WACs.

16) The Camel Comedy Caravan Special – June 11, 1943: The cast parodies “Allen’s Alley.”

Mentioned above, this entry is not technically an episode of the Benny program; it’s a special for Camel that aired 12 days after Benny’s season finale. But because it was co-written by one of Benny’s writers (Beloin) and features the entire ensemble, it deserves to be counted among this season’s output. Although it’s not the main event, the “Allen’s Alley” parody is riotous.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: October 18, 1942, in which Jack gives over his Maxwell for the scrap metal drive (the closest to making the above list), November 01, 1942, which features a lively audience and a wonderfully risqué joke (from Mary), December 27, 1942, in which Fred Allen appears and takes part in the annual New Year’s skit, and the two other Orson Welles appearances, March 28, 1943 and April 04, 1943.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget to return Tuesday for more sitcom fun!

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