Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Milton Berle Show with Elvis Presley, Esther Williams, Harry James, Buddy Rich (NBC, 4/3/56)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The evening’s entertainment was an old episode of the Milton Berle Show from the last year of its original run (1956), shot from the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hancock as it was docked in San Diego (though given the murky quality of the black-and-white kinescope it was hard to make out much of the scenery or anything else that would look like San Diego visually. Originally aired on April 3, 1956, it’s a Berle show that has become particularly famous because Elvis Presley was one of the guests, though he was just thrown into the mix of personnel that otherwise represented a much earlier generation of entertainment: Esther Williams (seen first in a gown, lowered from a platform that made it look like she was going to execute one of her famous dives into San Diego harbor; she didn’t, though — at the time she was moving away from swimming roles and was about to make a film at Universal called The Unguarded Moment, playing a high-school teacher being sexually harassed by a male student: the film was a flop and pretty much killed her big-screen career), Harry James and Buddy Rich. Rich appeared just as Harry James’ drummer, and James played “You Made Me Love You” and then “Two O’Clock Jump,” his infamous knockoff of Count Basie’s hit “One O’Clock Jump,” which at least gave Rich the chance to shine (it opened with a long drum solo and then featured Rich superbly driving James and the band). Williams got to do a later segment in a bathing suit, and there was a nerdy guy identified only as “Francis” who supposedly was a sailor on board the Hancock who had just won a contest for a date with Williams — and who made a joke about Berle being in unrequited love with him, which (along with the lines about sailors being self-sufficient on their long voyages and therefore not needing girls) plays quite a bit differently now than it no doubt did in 1956! (Berle doesn’t appear in drag in this episode, but he did do a surprising amount of gender-bending on his show overall.) One of the most obnoxious characteristics of the Milton Berle program was his insistence on horning into everything — he didn’t just introduce people like Ed Sullivan did, he insisted on performing with them whether he had anything to add to their act or not. With Williams he did an engaging if sometimes arch parody duet on the song “Memories Are Made of This,” purporting to detail the memories sailors brought back with them on long deployments (and of course they couldn’t resist a final joke about them throwing up due to the awfulness of Navy food!) and with Elvis … well, therein hangs a tale.

The show opened with brief snippets of the stars introducing themselves and their acts, and Elvis, backed (for one of the few times in his career) only by his own (acoustic) guitar, sang a couple of lines of “Shake, Rattle and Roll” — a song I wished he’d done “complete” later on in the show. Instead, looking ill at ease, he stood with his legendary Sun Records band (Scotty Moore, lead guitar; Bill Black, upright bass; and D. J. Fontana, drums) and ground out “Heartbreak Hotel” and the song he identified as his newest RCA Victor release (he did not say “my latest RCA Victor escape — I mean, release,” as he did on some of his other early TV appearances), Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” The ironies are really heavy-duty on that one; when Sun owner Sam Phillips sold Elvis’s contract to RCA Victor, Perkins was the artist he was hoping would replace Elvis at the top of the music world, and Perkins’ Sun record of “Blue Suede Shoes” was the song he thought would accomplish that — only on his way to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, Perkins and his band were involved in a serious auto accident and, while Perkins himself was only slightly injured, his brother Jay was laid up for six months. In later years, Perkins was philosophical about it, figuring that even without the accident he wouldn’t have been able to compete with Elvis: “The girls were going for him for more reasons than music. Elvis was hitting them with sideburns, flashy clothes and no ring on that finger. I had three kids.” Elvis’s performance on the Berle show (which has turned up in several documentaries and compilation films) is O.K. but hardly seems electrifying; even his moves, which wowed ’em back in 1956 (and got him denounced as obscene), seem stiff and wooden, a far cry from the African-American performers like Cab Calloway who had pioneered this sort of act. (James Brown launched his career the same year Elvis did — 1956 — and there’s no contest in terms of who more impressively commanded a stage; though the charts of the time prove that Blacks as well as whites were buying Elvis’s records, any African-American who actually saw him perform in those early years probably shook his or her head and thought, “Pretty good for a white guy.”)

The weirdest part of the Elvis segment occurs afterwards, when Berle comes on in Elvis drag and represents himself as “Elvis’s twin brother, Melvin Presley” (one wonders what on earth Elvis thought of that, especially since he had had a real twin brother, Jesse, who had died in infancy: a psychological blow that according to his biographers haunted him all his life), smashing his guitar as part of a rock ’n’ roll parody that looks astonishingly like the footage of Pete Townshend and Jimi Hendrix practicing aggression on their guitars in the film Monterey Pop 11 years later. Elvis seems really flummoxed by the whole gag — he can’t remember either the name of Milton Berle’s character or his own name — whereas Esther Williams had taken having to participate in a parody with the show’s star with consummate professionalism. The synopsis of this show describes a Berle parody with Harry James as well — “As James, Rich, and the orchestra play ‘Tiger Rag,’ Berle attempts to join them on trumpet … ,” but that number is missing from the download of this show. (Probably just as well.) Frankly, Milton Berle’s act dates badly — his insistence to his writers that his jokes be “lappy” (i.e., that they be so simple and unsophisticated that they landed right in the laps of his audience) means that they don’t wear well (other 1950’s TV comedians like Sid Caesar, less popular at the time, wear better — but then his writers’ room gave us Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen!) — though one appreciates his sheer energy and the grim determination with which he built from a middling movie career as a character comedian to be one of TV’s first superstars (as Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball also managed to rise from mediocre big-screen careers to TV mega-stardom).