Monday, May 4, 2015

Jack Benny Program with Liberace (CBS-TV, 1/17/54)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Charles a 1954 episode of The Jack Benny Program featuring Liberace as guest star. Originally aired January 17, 1954, and written by Sam Perrin, George Balzer, Milt Josefsberg and John Tackaberry, the episode has a typically simple plot — Liberace’s violin-playing and bandleading brother George (Our Hero’s original name was Wladziu Valentino Liberace and he Anglicized the first name to “Walter” — the name on his first film, a “Soundie” of “Tiger Rag” — before he dropped his given name altogether) can’t make it to a benefit concert Liberace is playing, so he’s inviting Jack Benny to stand in for him. Benny learns of this when his valet Rochester (Eddie Anderson, given such heavy lighting that when we first see him he doesn’t look all that Black) takes Liberace’s phone message, and there’s a great scene when Benny’s attempt to return Liberace’s call gets sidetracked by two gloriously funny character actresses, Bea Benaderet and Shirley Mitchell, who play switchboard operators making catty remarks as Benny tries to get through. Unable to reach Liberace by phone, Benny drops in at him at home — and Liberace’s home is a palatial living room lit entirely by candelabra. Benny meets Liberace’s manservants, including butler Geoffrey (Rex Evans), chef Pierre (Rolfe Sedan) — who has prepared an entrée of “frog’s legs à la José Ferrer,” meaning that the legs are permanently bent at the knees (a reference to Ferrer’s starring role as the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the film Moulin Rouge, in which to simulate the artist’s diminutive stature he had a special frame made so he could go about on his knees throughout the film and look like a real little person — indeed, as I recall the most spectacular scene was a confrontation between Toulouse-Lautrec and his father, also played by Ferrer but standing up normally) — and at least two of the four people Liberace has detailed to change the candles when they’re about to burn out. It’s an illustration of how Liberace managed to be a Gay celebrity at a time when homosexuality was almost unheard of and the big concern of the Gay community, such as it was, was to keep from getting arrested instead of winning the right to marry each other: instead of staying closeted and playing the big, buff straight guy the way Rock Hudson did, Liberace ramped up the camp to such a level that people thought, “He acts way too much like one to actually be one!” (Amazingly, in 1959 Liberace filed a libel suit against a British columnist who had hinted he was Gay — and won.)

At the scene representing the concert, Liberace plays a medley of Chopin pieces — and plays them surprisingly well; for all his affectations, Liberace as a musician was genuinely at home with the classics, and when he could resist his temptation to add orchestral parts to pieces whose composers had written them for solo piano (which he doesn’t do here until the very end of the medley), he could play standard piano repertoire quite well. Not surprisingly, his tastes ran to the dreamier parts of the classical piano canon, particularly Chopin and Debussy (I have a late Liberace recording of “Clair de Lune,” blessedly free of orchestral interjections, and he’s quite good —not at the level of Gieseking or Arrau, but still quite good.) Then Jack Benny emerges with a miniature three-candle candelabrum glued to the body of his violin. “I think you’re taking this a bit too far,” says Liberace, the Master of Excess! Benny agrees to fetch his other, unadorned violin, and the two play Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” with Benny excruciatingly out of tune as usual (when Liberace sounds A on the piano and suggests, “Why don’t we tune up?,” Benny says, “That’s a great idea.” Liberace says, “No, why don’t you tune up?”). In one of the great Benny-as-terrible-violinist sequences, he plays “September Song” with full visual panache, as if he thinks he’s making the greatest music of all time even though what we hear is the usual Benny screeching. (According to Joe Venuti, Benny could really play well — the two jammed together and Venuti said Benny would have made a great jazz violinist — but he couldn’t risk playing competently for audiences because it would have blown his carefully crafted image of being terrible.) It’s a wonderful little program and a souvenir of a bygone age in entertainment when you could have a mass following as a comedian without being rude, offensive or scatological.