Jack Benny once said he hated not only his stage name (real name: Benjamin Kubelsky) but also his theme song, the one that always accompanied his eager, boyishly dandified strides onto a stage. Seldom if ever were the lyrics to that tune sung on any of his broadcasts. They began:
"Can it be the trees, that fill the breeze, with rare and magic perfume?/Oh no, it isn't the trees! It's love in bloom."
If Dennis Day had sung them, they would have gotten screams. They would have fit right in with the whole grand joke. It was a wonderful joke while it lasted. The character created by Jack Benny was a work of art, a work-in-progress, with motifs and themes and counterpoint and daft refrains that wore very, very well.
Tonight on NBC an attempt is made to recapture some of the glory that was Benny: "A Love Letter to Jack Benny," at 9 on Channel 4. Almost all of the material is from specials Benny made for NBC from 1964 until 1974, the year he died at the age of 80. b
Most of it is priceless, much of it is timeless, and all of it is especially cherishable when one considers how few great comedians remain and how strained most of today's television comedy is.
The two hours are hosted by Benny cronies George Burns, Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. "This won't be a eulogy; we did that years ago," says Burns, and while a certain jauntiness would seem appropriate to Benny's memory, the framework for the clips is so steadfastly unsentimental and cold that it seems disrespectful. It is one thing to look at an old clip of Benny making fun of himself and entirely another to have Burns exploiting the treasury of Bennyanna with his own dull jokes about Benny's status as a tightwad or ham.
Hope and Burns cling to the cue cards as if they were the last twig before Niagara Falls, but Carson is comparatively warm and relaxed. He should have been the sole host for the program, particularly since Burns has become as inescapable as Perrier and Hope has grown either so lazy or so near-sighted that the biggest exertion he will make for an audience is to read aloud.
Some of the clips are classic routines that traveled with Benny from radio to television, including his set-to with Mel Blanc as a monosyllabic gaucho ("Si. Sy. Sue"). This ritual, which kept popping up in different settings through Benny's years on CBS (1950-1963) as well as the later ones on NBC, is a classic of "Who's-on-First?" caliber. It's always good; it's comedy heaven, as Robin Williams might say.
Others seen in extended highlights include Lucille Ball, Rowan and Martin, John Wayne and then-governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who presents Benny with a Rolls Royce on one of Benny's many "farewell" specials. Eddie "RAH-Chester" Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, and the mad foil Frank Nelson ("yyyyyesss?") are seen briefly. Gregory Peck proves a prize good sport, first in a sketch in which Benny tries to draft him onto his TV show and later in a sublime bit of cornball minstrelsy with Burns and Benny.
They give "The Shadow of Your Smile" the throttling it deserves.
The Marquis Chimps are seen briefly, too, but their most hilarious encounter with Benny -- the world series of deadpan takes -- was from his earlier CBS series and is not shown. Silent, black-and-white clips from that show end the special, illustrating the wide and novel range of guests Benny played host to over the years: Humphrey Bogart (who engages Benny in a tough-guy slapping match), Marilyn Monroe, Harry S. Truman, Billy Graham, Gary Cooper, and others.
Carson says of Benny, "He never counted his own laughs." He was more than willing to spread them around (in "The Jack Benny Show," by former Benny writer Milt Josefsberg, Benny is described as insisting that the canned laughter on his CBS series be toned down, telling an engineer, "I'm not that funny"). A man whose showbiz self was a fastidious miser lived what was by all available accounts a life of fervent generosity.
The character profile is filled out and brought back in focus in tonight's retrospective. Jack Benny was always adding new but harmonious details to the portrait -- he playfully played Jack Benny as a social outcast (even in Hollywood) yet an inveterate snob; a lover of lousy jokes who gleefully delighted in telling them ("This'll kill ya"); a spoiled brat and a petty tyrant. ("Well this is my dumb show and I'm gonna do it"); a transparent, blatant, overgrown child; and the very essence of blind vanity.
By no coincidence did Jack Benny star in a comedy masterpiece called "To Be or Not to Be" for he was the Hamlet of comedians. Tonight's special only begins to do him justice, but it is a reminder of how large he looms in a privileged recess of collective memory. It is hard to think of another clown who ever lived who deserved more love and respect.