Book Reviews

One of the Most Successful Women in Showbiz, and her Husband

Gracie Allen and her husband. Image: Click Americana

Of course Gracie Allen was in the movies, but she didn’t make a lot of ’em. She didn’t have to.

If our math is correct, she appeared in 18 films (17 features and one short) between 1929 and 1944.

Now, the movies didn’t make her a Big Star. She already was a big star, and would continue to be, even after her last film appearance in 1944.

Before Allen appeared in The Movies, she was a popular vaudeville performer and radio actor. After The Movies, she starred an Emmy-nominated television series.

She was barely five feet tall, and she was a showbiz dynamo. Not bad for a woman who had “mike fright”.

“Gracie would stand at my left, at a right angle to me, so she didn’t have to look at the audience,” writes her husband of their radio days. “[She] also worked behind an oversized microphone that kept her partially hidden from view. She never conquered her mike fright…”¹

Despite this phobia, she was outrageously popular. In 1940, for example, the couple’s radio program had a running gag about Allen running for President. Americans embraced her as a satirical candidate, as per Exhibit A, below:

Allen ran for the “Surprise Party”. Image: AAUW

Allen’s husband talked her into doing a “campaign tour” of the country. Not only were they cheered by an estimated 250,000 people on this tour, approx. 16,000 fans greeted her when the stint wrapped up in Omaha, Nebraska.²

This wasn’t the only gag that went viral; there was also the time her (fictional) brother went missing. Allen would “pop in” on other radio programs, asking about her brother. Here’s an example from comedian Jack Benny‘s program in 1933:

Allen: “I’m looking for my missing brother. Have you seen him?”
Benny: “Well, what does he do?”
Allen: “He was going to go into the restaurant business, but he didn’t have enough money. So he went into the banking business.”
Benny: “Your brother didn’t have enough money, so he went into the banking business?”
Allen: “Yes. He broke into the banking business at two o’clock in the morning and was kidnapped by two men dressed as policemen.”

Allen was amusing, but she also had a shrewd partner. Not only was her husband an expert comedy writer, he was a savvy businessman and promoter.

Her husband? Well, that would be Nathan Birnbaum, a.k.a. George Burns, the same George Burns who won an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys (1975), and starred in the box office hit Oh, God! (1977).

Allen and Burns were on television from 1950-58. Image: Time

The pair met in 1922 to create a new vaudeville comedy team. Both were seasoned performers, although neither of them were as successful individually as they would be as a team. They married in 1926.

In the new act, Burns was to be the comedian, and Allen the straight man. However, Burns quickly realized Allen was the better comic. During their first performances, Burns says the audience didn’t respond to his jokes; instead, they laughed at Allen’s straight lines. “The audience had created Gracie’s character,” he says. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type.”³

The comedy became self-referential: Allen’s character was a literal-minded woman named Gracie who was married to a celebrity named George Burns. They were also experimenting with a new type of comedy – the Situation Comedy – at same time their friend, Jack Benny, was developing it, too.

(Before the “sitcom”, popular comedy consisted of comedic sketches or a string of one-liners, as in stand-up comedy. Situational comedy introduced regular characters who appeared in “episodes”.)

It would have been easy to write off Allen. In those days, an unsophisticated female character was known as a “Dumb Dora”, but that description doesn’t fit her. It wasn’t that she was slow-witted; it was like she lived in an alternate universe. She was perfectly logical in her alternative worldview.

Here’s a clip from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show to illustrate our point. (Please forgive the video quality; this is early television.)

As you can see, Allen is naturally funny and charismatic. But Burns is no slouch. He’s a generous straight man; he doesn’t steal the scene and he lets Allen take the lead.

“[I]t was her ability to create a believable character that made everything else work,” says Burns. “Nobody could have done that job better… And it wasn’t an easy job.”4

They worked together for 36 years, from vaudeville, to radio, to film, then television. Burns says they were happily married all those years.

Allen died of a heart attack in 1965. Burns died in 1996, a couple of months after his 100th birthday.

“Gracie was my partner in our act, my best friend, my wife and my lover, and the mother of our two children,” writes Burns. “We were a team, both on and off stage.”5

Sources
  • Burns, George. (1988) Gracie: A Love Story. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • ¹Ibid., pp. 172-173
  • ²Ibid., p. 186
  • ³Ibid., pp. 44-45
  • 4Ibid., p. 177
  • 5Ibid., p. 15

This post is part of the DYNAMIC DUOS IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub.

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31 thoughts on “One of the Most Successful Women in Showbiz, and her Husband

    1. I hope you get the chance to investigate. I’m not sure if “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” qualifies as film noir, but if it does, it might make for a fun review on a certain noir website… *wink*

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  1. An interesting bit of Gracie Allen trivia is that one of the 18 movies she appeared in was titled THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (1939). I didn’t see many Burns & Allen movies, simply because they weren’t among my favorite comedians, but they were great in DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937), starring Fred Astaire.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ve yet to see the film with Fred Astaire, but I’ve heard good things about it.

      Have you read George Burns’ bio of Gracie? A touching, lovely tribute. Of course, Burns gives you the impression they never had a single argument in all their married life…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haven’t read the bio, but saw a fair number of their TV shows back in the day. Unfortunately, I probably will never get around to the bio because I’m already about fifty books behind on my ‘to read’ list. 😦

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I first learned about Burns & Allen through one of Leonard Maltin’s books, but I really got hooked on them when a local TV station re-ran their TV show in the 1970’s. Burns was the mastermind, but Allen was really one of a kind. Nice summary!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve only ever seen bits and pieces of their work and found them a lot of fun. Almost the best thing is George’s generosity in realising Gracie was the funnier and acting accordingly instead of being an insecure little man. Here’s to the pair of them, dah-ling!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A lovely appreciation of a true star. You were inspired.

    I love George’s books. When he writes of Gracie, and of Jack, there is such love.

    We were watching George and Gracie and the hubby mentioned that when he was a kid he saw film of Gracie Allen’s funeral on the news. He had never seen anyone looking as sad as George Burns did on that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another lovely piece. 🙂 Mike fright…! That struck me for some reason. It’s always interesting how these amazing and talented performers who make it look so easy are terrified just like the rest of us

    Liked by 1 person

    1. True! Professional entertainers always make it look easy, don’t they, and we don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes. Whenever I watch Gracie Allen in her TV show, or listen to her radio program, I find it remarkable she was such a dazzling performer.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. As much as I love all of the Dynamic Duo choices this year, yours made my heart glow. I love Gracie so much. She’s one of my idols as I posted across social media numerous times. Thank you so much for this tribute to both of these legendary comedians, Ruth. They should be required viewing as should be your entry.

    Aurora

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Aurora! Gracie Allen and George Burns were both remarkably talented, weren’t they? Gracie makes me laugh, no matter what mood I’m in.

      Thanks for co-hosting this terrific blogathon! 🙂

      Like

  7. I’ve been a fan of Gracie Allen and George Burns ever since seeing reruns of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show as a kid. Gracie certainly was a comic genius. There weren’t many as funny as Gracie, and no one surpassed her. Whether on the radio, in the movies, or on TV, she was always a delight! Thank you so much for writing about Burns & Allen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Gracie is completely believable as her character, isn’t she? In his book about Gracie, George Burns says her real voice was about an octave lower. I haven’t yet found an audio-recorded interview with Gracie as her real self. Have you come across one, that you can recall?

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  8. I think it’s safe to say there will never be another team like Burns and Allen. Whenever people asked George Burns the secret to making a marriage work, he had a standard response: “…the answer’s easy, marry Gracie.” True to his word, he never married again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right – I can’t see how there would never be another Burns and Allen. They were smart and adaptable, because not many vaudeville teams survived radio and transitioned to television…and be nominated for PrimeTime Emmys as well! The more I learn about them, the more I admire them.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Very lovely post! I can still remember when I read Gracie: A Love Story. My sister was driving me to the library to return it and I had only a few pages left. Well, those last few pages absolutely wrecked me. They had such a special relationship. A truly great team, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. George and Gracie were an amazing pair. One of the things that made them so great was that George was the perfect strait man. He knew exactly how to react and respond to Gracie. Gracie played her part brilliantly and was always in character. Gracie For President was one of the great gags of the day. She was so believable. Her many appearances on the various radio shows promoting this made it (and her) all the more believable. A great team and a great blog!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. So, a practical joke going viral is older than I have thought!
    In loved the clip you added. I’m sad their vaudeville act couldn’t b filmed, but I’m happy we’ve got Grace in movies and TV shows, to see anytime.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would have been amazing to see the Burns+Allen vaudeville act, wouldn’t it? I’m reading a book on the history of vaudeville, and I can’t help feeling a bit sad about some of those great, but forgotten, acts. If only we could enjoy them now!

      Like

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