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.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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

  1. Pingback: Day One: Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon – Once upon a screen…

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