For The TV Sidekick Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe I present one of the greatest talents of the 20th Century and her portrayal of pioneering sidekick Blanche Morton on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” This is for Bea Benaderet.
Blanche Morton: He spent a fortune on his foreign stamp collection but when I needed a new fall wardrobe, did he get it for me? No! I was down to the point where I didn’t have a stitch on my back, and he went out and bought a bunch of foreign stamps!
Gracie Allen: Oh well, he must be out of his mind! Granted, you can stick those on you, but how do you get ’em off if you want to slip into something more comfortable?
By 1950 Gracie Allen was ready to retire from show business. Her act with husband George Burns had ensured that Gracie had achieved more fame and fortune than she’d ever dreamed of. The duo had conquered vaudeville and radio and they were among the most famous people on the planet. But in 1950 there was a new medium in town and George was ready to conquer it. Gracie reluctantly agreed to have a go at TV and on October 12, 1950 the band began to play “Love Nest” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” went on the air for the first time.
Playing themselves in a fictional version of their off-screen lives “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” featured the married couple living in Beverly Hills with George playing a famous comedian and Gracie his stay-at-home, ditzy wife. The show’s premise and characters transitioned from its predecessor on radio and the half-hour situation comedy on CBS was an immediate success thanks in part to the supporting cast that made the transition with them.
The TV version of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” followed the same formula as the previous radio version focusing on the couple’s domestic life, which often involved their neighbors and best friends Harry and Blanche Morton. During the pilot episode George Burns stands in the wings speaking directly to the audience as he was prone to do at some point during each show and introduced the main players. After Gracie gets her welcome applause from the audience we see Mr. and Mrs. Morton step up to their front door, which stood just a few yards from the Burns entrance. As they saunter along, across the stage Harry is reading a newspaper and Blanche is weighed down with several bags of groceries setting the stage for the couple’s dynamic throughout the show’s run during which several actors played Harry Morton. Hal March played Mr. Morton during the show’s first season (from October to December 1950), then John Brown took over from January to June 1951, followed by Fred Clark (my favorite) who stood in until 1953 when the role was assumed by Larry Keating who became the definitive curmudgeon Harry Morton. Blanche Morton, however, was played by one actress the great Bea Benaderet who’d made the transition from radio as a memorable sitcom sidekick.
The New York-born Bea Benaderet had made a name for herself on radio well before she played Blanche Morton. In 1936, she joined Orson Welles’ “The Campbell Playhouse” and received her first big break when she became a regular on Jack Benny‘s show, where she created memorable characters such as Gertrude Gearshift who had one of the most distinctive Brooklyn accents you’ve ever heard. Benaderet would soon become a staple on radio making appearances in many of the day’s popular programs through the 1940s to include “The Great Gildersleeve,” “Amos and Andy,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” Welles’ “Mercury Theatre of the Air” and “My Favorite Husband” playing sidekick to Lucille Ball’s precursor to “I Love Lucy.”
As the following clip illustrates when radio was king Bea Benaderet was one of its golden talents…
Given her radio experience and talent it was a no-brainer that Bea Benaderet was chosen to play Blanche Morton, neighbor and best friend to one of entertainment’s most popular personalities. And given the popularity of the Burns and Allen show on radio it was also an easy decision to bring Benaderet along to TV. Bea Benaderet was such an established sidekick, in fact, that when Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were developing “I Love Lucy” they wanted Benaderet to play Ethel Mertz. Bea had proven a great comedic foil and sidekick when she worked with Lucy on “My Favorite Wife” on radio. Lucy and Desi had the wanted the best although there are no complaints whatsoever about Vivian Vance’s portrayal of Ethel. Still, I like to think Bea Benaderet would’ve also made a great Ethel Mertz because we see how great she is as Blanche to Gracie’s Gracie.
The stories depicted on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” are like the comedy – simple. The conflicts in most episodes are born of Gracie’s ability to twist things around or her unique way of understanding the world. Whichever way you want to look at it Gracie was central to each and every plot. The mix-ups occurred not from Gracie’s misunderstandings, but rather from people misunderstanding her. Gracie was always sure about what she said. There was one person who rarely misunderstood anything Gracie said and that person was her best friend and neighbor Blanche Morton. Sure Blanche would scratch her head plenty through the years, but never does she judge Gracie for the weird stuff she says. Blanche’s reactions were either to shrug, laugh it off with that Betty Rubble laugh of hers or take a few minutes to try to figure it out after doing a double-take. For instance – one time Blanche tells Gracie to go get her palm read and runs into her best friend carrying a palm tree a while later. Blanche doesn’t think twice about it and finds Gracie’s faux pas a cute distraction. But on a few occasions Gracie would stump even Blanche like the time when the friends discuss Blanche’s making the sandwiches and salad for their club meeting. “Alright,” says Blanche, “but you know half the girls are on a diet. Do you think I ought to make it without dressing?” Naturally Gracie replies, “Well, as long as you’re alone and pull down the shade, whose business is it?” Blanche has to take a moment for herself – and the audience – to digest that particular offering. And if the situation at hand involves a third party who is not familiar with Gracie’s unique way of thinking Blanche simply stays quiet and stares at the person after Gracie says something odd to see if there’s a reaction. It was part of the schtick, the sidekick schtick and Benaderet was a natural at it.
As we see in so many of the episodes of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” most people react to Gracie’s special brand of nonsense by throwing up his/her arms and walking away. But Blanche never does. She enjoys Gracie’s way of thinking even if it goes around in circles and always defends Gracie to any befuddled detractor of Gracie’s isms. Whenever Blanche suggests spending time with the Burnses her husband – in every incarnation – complains about having to spend time with the exasperating airhead who poor George had ended up marrying. Blanche would always retort that it was Gracie who’d made the supreme sacrifice by “marrying that stiff.” When Mr. Morton comes home from work he’s often met with a “you know what Gracie said today?” and Blanche delights in recounting the Gracie-ism of the day. Blanche is Gracie’s greatest audience even when Gracie isn’t in the room.
My favorite scenes on “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” are the ones during the first couple of seasons when Gracie and Blanche would walk each other home after a day of shopping or a matinée. The walk would cover the entire route from the Burns house to the Morton house. Fortunately the two front doors are separated by just a few yards so in order to finish catching up on the day’s gossip or going over the plans for how they would fool their husbands that evening they had to walk back-and-forth many times. “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” was a situation comedy, but the action was never completely separated from the audience as if it were real life. This was a compilation of sketches performed by the best in the business and none of it would have worked if not for the chemistry between the actors. Enhancing the comedy are the inside jokes the audience was made privy to either by George Burns’ side glance/pause after a Gracie-ism or by Bea Benaderet’s reaction, which is always as if she were one of us.
Despite Blanche’s common sense, what I’d call an average person’s intelligence and a definite snippiness during any number of arguments with her husband – which are always in stark contrast to how Gracie and George deal with each other…
Harry Morton: I’m a patient man but this is too much to ask.
Blanche Morton: I don’t know about you being a man but if you don’t do this for me you’ll be a patient!
…Blanche and Gracie are a perfect match. After all, as Gracie explains, the two friends have a lot in common. They are both women. They are both married. And both of their husbands are married too.
When Blanche Morton thinks her husband Harry is having an affair with his secretary or with the new neighbor, Countess Braganni nobody stands by her side in support like Gracie who goes to great lengths to treat Harry like a heel or simply turns against all men for treating women in such loathsome ways. When Gracie gets it into her head that she and George are not really married after watching Edmund Goulding’s We’re Not Married! starring Ginger Rogers she moves in with Blanche and her best friend welcomes her with open arms even though it means Harry moves out until Gracie leaves. These two are peas in a pod – friends in good times and bad. The two help each other hide secrets from their husbands and Blanche – against her own better judgment – goes right along with all of Gracie’s harebrained schemes and/or seeks her help in creating them.
A sidekick is a close companion, a partner and a friend. Many of the great leading characters in Television history are made greater thanks to those reliable supporting characters who stand by their side through thick and thin. There are many worthy of attention and Blanche Morton stands right up there with the best of them. Blanche and Gracie get caught up in messes not unlike duos in other situation comedies, but they dealt with them before many others and they dealt with them in memorable fashion setting a standard that would be emulated for years to come. There is no physical comedy to speak of in the screwball sense in “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” Or certainly not in comparison to an “I Love Lucy.” But as far as sidekicks go you don’t get any better than Blanche Morton who is the perfect support system for one of comedy’s great talents. Blanche possesses all of the sidekick trademarks – she allows Gracie the spotlight, is readily available to engage anyone or any situation as Gracie dictates, encourages Gracie to create mayhem and is not beyond being the center of trouble herself. Whenever Gracie sends a “yoohoo, Blanche” from one window to another the call is always answered. While George Burns’ exchanges with Gracie are based on their on-stage act where as the straight man he’d set Gracie up for the laugh Blanche is in the thick of things allowing her best friend (and the show’s star) a canvas on which to draw her unique conclusions. Not to mention Blanche sets up a punchline like nobody’s business.
Gracie Allen finally announced her retirement on February 17, 1958, effective at the end of the eighth season of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” At the wrap party on June 8, 1958 Gracie took a sip of champagne from a paper cup, hugged her friend and co-star Bea Benaderet, and said “Okay, that’s it” and one of the greatest entertainment ensembles hung up its collective hats for good.
“The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” was honored with several EMMY nominations for Gracie Allen and Bea Benaderet and while it and they failed to take home any statues, the marks left by this pioneering group are indelible. These people set the standard for characters and relationships in a new medium that many subsequent shows would echo. One of those is the dynamic between star and sidekick.
Bea Benaderet had a lot of entertaining left to offer after “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” ended. She continued working on Television until her death in 1968 making a mark in that medium as she’d done on radio by becoming one of the great character actors of her generation. Benaderet voiced another memorable TV sidekick, Betty Rubble on TV’s “The Flintstones” from 1960 to 1964 and played matriarch Kate Bradley on “Petticoat Junction” from 1963 to 1968 during which she also had recurring appearances as Kate Bradley on “Green Acres.” Bea also played Cousin Pearl Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies” from 1962 to 1967. Add to that her extraordinary voice work in Warner Bros. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons throughout the 1940s and 1950s during which she worked alongside the legendary Mel Blanc. Benaderet was uncredited in all of those due to the stipulation in Blanc’s contract, which prohibited other voice actors from getting credit on those works, but she must be listed among the all-time greats in a lost art. The list of her contributions is beyond impressive.
To me Bea Benaderet remains one of the greatest talents of the 20th Century. In fact if I had to choose an entertainment idol she’s the one I’d turn to next to Gracie Allen. Benaderet may not be a name everyone recognizes and it’s unlikely she or Blanche Morton, for that matter, would make it onto a “greatest ever” type list, but if you listen to classic radio or watch classic Television shows you’re likely to come across a production made during either medium’s golden age that Bea Benaderet was either a part of or seriously considered to be a part of. For all of those reasons and for bringing one of TV’s earliest memorable sidekicks to life, for creating a sidekick standard in Blanche Morton she is my choice for The TV Sidekick Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. I hope that you take the time to watch some episodes of “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.” After you’ve checked out the rest of the wonderful entries in this blogging event by clicking here of course.