The Bootleg Files: The Great Radio Comedians

BOOTLEG FILES 719: “The Great Radio Comedians” (1972 documentary featuring George Burns, Jack Benny and Edgar Bergen).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems to have fallen through the proverbial cracks.


From the late 1920s into the late 1940s, Americans relied on radio for their home entertainment. There was a wide variety of original programming to choose from, but many listeners gravitated to the weekly comedy series. Considering the heyday of the medium coincided with the grim years of the Great Depression and World War II, the comedy shows offered much-needed happy distraction from the problems and crises taking place across the country and around the world.

The arrival of television in the American homes during the late 1940s put an abrupt end to the golden era of radio. Some of the comedy stars of radio were able to make a transition to television, and future generations would come to know them through their small screen appearances. But some did not and remain mostly unknown to those who grew up in the years after radio ceased offering weekly series.

By 1972, a quarter-century had already passed since radio was eclipsed by television. During that year, WNET, the PBS station serving the New York City metropolitan area, produced a 90-minute documentary celebrating the funny people who lit up the radio dials with their wit and good humor. In many ways, it was a last hurrah for the faded medium.

“The Great Radio Comedians” is not an encyclopedic overview of subject – that could take up a multi-part series. Instead, the documentary made fleeting acknowledgment to some of the icons of radio comedy – briefly seen photographs of Fannie Brice, Ed Wynn, Amos and Andy and Eddie Cantor flash by in a blink-and-you-miss-it moment.

Instead, the film offers interviews with George Burns, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny and Jim Jordan, with a brief salute to Bob Hope and a tribute to Fred Allen featuring the surviving members of his Allen’s Alley ensemble. There isn’t much depth to these interviews, due primarily to time constraints, and with Burns and Benny seem a bit bored having to answer another round of questions about a bygone era. But for fans of old-time radio, the stars don’t disappoint.

Burns, of course, initially came to prominence as half of the team of Burns and Allen, with his wife Gracie Allen getting the funnier lines while Burns was her straight man. Of the interview subjects, Burns appears to be the most business-oriented, even going into great length to explain why it was necessary for the Burns and Allen act to transition from its original boyfriend-girlfriend pairing into a new dynamic as a married couple.

Edgar Bergen might have been the unlikeliest of the radio comedy stars, since his act was based on ventriloquism. He may not have been the most expert member of his profession – newsreel footage clearly shows his lips moving while his dummies converse – but his material with the wisecracking dummy Charlie McCarthy was among the best on the air. Bergen races through notable moments in his radio years, including some hilarious guest appearances with W.C. Fields and a racy visit from Mae West. (Oddly, Bergen never mentions the censorship brouhaha that West’s risqué humor created.)

Bob Hope’s radio work, particularly his USO shows during World War II, are also included, but Hope is absent from this film. Instead, Bing Crosby discusses Hope’s appeal as a radio comic – yet the film strangely never dwells on Crosby’s delightful musical comedy revue “Kraft Music Hall” that was a 1940s radio hit.

Jack Benny calmly and seriously describes how his show became a radio staple, carefully detailing how his persona evolved by accident rather than design. He also offers generous praise to his show’s ensemble and provides a sympathetic consideration on how each member’s character fit the wider plot of the shows.

Benny also provides an explanation on the genesis of the legendary “feud” he had with Fred Allen. The documentary reunites the surviving members of Allen’s ensemble to recreate a portion of one of their memorable episodes. But unlike Burns, Bergen and Benny, Allen’s comedy did not translate well into the television medium – he managed to find a niche as a game show panelist until his 1955 death, but that was a far cry from his mega-stardom on radio.

For contemporary viewers, Jim Jordan might be the most obscure of the subjects in this film. He co-starred with his wife Marion in the popular 1940s series “Fibber McGee and Molly,” but the act only made a few barely-seen films and never made the transition to television. (A television version featured other actors, owing to Marion’s poor health in the 1950s and her inability to go on camera.) And unlike Burns and Benny, Jordan is ecstatic to be on camera and recall his show’s prime years.

A basic problem with “The Great Radio Comedians” comes presenting the best of an audio medium in a visual setting. Burns and Allen’s skits are shown in clips from several of their short comedies from the early 1930s and Bergen is seen in newsreels and snippets of television appearances, but the film relies very heavily on still photographs of the comics and close-ups of old-time radios while the soundtrack includes the radio segments. The result doesn’t quite work – only tiny snippets of the shows can be accommodated in the film, which quickly becomes visually monotonous due to limited footage.

Still, “The Great Radio Comedians” – which never had a home entertainment release and can be seen today in an unauthorized YouTube upload – was a decent elegy to a lost entertainment format. By 1972, it was nearly impossible to revisit the old-time radio shows, as the medium of that era was focused on music and talk. Ironically, it would take another medium – the Internet – to gather up many of the classic episodes for a new presentation. Perhaps “The Great Radio Comedians” works best today as an introduction to some of the best of that long-gone entertainment world, enabling the curious and adventuresome to seek out the laughter that kept an earlier generation at home with great smiles and warm joy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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