Burns and Allen

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Burns and Allen, an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen, worked together as a comedy team in vaudeville, films, radio and television and achieved great success over four decades.

Contents

Vaudeville

Burns and Allen met in 1922 and first performed together at the Hill Street Theatre in Newark, New Jersey, continued in small town vaudeville theaters, married in Cleveland on January 27, 1926, and moved up a notch when they signed with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit in 1927.

Burns wrote most of the material and played the straight man. Allen played a silly, addle-headed woman, a role often attributed to the "Dumb Dora" stereotype common in early 20th-century vaudeville comedy. Early on, the team had played the opposite roles until they noticed that the audience was laughing at Gracie's straight lines, so they made the change. In later years, each attributed their success to the other.

Motion pictures

In the early days of talking pictures, the studios eagerly hired actors who knew how to deliver dialogue or songs. The most prolific of these studios was Warner Brothers. whose "Vitaphone Acts" captured vaudeville headliners of the 1920s on film.

Burns and Allen earned a reputation as a reliable "disappointment act" (someone who could fill in for a sick or otherwise absent performer on a moment's notice). So it went with their film debut. They were last-minute replacements for another act (Fred Allen) and ran through their patter-and-song routine in Lambchops (1929). After a recent restoration, this film was re-released theatrically.

Paramount Pictures used its East Coast studio to film New York–based stage and vaudeville stars. Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Ethel Merman and Smith and Dale were among the top acts seen in Paramount shorts. Burns and Allen joined the Paramount roster in 1930 and made a string of one-reel comedies through 1933, usually written by Burns and featuring future Hollywood character actors such as Barton MacLane and Chester Clute.

In 1932, Paramount produced an all-star musical comedy, The Big Broadcast, featuring the nation's hottest radio personalities. Burns and Allen were recruited, and made such an impression that they continued to make guest appearances in Paramount features through 1937. Most of these used the Big Broadcast formula of an all-star comedy cast: International House, Six of a Kind, etc. The team starred in a pair of low-budget features, Here Comes Cookie and Love in Bloom.

At RKO Radio Pictures, Fred Astaire was preparing his first musical feature without Ginger Rogers, and comedian Charley Chase was set to appear in a comic sidekick role. When illness prevented Chase from doing the movie, Burns and Allen substituted. The resulting film, A Damsel in Distress (1937), shows George and Gracie dancing just as expertly as Astaire. This movie led Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to cast George and Gracie in its Eleanor Powell musical, Honolulu (1939). Gracie made a few isolated film appearances on her own, but the team did not return to the cameras until TV beckoned in 1950.

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