Art Carney: Out of the sewer

December 14, 2014

ART CARNEY in a deceptive publicity shot for the DuPont Show of the Month presentation of "Harvey." The rabbit does not appear in the program.

ART CARNEY in a deceptive publicity shot for the DuPont Show of the Month presentation of “Harvey.” The rabbit does not appear in the program.

I recently joined a Facebook group devoted to The Honeymooners, and one of the discussion strings included a reference to the fact that Art Carney had appeared in a television production of Harvey,a play published in 1944 by Mary Chase. The play ran on Broadway for more than 1700 performances and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1945, which might have been more understandable at the time than it is now, particularly in view of the fact that one of the plays the Pulitzer jury passed over was Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
There have been many adaptations of Harvey, and the first one done for television was the production that Carney appeared in in 1958.The production was performed live as part of a series known as The DuPont Show of the Month. The story focuses on Elwood Dowd, played by Carney, a man who lives on a large inheritance and shares his home with his sister, Veta Louise Simmons, and her unmarried daughter, Myrtle Mae. Although Dowd for a large part of his adult life was a conventional man who was widely admired in his small home town, he has now become notorious for claiming as his best friend, and introducing to anyone who will listen, an invisible six-foot-one rabbit named Harvey. His behavior disrupts Veta’s efforts to maintain some standing in society and Myrtle Mae’s hopes of attracting a beau. They attribute Harvey’s “existence” to Dowd’s habitual drinking. Veta’s agitation is worsened by the fact that she imagines she has seen Harvey once or twice herself. Goaded by Myrtle Mae, Veta decides to take decisive action and have Elwood committed for treatment of mental illness, and the action of the play is generated by that decision.

MARION LORNE, left, and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from "Harvey."

MARION LORNE, left, and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from “Harvey.”

Although this play was performed live, there is a kinescope of it which is available on the Internet. I saw the show when it was broadcast, and I have been eager to see it again, so I recently bought the DVD. James Stewart’s performance as Elwood in the 1950 film version is difficult to surpass, but this TV version has a life of its own. The casting and the performances were admirable. Carney, who sheds his Ed Norton persona, plays the role in a manner more understated than Stewart’s, and that’s intriguing in its own way because if Elwood Dowd is nothing else he is content with his life. Veta is played by Marion Lorne, who was a stage actress for fifty years before she became one of the most popular character actors on television in the 1950s and 1960s. She was particularly well known for her work on Mr. Peepers, The Gary Moore Show, and Bewitched. She specialized in playing a bumbling figure who couldn’t form a coherent sentence and who could be upset by almost anything that departed from the normal. Miss Kelly, a nurse at the sanitarium where Veta wants Elwood confined, is played by 25-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery, who would later work with Lorne on Bewitched. Myrtle Mae is played by 32-year-old Charlotte Rae. The wonderful Fred Gwynne has a brief but effective and pivotal turn as E.J. Loffgrin, a cab driver who gives Veta a dose of reality concerning the likely consequences of forcing Elwood back to “normal.”

ART CARNEY and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from "Harvey."

ART CARNEY and ELIZABETH MONTGOMERY in a scene from “Harvey.”


Jack Weston, one of the most versatile actors of his era, plays Wilson, the amorous orderly at the sanitarium. Loring Smith, a fine stage actor, plays Dr. Chumley, director of the sanitarium, and the great character actress Ruth White plays the sympathetic Mrs. Chumley.
For a kinescope, the quality of the DVD is not bad, and it has some historical interest because it includes some elaborate promotional ads for DuPont as well as commercials for Piels beer (with Burt and Harry) and Parliament cigarettes.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

 
When Joyce Randolph marked her 90th birthday recently, I took a glance at the Wikipedia article about her to see how recently it had been updated. Among the things I read there was that she was recruited to play Trixie Norton in Jackie Gleason’s series The Honeymooners after Gleason saw her doing a commercial for Clorets, which was a chlorophyl gum on the order of Chicklets. That isn’t what she told me when I visited her at her Central Park West apartment in 1976. On that occasion, she said that she had first been hired by Gleason to appear in a serious sketch he insisted on performing on his comedy-variety show, The Cavalcade of Stars, which was then being broadcast on the Dumont Network, originating at WABD, Channel 5, in New York.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

“Gleason liked to write for the show or suggest things to the writers,” Joyce told me. “This time he wanted to do a serious sketch about a down-in-the-heels vaudevillian who meets a woman he loved many years before. We did very little rehearsing, and when we went on with it people were a little flabbergasted. They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or what. A couple of weeks later, the part of Trixie came up, and Gleason said, ‘Get me that serious actress.’ ” Perhaps the Clorets commercial got her cast in the dramatic turn, but however Joyce got cast as Trixie Norton, she became an immortal among television actors. The Honeymooners first appeared in October 1951 as a six-minute sketch on The Cavalcade of Stars. The sketch became one of the regular features on the show; Trixie Norton was introduced as a former burlesque dancer and was played, in only one episode, by Elaine Stritch before Joyce Randolph got the part. In later and less successful iterations of The Honeymooners Trixie was played by Jane Kean, but the part is universally associated with Joyce Randolph.
 

JOYCE RANDOLPH

JOYCE RANDOLPH


That is true, in part, because Joyce played the part when The Honeymooners was broadcast as a free-standing half-hour sitcom in 1955 and 1956. Those thirty-nine episodes are among the most revered examples of American television comedy. While many shows from that era — Our Miss Brooks and The Life of Riley, for instance — seem stilted in retrospect, The Honeymooners still entertains viewers who have seen the episodes over and over again. Joyce didn’t claim to know definitely why that should be so, but she speculated that one factor was the spontaneity of the performances. “We filmed a show once, and we did it with an audience,” she told me. “We’d start at 8 o’clock and we’d be finished by 8:30, just as though we did it live.” She said the cast would rehearse on Monday and Tuesday and film a show on Wednesday, then rehearse on Wednesday and Thursday and film a show on Friday.” Gleason himself frequently skipped rehearsals and missed cues and confused the lines during the filming, but there were no breaks or re-takes, so those mistakes were preserved as part of the shows. Joyce Randolph told me that in those early days of television, some audience members became so absorbed in the show that they lost their sense of what was real and what was not. “In fact,” she said, “people used to send in draperies and tablecloths for the set; they thought the Kramdens really lived like that.”

Joyce Randolph was kind of the Zeppo Marx in the Honeymooners act, because her own personality was not that distinctive (perhaps making her a perfect choice to play the wife of a New York City sewer worker) and she was playing fourth fiddle to three strong character actors — Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. Still, her own genuine earnest and wholesome quality came through in Trixie’s persona, which is why no one really could replace her in that part.

KEN LYNCH

Somewhere, within the past few days, I saw the name “Ken Lynch.” It almost has to have been in the credits of a movie or TV show I was watching, but I can’t remember. Maybe I was dozing off at the time. It would not be unusual for me to have seen his name, because he appeared in about 175 television shows and movies — mostly TV. He frequently played a tough cop.

His name is not a household word, but I have been aware of him at least since I was 12 years old. I can recall that, because from 1949 to 1954 he had the title role in a detective series called “The Plainclothesman,” which was broadcast on the old Dumont network. I don’t remember when I started watching that show, but it could have been at the beginning, when I was 7, because Dad bought our first TV at Izzy Kaufman’s appliance store in ’49.

Ken Lynch, left, working in radio.

Television was new, and we had no context for it, so almost anything we saw was mesmerizing. I believe this cop show was especially so because of its unusual approach – namely, that the title character, known only as “the lieutenant,”  never appeared on camera. The viewer, in effect, saw the story through the eyes of the lieutenant. Parenthetically  — I suppose I could have just used parentheses — Dumont also had a detective series that ran from 1950 to 1954 in which one of the characters didn’t appear on camera. That series, which was broadcast live, was “Rocky King: Detective,” starring Roscoe Karns. At the end of each episode, Rocky King would talk on the telephone to his wife, Mabel, played by Grace Carney. Viewers would hear Mabel’s voice, but never see her face. Each show ended when Rocky hung up the phone and said, “Great girl, that Mabel!”

KEN LYNCH

Possibly because the only impression I had of Ken Lynch was his distinctive raspy voice, I recognized it when I was watching an episode of “The Honeymooners,” a show that was very stingy about giving credit to actors other than the four stars. This occurred only a year or two after “The Plainclothesman” went off the air, but as sure as I was that we had finally seen “the lieutenant,” I couldn’t confirm it until much more recently.

JACKIE GLEASON

In that episode, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) witnesses an armed robbery while playing pool with his sidekick, Ed Norton, and is afraid to tell police what he saw, because the robbers might retaliate. A detective comes to the Kramden apartment to question Ralph, and that detective is played by Ken Lynch. His voice, when he tells Ralph, “If you’re not a witness, you’re not entitled to police protection. And thanks — for nothin’!” is Lynch’s unmistakable file-on-metal sound.

KEN LYNCH with LEONARD NIMOY on "Star Trek"

Having no better way to exercise my brain cells, I wondered about that for decades. It  was only the advent of the Internet and its seemingly inexhaustible resources that I was able to confirm that the invisible “lieutenant” was the visible cop in Bensonhurst.

Ken Lynch was born in Cleveland  in 1910, and he died in Burbank in 1990. Oddly, despite his prolific career, Wikipedia doesn’t have an English language article on him, although there is one in French, but with no real biographical information. There is a short and descriptive profile of him on the International Movie Database web site, at THIS LINK.