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20 July 2017

His Own Heart Laughed: About Red Skelton

An MGM publicity shot from the 1940s

My grandmother loved Red Skelton. She lived with us for a few years when I was a small child, and my mom was working (even though it was the late fifties). She didn’t ask for much, bur one thing we had to do every week — we had to stop everything once a week to watch “her program,” which was The Red Skelton Hour.

Even as children, my brother and sister and I found him a little old-fashioned — if it had been up to me, we would have watched Zorro, the Cisco Kid, Annie Oakley, and Sky King exclusively, with breaks for classic monster movies on Channel 9. But we didn’t mind.

Thinking about it now, it’s sort of a tribute to Red Skelton that my grandmother was so devoted to him, since she was an immigrant from Sweden; her English was very good, but she always had a strong accent. And Skelton’s humor didnt’t rely on clever wordplay (she got enough of that from her two extremely intelligent, smart-aleck sons). Skelton’s gentle slapstick, veering as it did sometimes, though certainly not always, into sentimentality, was perfectly understandable to her. And there was never anything risque about him, either!

Skelton became such a familiar personality on radio and then on television that I think he is actually undervalued as a comedian; his movie work could be extremely funny, like the ballerina routine in Bathing Beauty, which he worked out with Buster Keaton, then acting as a gag man at the studio. He had the true clown’s sense of gravity; his concentration about doing whatever ridiculous thing it was he undertook never wavered, which of course made it funnier. He was serious about his craft, and became good friends with Lucille Ball and Keaton when they all worked at MGM in the 1940’s.

By the 1970’s he was seen as a grandfatherly figure, perhaps, whose style had become outmoded.

That is, he was seen that way by us.

It just so happens that I was able to see one of Red Skelton’s classic routines shown to people who had scarcely heard of him before, much less seen him. I was in England in the 1980’s and went to a showing of MGM’s lavish musical Ziegfeld Follies at the Btitish Film Institute. This institution is housed in a complex containing several excellent theaters dedicated to screening classic films.

The gorgeous Technicolor flooded across the big screen, with a gorgeous red-headed Lucille Ball, clad in pink sequins and feathers, the puzzling (to the Brits) comedy stylings of Fanny Brice and the ancient “sweepstakes ticket” routine, Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer as jewel thief and princess, dancing with gorgeous magical trees — and then came Red Skelton’s “Guzzler’s Gin” routine. This classic bit has a simple premise — throughout the course of a broadcast, an announcer advertises Guzzler’s Gin at every commercial break, sampling the product every time and getting drunker and drunker.

Well, the audience full of sophisticated English film buffs, stiff-upper lips and all (and don’t think they don’t still have them) literally fell out of their seats laughing. They were hysterical, They were completely unprepared for Red Skelton, who they had simply never seen before; his radio and television shows were never broadcast there. (And lets face it, the comedy routines in this film certainly wouldn’t lead anyone to expect great hilarity to come.) Of course, that was exactly the effect he wanted. How he would have loved it!

"Guzzler's Gln -- it's smooth!"

It was a fascinating and instructive experience, and a lesson not to take artists for granted. This is something other comedians did not do; here's what Groucho wrote about Red:

"With one prop, a soft battered hat he successfully converted himself into an idiot boy, a peevish old lady, a teetering-tottering drunk, an overstuffed clubwoman, a tramp, and any other character that seemed to suit his fancy. No grotesque make-up, no funny clothes, just Red. There is no one around who can take a comic fall as magnificently as he can. He also sings, dances, delivers deceptively simple comic monologue and plays a dramatic scene about as effectively as any of the dramatic actors, Method or otherwise."

Skelton was unpretentious and proud of being described as a clown. He had a lifetime of experience performing before live audiences; he began as a child in a medicine show, of all things. So he knew what he was doing every minute. People are people, and he knew how to communicate with people any time and anywhere, and draw forth roars of laughter. Which was good for everyone then, and it’s good for everyone now. Take a look at some classic routines:

The Ballet Class from Bathing Beauty (with added soundtrack but still hilarous)

Guzzler's Gin

"His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him." Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843.

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