As time goes by, why don’t the fundamental things apply?

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Take a look at the picture below, taken at the 1945 Academy Awards ceremony. Can you name any of the gentlemen pictured?

Jack Benny Casablanca

If you named more than one then it’s likely that you’re an extremely fervent film buff, and already know the upcoming answer to the question. If you were confident about one of the four, then chances are you successfully recognized this famous star of yesteryear because you were old enough to remember him, or have seen him in an old movie or on TV. (He had his own show for many years.)

However, if you couldn’t positively name any of them, then the likely reason is that you’re probably too young to identify the celebrity I just alluded to. In that case it’s not unreasonable to understand why you didn’t recognize this major star of yesteryear.

So who is the one person, and which one is he? Before that is revealed, some explanation of why the question is being posed to you.

Recently, Yahoo! Music published “Just Say Yes: The Prog-Rock Band’s 10 Best Album Covers” (in tandem with a live broadcast of the band in an August 2014 performance). When this link was posted on the Facebook Yes forum Notes From the Edge, one person remarked that someone over age 30 should have compiled the list.

I don’t know if whoever compiled the list was over 30 or not, and wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that everyone older than that would disagree with this list. But that comment framed an issue that had been on my mind for quite some time: that the legacy of performers of the past is in danger of getting lost to the mists of time. I was reminded of recent incidents where I began to consider — and lament — this fact.

The photo above is from the 70th anniversary limited-edition Blu-ray of Casablanca, released in 2013. It appeared on page 59 in the accompanying book, one of many archival photographs. The details for those photos appeared on the next page, and for the one in question it listed the following (left to right): “Curtiz, Warner, Wallis, Unknown.” Michael Curtiz directed the film, Jack Warner was the executive producer, and Hal Wallis was the producer. Though I consider myself a film buff, and knew those three by name, there was no way I could have identified their faces.

Ironically, the only person I instantly recognized — the one for which for me (and maybe for you) there was zero doubt — was the “unknown” one who for some reason could not be identified for the book. If I didn’t already know who that person was, it seems logical to think that surely he had to be somebody of note to have appeared in that picture.

Earlier it was mentioned that if you didn’t recognize the “unknown” person it was probably due to age, and if that was the case then you probably wouldn’t have been interested to try to put a name to the face. The difference is that if the research personnel responsible for naming the individual are not only getting paid to do so, but if they had done even some cursory research based on the photo’s content (e.g., the Oscars) they would have learned that the “unknown” man not only hosted the Academy Awards ceremony for that year, he was one of the biggest stars of that era — and someone who I would think isn’t obscure to a great deal of people even today.

The “unknown” individual is Jack Benny.

Yes, there are probably many under 30 who have no idea who Jack Benny is. (I’m not using that age arbitrarily, just keying off the comment for the Yes album covers.) Nevertheless, it was stunning to see that Benny was not identified considering his role at the awards ceremony. Anyone who is knowledgeable about movies, the golden age of radio in the 1940s, and/or TV in the 1950s and 1960s in all likelihood knew this famous comedian.

For the uninitiated, Benny’s comic trademarks were that he played the violin — his theme was “Love in Bloom” — and his on-air character was extremely cheap. (Like many comedians off-stage, he was the opposite of his comedic persona.)

Film buffs know Jack Benny from the few distinguished movies he made, particularly his one bona fide classic, To Be or Not to Be directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The plot in that film involved a theater troupe attempting to thwart Nazis in Poland during World War II, including the actors having to impersonate Nazi commanders.

Though it was later remade as a broad comedy by Mel Brooks, the original film deftly handled the humor within the context of the dead-serious setting of Nazi occupations. In addition, it was Carole Lombard’s last film. (If you ask, “And who is Carole Lombard?” look her up on IMDB: She was a major star before her tragic death in a plane crash; she also has the distinction of appearing in Alfred Hitchcock’s only true attempt at an outright comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which has no relation to the Pitt-Jolie film of the same name.)

One would assume that the process for a high-visibility release like this would be rigidly scrutinized before going to production. Surely, those involved can’t all be barely out of their teens.

If distributors Turner/Warner Bros. really care about the quality of a special, limited-edition release, they need to have someone look into how what appears to be a no-brainer couldn’t be identified. On the surface, it smacks of laziness, or at best not taking the time to get that one detail right.

Ironically, Jack Benny has a connection to Casablanca that might have been a pertinent and interesting addition to the book. At the time of filming, it was reported that Benny appeared in a scene in this landmark film as a waiter in the background at Rick’s Cafe. When the film was released, theaters ran a contest where viewers would win a free pass for a future showing — if they could identify Benny and the scene he appeared in as shown in an archival ad.

The fact that this promotion existed infers that that someone associated with the film knew the answer, which had to have been forwarded to the theater owner. A newspaper article in the Chicago Sun indicates that Benny portrayed a waiter in a crowd scene and, in those scenes, there are many waiters that are not brightly lit, out of focus, or moving with his back to the camera. So while Benny might have appeared in the film it was as an extra, not in a cameo, and may never be authoritatively identified.

Though it may seem this foray into Benny’s alleged appearance in Casablanca has gotten off the topic at hand, it actually illuminates the issue. One would assume (or at the least hope) that researchers at a huge entertainment company like Turner/Warners would be those obsessive film buffs mentioned at the start of this article. While I agree it is a footnote to one of the greatest films of all time, it could have been a fun fact where lovers of the film might have watched out for Benny. (And who knows, they might even find him.) That aside, it is nevertheless disconcerting that someone whose face was better known than the three men to his right was relegated to being “unknown.”

While it is rare that someone of Jack Benny’s stature would be overlooked, there is a flip side to that scenario: where a performer famous for one role is overlooked for roles that are less iconic but even more notable.

A case in point was the press’ coverage for the death of character actor Frank Cady, who passed away in 2012. Cady is best known as Sam Drucker who ran the country store on TV’s “Green Acres,” which was a spinoff of “Petticoat Junction” where Cady also portrayed that character — as well as in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Note that these shows were early examples of characters from one show appearing in another.

Despite his being best known for this role, Cady had a long career in both movies and TV dating back from the late 1940s. While a couple of sources called this out, most online news sites ignored that fact and only mentioned the Drucker character. Cady might have played small parts in films, but he did appear in at least two classic movies which was notable in itself.

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Cady had no audible lines but was prominently featured at various points in the film. Cady and his on-screen wife attempted to beat the New York summer’s scorching heat by moving their mattress onto the fire escape, and would lower their dog in a basket from their third-story apartment to the ground below. While the couple provided brief slices of comedy (e.g., when a rainstorm forced the couple to make a hasty retreat as they try to get the mattress back in the apartment), they were key to a major turning point in the plot because their dog “knew too much” — as Grace Kelly’s character Lisa aptly put it.

Cady had more screen time (and speaking lines) in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, a dark and compelling tale based on a true story. It starred Kirk Douglas as a reporter exploiting a man trapped after a cave-in by delaying his rescue with tragic results.

The victim had been hunting for Native American artifacts when the cave collapsed, leading to a sensationalized story of “Indian spirits” taking their revenge. Cady’s character and his family learned about the trapped man from the reporter’s newspaper article and, having made a detour out of curiosity, were the first to arrive.

They ended up staying, and in what seemed like comedy relief, Cady’s character attempted to put up a tent that fell in on him. While that scene initially draws laughter, it is tempered by the knowledge that Cady’s lookie-loo is there by choice — while the man trapped in the cave isn’t and is threatened with something more deadly collapsing down on him.

This isn’t to suggest that Frank Cady’s death should have received the coverage expected of a major star. But considering his long career, those news outlets that didn’t go beyond “Green Acres” missed opportunities to at least remind or inform their readers that Cady appeared in many notable films.

Perhaps the reason for not going the extra mile as noted in the previous examples is because of apathy. A while back I had posted on Facebook that I had just seen What a Way to Go! from 1965, which I described as “a splashy entertainment that contains … Cinemascope, dozens of costumes by Edith Head, a script by Comden and Green … stars MacLaine, Newman, Martin, Van Dyke, Mitchum, Kelly, Cummings, Margaret Dumont in her last role.” (Respectively, that was Shirley, Paul, Dean, Dick, Robert, Gene, and Bob — and comedy aficionados know that Dumont portrayed a dowager who was at the mercy of the Marx Brothers in almost all of their films.)

Someone on Facebook — call her Jane — responded: “Here’s the thing, Mike. How many people even know who Edith Head or Comden and Green are anymore? I like it that you are promoting old Hollywood, but my experience is that no one cares anymore. Soon, no one will know who Bette Davis or Joan Crawford are, etc.”

While Jane was simply stating an unfortunate fact, it seemed as if she was saying: “Why bother?” In response, I asked my Facebook friends if they agreed. Another friend I respect for his knowledge of mass media is Edgar Bullington, who chimed in that he didn’t.

“I just got back from the International Al Jolson Society convention/festival in Palm Springs,” he said. “Several hundred of us were there, because we cared. Because someone cared, we still have Shakespeare. And if enough friends and fans care, there will still be a Firesign Theatre, and maybe even a Mike Tiano in a hundred years. Yes, Jane is right — culture does erase its own and replace with new, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the past. Past? Head and Comden and Green and Davis and Crawford are of OUR lifetimes. When WE are the past, then maybe they will be, too. But not until.”

Long story short, Jane admitted her comments to me could have been worded better, and Edgar indicated that Jane pushed some buttons that were waiting to be pushed. But this exchange crystallizes the points presented here: While age is a possible contributing factor, whether or not that is the case it is easier to say “who cares” than devote what appears to be a waste of time to ensuring that performers who are ingrained in our consciousness within our lifetime get their due.

And as Jane pushed Edgar’s buttons, the same can be said for me after reflecting on these specific incidents. Edgar summed it up best: When we are the past then maybe those who meant something to us in our lifetimes will be too.

But not until.

Note: When Ace in the Hole opened to poor box office receipts, the studio changed the title to The Big Carnival without director Billy Wilder’s consent. While the film subsequently retained the Carnival title for decades, it reverted to Wilder’s original title after being restored by the Criterion Collection.

Thanks to Edgar Bullington.

©2014 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.

Mike Tiano

Mike Tiano

Best known for his work with the Yes-related fan page Notes From the Edge, Tiano launched the official website YesWorld and has written liner notes for several of the group's reissues. The Seattle resident is recording tracks for his upcoming album 'Creetisvan,' and is an expert on movies, TV, prog rock, and the Beatles. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mike Tiano
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