Friday, January 9, 2009

So You think You Know George O'Hanlon

For 30 years before becoming known as the patriarch on the 1960s TV cartoon series The Jetsons, George O'Hanlon was a very familiar face on movie screens and TV sets around the world. Born in Brooklyn NY in 1912, the teenage O'Hanlon was determined to break into movies and at age 20 began his remarkable career as an extra in a 1932 B-movie mystery called The Death Kiss, featuring Bijou favorite Bela Lugosi. Perhaps he was attracted to the limelight by his famed cousin, Virginia O'Hanlon, the subject of the popular and perennial newspaper editorial "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

Over the next ten years O'Hanlon honed his skills as an actor playing bit parts in 25 minor and major films, such as Hollywood Hotel (1937), Brother Rat (1938) and Hell's Kitchen (1939).

While teaching a cinema course at USC, director/writer Richard Bare conceived an idea for Warner Bros. Bare had been inspired by the successful Pete Smith Specialty series of MGM theatrical shorts that featured filmmaker/narrator Pete Smith commenting whimsically on humorous situations being played out onscreen. Bare hired O'Hanlon as the star and co-writer for a series of one-reel short subjects concerning an eccentric character named "Joe McDoakes."

Bare and O'Hanlon devised each installment around a title beginning with the words "So You ..." followed by the the key words to the plot. The first in the series was "So You Want to Give Up Smoking," released in November, 1942. As his narrator, Bare hired Art Gilmore, an up and coming voice artist, fresh from his fourth screen role as FDR's voice in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Gilmore served as the driving narrative force in every short, verbally tying together an otherwise loose assortment of zany, frantically-paced comedy bits, peppered with one-liners, sight gags and occasional spoofs of (then) contemporary pop culture. Clearly, some of the outrageous gags were inspired by the output of WB cartoon pioneers such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. For example, in the very funny So You Want to Be a Detective, our hero opens a cabinet door and a dead body falls to the floor, followed by another and another and another - until seven bodies are piled up. This entire episode plays like a live-action cartoon.

In So You Want to be a Gambler, Joe catches gambling fever as Gilmore narrates: "Here is Joe McDoakes, the inveterate, incurable gambler. The man who simply has to have a bet. Joe will bet on anything, take either side, give you odds and spot you six." Joe swindles a nickel from a paperboy and the fever escalates to the pinball machine. Then in a loony sequence reminiscent of a Tex Avery cartoon, Gilmore's narration becomes that of a sportscaster: "Now the champ is ready for action; wrists, fingers and knuckles relaxed and flexible, left foot forward, weight balanced... his precision-like movements and perfect timing show years of rigid training - steady Joe, steady." Then Joe fires off the pinball and the zany sound effects and music provide an energetic segue into Joe's next level of gambling fever and a final gag where Joe scores three lemons on a slot machine and the machine pays out --- with lemons. (Did they really permit pinball gambling and slot machines in drugstores in 1948?). You can enjoy this short here courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

Certainly the McDoakes films were influenced by the ubiquitous output of comedy shorts from RKO and Columbia. For example, Edgar Kennedy had been starring in his own "average man" series for RKO since 1931, and releasing six shorts a year. The Kennedy shorts shared certain similarities such as a wife and extended eccentric family, and plots structured around buying a used car, settling a gambling debt, promoting a zany invention or the latest get-rich-quick scheme.

However, the Bare/O'Hanlon/Gilmore creative collaborations held their own, and were distinguished by their unique blend of silliness and satire. At the outset, each short would be filmed on a 3-day production schedule, but during the 1950s, three complete episodes would be filmed over a 4-day production schedule. Leonard Maltin, in his superb book "The Great Movie Shorts," writes; "The new pace of making the shorts did not seem to affect their quality. O'Hanlon and Bare worked very carefully on the scripts before shooting began, so the films could be planned for filming with a minimum of wasted time and effort."

Warner Bros. produced a total of 63 Joe McDoakes comedies at the rate of six per year over a span of 14 years, interrupted only by the war years. The series ended in 1956, in part due to the advent of television. Only Columbia Pictures would continue producing comedy shorts beyond that and until the Three Stooges finally wore out their welcome in 1959.

George O'Hanlon's career then shifted to the small screen in 1957, with an occasional role on the big screen. He was featured in one or more episodes of shows such as I Love Lucy, The Life of Riley, Sugarfoot, Maverick and The Red Skelton Show. Then in 1961, O'Hanlon would once again achieve pop culture celebrity status when he was hired by Hanna-Barbera to become the voice of George Jetson in a new futuristic animated TV series called The Jetsons.

More television roles followed in episodes of Mister Ed, Marcus Welby, Adam-12, The Partridge Family, Mission Impossible and many others. O'Hanlon's last role came when he starred once again as the voice of George Jetson in the big screen adaptation of The Jetsons. O'Hanlon had suffered a stroke leaving him almost blind and with little short term memory. He had to be coached while delivering what would be his final lines before his death in February 1989, prior to the film's release in 1990.

We share Leonard Maltin's lament in his book about the lack of public access to the McDoakes series: "This is criminal! The shorts exist, waiting to be seen again, perhaps rediscovered, and fully appreciated for the comic genius they are." Maltin wrote this in 1972, and the same can be said today as well about the films of Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Chase, Pete Smith, Laurel & Hardy, Leon Errol, Andy Clyde and other great comedy icons.


J.C. Loophole said...

Thankfully WB has included some of the Joe McDoakes and some of the Pete Smith Specialties on several of their DVD releases as extras. I wish TCM actually included more of them (and the Kennedy shorts) in their lineup.

George O'Hanlon, Jr. said...

Not bad. I've seen a few "biographies" about dad. This one was pretty good. Aloha and Mahalo.