This is specifically a review of the 29 March 1969 episode of 'The Jackie Gleason Show', featuring a very rare television appearance by film star Jack Haley. My thanks to the late Benny Rubin for giving me access to a videotape of this episode. Rubin was Haley's vaudeville partner -- Rubin did the comedy, Haley was the singing straight-man -- and they remained good friends until Haley's death.
I deeply regret that I never met Jack Haley. I've interviewed dozens of people who knew him, and -- without exception -- all of them told me the same thing: nobody ever said a word against Jack Haley. In the entertainment business, this is almost unheard of: even the most talented and generous performers will usually have at least one enemy, even if that enemy's animus is caused by sheer envy. But everyone who met Jack Haley liked him, and perhaps 'liked' is too weak a term.
Jack Haley and Jackie Gleason came from similar backgrounds: born respectively in Boston and Brooklyn, they both came from lower-class Irish-American families that were deeply Catholic. Haley remained devoutly Catholic throughout his life, but was never sanctimonious about it. Gleason walked away from religion early, but (by all reports) felt deeply guilty about this for the rest of his life, and he openly envied Haley for remaining religious without becoming (in Gleason's term) 'a holy Joe'. The two men were friends for decades but seldom spoke in person, as Gleason was afraid to fly and Haley seldom travelled after his retirement.
Benny Rubin permitted me to view this episode in his home. Apart from Haley's rare TV appearance, it's evidently a fairly standard episode of Gleason's popular variety show. As I was pressed for time, I fast-forwarded the tape through performances by guest stars Jack Benny, Robert Goulet and Alan King, all of whom (from what I saw here) were doing their usual schtick: ballads from Goulet, stand-up from Benny and King. I've met Alan King: a deeply unpleasant man, and a bully with it. He's the only Jew who ever made me wish I could become an anti-Semite.
Anyway, Haley's guest appearance! Gleason's show was, as usual, filmed on a proscenium stage before a live audience in Miami Beach. Now the curtain rises to reveal a stage set which is ostensibly Jack Haley's den at his home in California. Haley, looking fit and relaxed (and still poodle-eyed handsome), sits at a desk in a dressing gown: Rubin told me that the set and the costume bore no semblance to anything in Haley's real home. Into the set ... I mean, into the den walks Jackie Gleason, who ostensibly has come all the way to California (he probably piloted the jet himself) to persuade Jack Haley to appear on his show. Rather an odd set-up, since -- as we can plainly see -- Haley IS on Gleason's show.
Once we get past the incredibly phony premise, this is actually a warm and ingratiating piece of footage. The two friends genially reminisce about Haley's long career, and the many songs which Haley introduced or performed. Cue the orchestra leader Sammy Spear, as Haley sings a few bars of each. He starts off with 'Button Up Your Overcoat' (from the early musical 'Follow Thru'). Also on the programme is 'Wake Up and Live'. Inevitably, Haley sings a few bars of 'If I Only Had a Heart' (from some overrated movie that escapes me at the moment), but I was pleased that this song doesn't get more emphasis than the others.
This sequence manages to convey some overview of Haley's career, so I was disappointed that it left out one significant credit: Haley was the first performer to sing Irving Berlin's 'Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning' on film. Since Berlin had personally performed this song in a stage revue ('Yip Yip Yaphank'), he was sentimentally attached to it and was extremely reluctant to permit anyone else to perform it publicly. (Which is why Warner Bros couldn't get the song for 'This Is the Army' until they allowed Berlin to be the one to perform it.) Well, Haley and Gleason schmooze for a while, and there's a painfully fake attempt at some suspense -- will Jack agree to be on Jackie's show, or won't he? -- and then it climaxes with Haley and Gleason shaking hands while Haley warbles 'California, Here I Come' with a new lyric about how he's decided to be on Jackie's show. (I'd always associated this song with Al Jolson, but Benny Rubin told me that Haley sang it in vaudeville.) The problem is that, once Haley has 'decided' to make an appearance on Gleason's show, his appearance is already over: that's the end of his performance. But it's great to have one last look at this wonderful old pro, who charmed everyone he ever met. Thank you, Jack Haley!
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