Jul 24, 2012

Not the Marrying Kind: Gay Burns and Allen



Television was introduced in 1949, just in time for the formative years of the first Boomers (the generation officially started in 1945). Radio performers scrambled to make the transition. Some made it, most didn't.  Burns and Allen, a "married couple" sitcom starring comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen, made it. After 20 years on radio, they transitioned to television in 1950 and stayed on until 1958, stopped only by Gracie's death.

They're shown here with guest star Steve Reeves.

I recently listened to an episode from the end of the radio run, in 1949.

The homophobic silence of Dark Age America was starting to break -- very, very slightly -- as radio sought to compete with television by introducing "racy" content -- hints and innuendos about sex in general, and same-sex desire in particular.  So there are gay jokes.

The plot is about George and Gracie trying to find a wife for painfully shy next door neighbor, musician Meredith Willson (who penned The Music Man). They co-opt singer Eddie Cantor, who wants to marry off some of his five daughters.  They all show up at Meredith's door.
"We've found someone for you to marry!" Gracie announces.
Meredith looks at Eddie. "Gee, I had my heart set on a woman," he exclaims.






Later Eddie explains to his potential son-in-law how a wedding works:
"The minister says 'I now pronounce you man and wife, and then you kiss."
"Even if you've just met?" Meredith asks, thinking that he means kissing the minister.

Meredith (or at least the character he is playing) is too shy to talk to women, let alone marry one: "I can't get married if a woman is there."

Again and again, joke after joke brings "it" up. What's going on?

If same-sex desire is really beyond the boundaries of what can be known, then the characters are playing with an absurdity, a play on words like Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" routine.

But same-sex desire was known, even in 1949. The Kinsey Report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) revealed its existence to millions.  George Burns and Gracie Allen knew gay people, worked with gay people in Hollywood.

Their television series often implied that teenage son Ronnie Burns (or at least the character he played) preferred the company of men.

Maybe that's why Meredith Wilson's character (in real life he was married three times) trips easily over the boundary between "confirmed bachelor" and "gay."

At the end of the episode, everyone agrees that he "should never get married." At least not to a woman.

Even in the darkest of the Dark Ages, there were still hints and innuendos.