“A bottle of your best champagne, and put it on Mary's bill.”
There's not a doubt in my mind that the body hanging from a tree in the background of The Wizard of Oz is that of Don Wilson. But Jack Benny in Casablanca?
It all began, as so much does nowadays, in mid-social networking. I’ll surrender my Facebook password when you pry it from my cold, dead hands. The social media organ allows users an ability to stay in touch with friends, family members, and former students without once having to spend time in the same room with them.
The nonconformist in me is loath to “like” fan pages. For the most part, fan groups are composed of like-minded enthusiasts who bring little to the table beyond an initial interest in the subject. I’ve probably quit more clubs than I’ve joined. Not true of the International Jack Benny Fan Club, a group of learned Benny-ites whose ability to share knowledge on their subject is anything but miserly.
Jack Benny was a ubiquitous presence during my nascent years stationed before the black-and-white Philco. In addition to his weekly television program on the CBS Network, Jack made numerous guest appearances on other shows. He died the day after Christmas, 1974. The Jack Benny Program never made the syndication rounds like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, and for over 30 years, with the exception of an occasional movie revival, television rerun, or rental of a muddy VHS tape, his genius was withheld from me.
A lot has changed over the past decade, thanks to the sagacious programming at Antenna TV and, more recently, JLTV. Dozens of dupey DVD compilations exist that basically recycle the same 30 or so installments. (The show ran for 15 seasons and produced over 250 episodes.) Laura Leff, founder of the Jack Benny Fan Club (she was ten at the time), as well as Facebook’s IJBFC, was instrumental in unearthing 18 long-unseen shows for the indispensable three-disc collection, The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes.
One brazen admission: A little of Dennis Day’s baby-faced blarney goes a long way. I scan through his musical numbers.
For one playing Benny-catch-up, there was no better place to start than the IJBFC. Since joining, my knowledge of and passion for the man has increased tenfold, placing him #2 behind Groucho in the Pantheon of Hilarity. In gratitude for the awareness the page brings, I post any and all Benny-related e-phemera unearthed during the course of my internet scavenger hunts.
Dave Sikula started the “Bennyblanca” ball rolling by posting a link to Mark Evanier’s News From Me that raised doubts over Jack’s appearance in the film. Evanier cited four possibilities: 1) Jack was in the film, but impossible to spot. 2) The scene in question was left on the cutting room floor. 3) A studio PR flak decided the story would make a great promotional tool. 4) Gossip from a misinformed publicist.
Evanier tracked down a vintage newspaper ad challenging patrons to spot Benny, and still he remained unconvinced. The article closed with the author asking readers to join him in the assumption “Jack Benny was not in Casablanca.”
Zat you, Jack?
Two days later Evanier posted screencaps purporting to show Jack’s cameo in the movie. For all I knew it could have been Alan Mowbray or George Jessel as the waiter waltzing through the soft-focus background of Rick’s Cafe.
Casablanca is an established classic, and as such a film I feel no pressing urge to revisit, hence the empty slot in my video shelf. We’ll always have Turner, so if the need for another look feels in order, it’s doubtful there will be much waiting time for it to recycle.
Having no way of scanning a disc in search of Benny treasure, I did what any good researcher in the age of the internet would do: Consult YouTube. Sure enough, the footage in question — all 16 seconds of it — was filed under Jack in the back, and as of this writing has attracted a whopping 33 views.
Jack in the back?
Benny or not Benny? That is the question.
In the time it took to hunt down the video, a link to it had already been posted on the IJBFC page along with an article that pretty much corroborated the story.
As reported by “Buck” Herzog on page 8-A of the January 28, 1944 edition of The Milwaukee Sentinel, “One day during the making of the picture at Warners, the funster visited the Casablanca set at the time a cafe scene featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was being filmed. There were about 50 extras seated at tables, with a number of waiters scurrying around. There’s where you’ll see Benny, among the waiters: He borrowed a white coat and appears in the background in the scene.”
There’s not a clear shot of his face, but even in the glaucomatous background Jack’s swishy gait was unmistakable. Jack’s daughter, Joan, has also gone on record as saying she believes it’s her dad.
If it isn’t Jack Benny, it should be. I’m sold, but left wondering how many other unbilled celebrity cameos exist in classic movies. Maybe that was Bob Hope warming up the crowd in Triumph of the Will.