Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Not enough people are talking about Judy Canova

It's possible that not enough people are still talking about actress / singer Judy Canova, and maybe that situation can change...

While lying awake late the other night, unable to sleep again, as often happens in that situation I pulled my laptop close to me and dialed up the Old Time Radio library at Internet Archive. Wanting a break from my customary late-night streaming of old Jack Benny shows or Fibber McGee & Molly, this time I stumbled onto their stash of 1940s episodes of The Judy Canova Show.

The realization soon came to me that perhaps there hasn't been enough Judy Canova in my life.

Sure, I knew of her - - I could recognize the comedienne from old photos, remembered a bit about her country cornball schtick and its context - - But in hearing her vintage radio comedy, it dawned on me that I'd not actually witnessed much of her in performance over the years, and certainly not in a long while.

You are encouraged to investigate the
The Judy Canova Show for yourself. (follow link)

As of this writing, The Internet Archive has almost three dozen episodes available for listening, dating from 1943 to 1948.

The half-hour radio sitcom revolves around Judy, playing 'herself' as an uncultured bumpkin uprooted to Hollywood life as a popular actress and singer.
Broad but gentle humor that still engages, despite its dated or non-PC moments.

The supporting cast includes Ruby Dandridge (mother of Dorothy Dandridge) as Geranium, the maid, and Mel Blanc as Pedro, the Mexican gardener / chauffeur, speaking with the same comic accent he'd use occasionally on The Jack Benny Program that would eventually evolve into the cartoon voice of Speedy Gonzales. (Not surprisingly, Blanc also doubles for other character voices and sound effects)

In the episodes I've heard so far, I recognized voices of radio veteran Verna Felton, as well as
Sheldon Leonard. Great voices!

The program ran for twelve years, first airing on CBS in 1943 on Tuesday nights, before moving to Sunday nights on NBC in 1945. Other cast members during the show's run included Hans Conried, Joseph Kearns and Gale Gordon (the latter two who, among other roles, would both go on in later years to play Mr. Wilson opposite Jay North's 'Dennis The Menace' on television).

Prior to her own show on radio,
Judy Canova (1913 - 1983) had made regular appearances on many radio programs during the 1930's, most notably The Chase & Sanborn Hour with
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

She'd also had several supporting roles in films during that time, while working as a contract player for Warner Bros. and Paramount.

Her show business career had begun while still a teenager in Florida, performing in a singing trio with her sister, Anne, and older brother, Zeke.
The vaudeville circuit led them from Florida to New York, where 'The Three Georgia Crackers' were 'discovered' by singer Rudy Valee.

Radio, stage and film appearances soon followed, eventually paring the act down to a solo.

Though Judy had originally intended to pursue a more serious singing career, her talent and personality mixed with her unconventional looks to type-cast her into a good-natured yokel persona that she honed during the vaudeville years and played to perfection for decades following.

Below, ▼ appearing in a scene with her siblings in the 1937 film 'Artists & Models',
it's easy to see why she stood out...

- Follow this link to the Turner Classic Movies website to view Judy singing in a bathtub scene from the same film, before sharing dialogue with a young Ida Lupino.

- Follow link to other Judy Canova film clips at TCM.

Though 'Hillbilly Humor' was nothing new, there's a quality to
Judy Canova (including and beyond the 'hick' factor) that can be seen in the performances of comediennes who followed after her in the 1940s, '50s and beyond, from Minnie Pearl and Dorothy Shay, to Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.

In 1940, Judy Canova was offered a movie contract by
Republic Pictures.

'Scatterbrain' provided her first leading role, and she would star in 17 films in fifteen years while working for Republic.

- Follow this link to Judy Canova's IMDb listing.

It was the popularity of those 'B-movies' that helped to land her the radio series, which led her to greater popularity than her films.

(click on images to enlarge in a new window)

Below, ▼ a 1941 publicity shot (via Flickr) shows Canova posing with fellow Republic Pictures star, actor Tom Tyler, decked out for the adventure film serial Adventures of Captain Marvel, the very first film adaptation of a comic book super-hero.

Speaking of comic books, Judy starred in just a few issues of her own, published by Fox Comics in 1950.

Below left, ▼ issue #3 features cover art by
(then soon-to-be) comics legends Wally Wood and
Joe Orlando, just prior to their heyday producing artwork for EC Comics.

- Learn more at Hooray For Wally Wood! and at Oddball Comics.

Radio, film and numerous records made for
RCA-Victor and other labels made Canova a star throughout the 1940s and early '50s, as did a business sense that belied her standard performance persona.

Her contract with Republic Pictures ceased in 1955, the same year that her radio show ended.

Judy did transition to TV in the '50s, but through numerous guest appearances rather than starring vehicles. In addition, nightclub appearances and theatrical stage roles filled out the rest of her performance career, throughout the 1960s and into the '70s.

Below, ▼ In Hollywood with Liberace on
'The Colgate Comedy Hour', November 11, 1952.
(via LIFE Magazine)

- See also:
Articles at Brian's Drive-In Theater and at St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture.

◀ At left, Judy Canova at age 65, attending the National Film Society convention, May 1979, accompanied by her daughter, actress Diana Canova, Diana's partner, actor Steve Landesberg, and (on the right) Landesberg's mother.
(Photo by Alan Light,
click on image to enlarge in a new window)

UPDATE, 6.25.09: Big, big thanks to Matt for sending along a nice note that included 4 of his favorite tracks from an old 10-inch LP, 'Favorite Songs of Judy Canova'.

Sad but not terribly surprising, none of Judy's music is currently in print, at least here in the U.S. - -

- - And these great western-swingy tracks that Matt has provided weren't included on the last readily available CD collections of her work, so that makes them an extra-special treat for all of us!

Thanks for sharing, Matt!
It's kinda like Xmas or something...

Listen to:
Never Trust A Man
Bananas Ain't Got No Bonies
I Ain't Got Nobody
Twenty-five Chickens Thirty-five Cows

(click for audio)

UPDATE, 7.6.09: Thanks also to normadesmond for sending along a YouTube link to a video clip of
Judy Canova appearing on TV's 'What's My Line?' in 1954.
Norm uploaded it after seeing this post. Thanks for sharing!


Frank said...

I was JUST reading about Judy because i've been reading about trends of the 1940s- apparently she sparked a trend for girls wearing pigtails. Dorothy's look in The Wizard of Oz was obviously influenced by her.

Interesting article!

Bob Bourne said...

I think her show is indeed vastly underrated. Super funny writing. Great characterizations. A step up from other country bumpkin stuff and an obvious inspiration for Minnie Pearl!

Video Zeta One said...

Thoroughly interesting post as usual. I love to hear unsung stars of yesteryear once again given a little attention. Great work!

Unknown said...

Great stuff! I hadn't thought about her in years....

normadesmond said...

i just checked....judy's visit to "what's my line" is not available on youtube. i have it somewhere & will try to get it posted. she was terrific!

The In Crowd said...

Hi Ms. Desmond - -

That sounds great! Love to see it if you can put your hands on it... Thanks.

normadesmond said...

here's the youtube link to the what's my line appearance....


The In Crowd said...

Thanks so much!

Anonymous said...

This is so wonderful, thank you for all the great reference and research you do!

Del said...

Growing up in the '60s we had an old Standard wind up record player - like a Victrola - with a 10" shellac record of 'I Ain't Got Nobody' b/w 'Twenty-five Chickens Thirty-five Cows' - hearing them brings back memories indeed!

I didn't realize that 'I Ain't Got Nobody' was such a standard song, recorded by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Peggy Lee.


Tony Smyles said...

Pop goes the bubble was the song in Artists and Models. That and Stop! You're Breaking My Heart which she sings with Ben Blue are my 2 favorite numbers!

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