Gracie Allen’s rare appearance not in character

In 1955, Gracie Allen’s comedy partner and husband, George Burns, was the subject of a This is Your Life episode. Many of his friends and acquaintances from through the years (Burns was almost 60 years old at this point) made appearances to pay tribute to the comedy stalwart.

But most surprising of all, his wife and comedy partner of over 25 years, actress and comedienne Gracie Allen, came out on stage to talk about George. She stood beside him and described how they came to get married, having been stage partners for some time already.

She did it mostly as herself, only hiding a little behind a thin cloaking of her comedy persona. Her responses to questions were not scripted. Of course there were echoes of feeling that she and George had told this tale before, and had almost a set way of doing so.

I have recently viewed this episode (it is currently available on the free, ad-supported streamer Filmrise. It feels as spontaneous as Allen was willing to get. It feels genuine and largely improvised. There aren’t any “Gracie-ism”s to be seen. This is not Gracie Allen the character, but rather Mrs George Burns, the person.

Gracie is well-documented as being far too nervous to make appearances except for when they were fully scripted, in character. By all accounts, she much preferred having the words already laid out for her, and learnt them verbatim. She didn’t ad-lib: she delivered her lines impeccably in the ditsy, innocent, well-meaning and often illogical Gracie character, for around 30 years, first onstage, then on the BBC in Britain, then national radio with several stints for different advertisers, then finally on the equally popular TV series The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

So it was with delight that I watched Gracie talk so naturally about George and parts of their life together. She must have been incredibly nervous and unsure of this departure from her comfort zone. But watching her as she pays tribute to her husband, seeing her pride as their children appear and her obvious grandmotherly delight at the presence of their granddaughter, is a privilege.

It is easy to imagine how disapproving and uncomfortable she would have been if she had herself been the subject of a This is Your Life episode, despite how very deserving she was. So this episode dedicated to her husband is a very rare and welcome treat for the fans and curious alike. It feels like an insight into getting just a tiny glimpse closer at an exceptional performer and person who unfortunately passed away long before the age of really getting to know stars. Although it is hard to imagine Gracie Allen sitting down with Dick Cavett or Michael Parkinson to discuss herself and her life.

This is probably as close to such a thing as we were ever likely to get. And it is a precious and rare treat.

If you would like to get that tiny bit closer to the wonderful and peerless Gracie Allen, you can find the George Burns The is Your Life episode on FilmRise now.

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