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Reveling In The Hilarity

Of Eddie Bracken

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Publicity photo of actor Eddie Bracken.
Much More Than A Character Actor Par Excellence, Eddie Bracken Should Be Hailed As The King Of Screwball Comedies For His Hilarious Portrayals Of Milquetoasts And Nerds

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Feb. 2, 2015 — This week will mark the 100th birthday of a character actor who left an indelible impression in some of filmdom’s greatest comedies but who today is largely forgotten, except perhaps to TCM insomniacs.

The name of the Feb. 7 birthday-boy is Eddie Bracken and he was born to get laughs, first with his family in vaudeville, then in movies like “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Hail the Conquering Hero” directed by the high-priest of screwball comedy Preston Sturges, and still later in a string of theater performances that continued up until his death in 2002 at the age of 87.

Comically near-sighted (an effect exaggerated by his round eyeglasses which, when allied to his pronounced proboscis, often made him look like a spooked owl) and with a chin so weak it seemed at times to recede into his jaw, Bracken killed at playing milquetoasts and nerds.

And, there were few better who could wring pathos from buffoonery. If that comic arsenal wasn’t enough, Bracken could pratfall in the best tradition of physical comedy – think a slightly taller Buster Keaton sans the “Great Stone Face” deadpan but with the worried look of an innocent about to be overwhelmed by impending and unavoidable pandemonium.

Five years before he passed away, Bracken was hard at work in a cavernous loft south of Times Square rehearsing the part of “Jimmy Smith” for a revival of the tap-happy 1920s musical chestnut No, No, Nanette to open across the river at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

It was there that we found him taking a coffee break while Broadway hoofer Lee Roy Reams put the chorus through their paces in “You Can Dance with Any Girl.”

“One thing I love about this show is that I have a great commute for rehearsals and for the opening,” he said.

Bracken lived in Glen Ridge, NJ, just across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan.

No one loved a laugh-getter better than Sturges, which is why the director cast Bracken as the lead (not as the usual supporting character) in two seminal 1940s comedies; Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. And to ensure that the laughs would be sure-fire, Sturges also enlisted William Demarest, another veteran vaudevillian better known to Baby Boomers as Uncle Charley on TV’s My Three Sons.

“Nobody knew comedy better than Sturges,” Bracken said, “and no one was zanier than Bill Demarest. He was so stern most of the time that when he did a sight-gag like trying to kick Betty Hutton in the pants but falling on his ass (a running gag in Creek), it was even funnier because it was so unexpected.”

In Summer Stock at MGM, Bracken stole the film from the movie’s de facto comedian Phil Silvers. Although the movie contains dances by Gene Kelly and Judy Garland’s legendary “Get Happy” number, Bracken registers memorably as Garland’s wimpy fiancée, Orville Wingait, a winsome store clerk plagued with chronic sniffles from hay fever.

“That was a favorite film of mine, working with Judy,” Bracken said. “She never could seem to keep a straight face around me, though. She’d crack-up laughing constantly. We had so much fun as the mismatched pair.”

During his incredibly long and prolific career, Bracken appeared in dozens of TV shows and in movies as recent as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in 1992.

But we prefer to see Bracken with his talent in full flower in the hands of a great director who knew exactly how to showcase it. If you’ve never had the pleasure, check out one of Bracken’s Preston Sturges comedies that air frequently on TCM late in the evening.

But be warned: Your laughter might just wake the neighbors!

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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