Actor Eddie Bracken on Preston Sturges, Betty Hutton, Hollywood, and Hitchhiking
By Robert Faires
FEBRUARY 21, 2000: When an actor's bio claims 14,000 performances to his credit, you rather expect the fellow to have some good stories. After all, that's quite a load of firsthand experience of the genius and madness, the egos and excitement, that go along with showbiz and show people. And Eddie Bracken doesn't disappoint. He has more than a few choice yarns gathered from his 70 years on Broadway, in Hollywood, and beyond, and he appears ever eager to share them.
Still, the expectation of those juicy tales doesn't quite prepare one for the experience of hearing them related by the man himself. For when Bracken starts a story, it isn't merely an incident recalled from the dusty past. His enthusiasm for whatever the subject may be, his affection for the people involved, and his recollection of detail are such that the story seems to have happened just yesterday -- or this morning! These experiences are all still very much alive for Bracken, so they come to be for the listener, too. There you are in Depression-era New York City, watching the pre-teen Bracken break into moving pictures in a series of comedy shorts; there you are on the Great White Way of the late Thirties, watching the teenage Bracken in a string of stage hits that gets him noticed by Paramount Pictures; and there you are with him in the Hollywood of the Forties, making his comedic mark on celluloid starring alongside Betty Hutton, Veronica Lake, Dorothy Lamour, William Holden, Bob Hope, and Rudy Vallee, and, perhaps most memorably, in the two films he starred in for writer-director Preston Sturges, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero. Bracken can put you on the sets of those pictures, seeing Sturges barking out commands as he rides the camera, hearing Bracken, Hutton, and William Demarest struggle to get through this line or that bit of comic business without bursting into laughter. Through him, you witness the creation of some of the most inspired comedy ever put to film.
Bracken's career certainly didn't end with his Sturges work. It went on to include the creation of the radio and TV series Our Miss Brooks, much acting work in radio and television, many, many more stage appearances, and a second career in film that was jump-started by his appearance in National Lampoon's Vacation in 1983 and continues to this day. (Bracken can be seen in the Arthur Miller-scripted drama The Ryan Interview with Ashley Judd on PBS this fall.) But his collaboration with Sturges is the reason for Bracken's visit to Austin this week. He is the featured guest for the screening of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, part of the Austin Film Society series "Unfaithfully Yours: The Satire of Preston Sturges." In honor of his appearance, the Chronicle visited with him about those films, his co-stars, comedy, life during wartime, thumbing it, and repaying a favor.
Eddie Bracken: That's about it. Well, actually I was about nine, 10, something like that, but I looked much younger than I was. I did the Kiddie Troopers at that time. It was like bringing the Our Gang comedies into the talkies, with a bunch of kid actors doing things. I signed for six of the pictures. I played small parts, like a judge or a lawyer, but it was all kids, all kids doing it. It was run by William Fox, and he was going through a financial situation at the time and went into Chapter 11 and had to drop the Kiddie Troupers and all the things he was doing. But that was the beginning really of 20th Century Fox, 'cause he sold everything out to 20th Century and became part of them.
EB: Oh yeah, my gosh, mine was just wonderful. I have a good story to tell you from that period of time. I would be going over to the city -- unfortunately, I was playing hooky most of the time -- going over by subway trying to get jobs and all, and I got the job in the Kiddie Troopers. I told my mom and dad I got the job, and they looked at me like I was crazy, telling them I'm in movies and things like that, and they just wouldn't believe that -- although at the time I didn't know they didn't believe it. So, for a period of about two years, I was going to work not every day but practically every day, and the reason the truant officers never caught up with me was because both my mom and dad worked. This was during the Depression. I never felt the Depression at all, although we were poor people. My father, I think, was earning about $17 a week and my mother around $15, and that was a lot in those days, but the rich people were getting a hundred. Then after two years, when the bankruptcy thing was happening, they had to pay people off, and I was one of the people they had to pay off. They put the money in a white envelope and Shad Graham, who was the producer and cameraman of the pictures, said to me, "Where's your mother?" and I said, "Well, she's outside waiting," and he said, "Oh, well, fine, here's your envelope and good luck." So I go out and of course my mother wasn't waiting, I just got on the subway and took it home. I said to my mom and dad, "Well, they paid me today." "Who paid you today?" "For doing the movies. I did four movies, and they paid me." "What are you talking about?" So I said, "Here, here's the money." And they opened it up and there was $2,700. That was like $60,000 if you compare it with today.
When they threw it on the table and my mother and dad opened it up, they looked at me and started asking questions. My mother then slapped me in the face. I had never gotten hit by my parents. That was a slap in the face that still stings today. It was just terrible. My mother and father were very loving people. Even though they were working, we got all the love we could possibly use. But they didn't know I was playing hooky, you know. So my mother took me by the ear to take me back to this Shad Graham, and she's going to bawl him out, and I'm begging her not to, and when she gets there, she goes into her tirade. And Shad Graham says, "You mean to say he's been working here for two years and you didn't know it?" And she said, "Well, he said he was, but I didn't believe him." He says, "Well, he was telling the truth." She said, "That money is his?" And he says, "Yeah, that money is his. Here's the contract that he signed. I thought it was you people who signed this, but he wrote in your name, I guess. This is his money." Well, on the way back, oh god -- just the reverse of the slap in the face. And that money went for a down payment on the house in Rego Park where we were.
EB: Yes. I went into theatre right away after that. I didn't have a hit. I was in one flop after another. But during that time, I was in one with Junior Durken, who was Huckleberry Finn to Jackie Coogan's Tom Sawyer [in the films Tom Sawyer (1930) and Huckleberry Finn (1931)], and he became a good friend of mine. He invited me to California, and when I was 15 years old, I thought that would be a good idea, so I packed some bags, I left a note for my mother and father, and I hitchhiked from New York to California. I carried three big bags with me, and they had everything I owned in them. I wished I'd brought just a few little shirttails -- it was murder. There were quite a few stories in that hitchhiking time, like when I was hungry after four days on the road without anything to eat.
I had to stop off in a town, and it was Shamrock, Oklahoma, and I thought, Well, it's an Irish town. I knew the Irish people would feed me. I left my bags on Highway 66 about two miles away from town under a little tiny water bridge that was maybe 10 yards across, and walked into Shamrock, Oklahoma. It was a small town, and I looked around to get a job and wash dishes or whatever. Finally, I just decided to knock on the back door of a house. A guy came to the door and I explained that I was hitchhiking to California and told him I was hungry and I'd do any kind of work or anything. He says, "Come in here, son." And I walked into his house and I walked into this kitchen and you would not believe it -- everything that you could ever imagine was on that table and in the ovens and all over the kitchen. His daughter was getting married in the next room and this was her wedding feast. You never saw anything like this. And I feasted and feasted and feasted. And he packed a bag for me, a brown paper bag with sandwiches and things, to keep me going on the road. I went off and thanked him as best I could.
Well, I was out in California about three months, and I got one little part in Mary Pickford's Secrets. Then my mother sent me the money to come back home because a friend of mine had a part for me in a play, so I decided I'd better come back. Well, cut and print: Years later, I'm in three hits in a row on Broadway and I'm signed by Paramount and I go out there and I'm entertaining people as the war began, going around from Army camp to Army camp doing things for the USO. And we get to Fort Riley, Kansas, and I know that Shamrock, Oklahoma is only about 150 miles from there, and I think, I'd like to go and see if I can find those people. I rent a car and people tell me how to go and I go to Shamrock, Oklahoma, and I do find the house because it was a small town and it was almost the same as it had been 10 years or so before. And I knocked on the back door and a man came to the door, but it wasn't my friend. I asked for the name, Howard, and he said, "Well, they moved from here about five years ago. They live in Salina, Kansas." Well, that's where Fort Riley is! So he gave me the address and told me a little bit about them and back I go. Only this time I came prepared. I found the house and went around and knocked on the back door and my friend, the guy that fed me, opened the door and he looked out and said, "Eddie Bracken! What the hell are you doing here? My god, what are you doing at the back door?" I said, "Is Helen around?" He said, "Yeah, well, she's -- you know Helen?! She never told us that she knew Eddie Bracken. Well, come on in here." So I go in and I'm introduced to the rest of the family, and of course they know who I am because they've seen me in the movies, and they say, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I'm playing at the Army camp, Fort Riley, and I looked you up." "Why?? Why did you look us up?" And I said, "Well, when I hitchhiked to California, I went to Shamrock, Oklahoma, and I knocked on the back door," and I pointed at my friend, "and you answered the door like you were god almighty, and you must have been because you fed me with a heavenly meal that I will never, ever forget. And I'm back here now to pay you back. I want to take you and your entire family to dinner." And they said, "Oh, was that you? My god, you made it out there?" And they were very happy about that, and then they said to me, "Well, that's great, well, there's some places around here that you might like, or we can go to the diner." I said, "Oh no, I already made a reservation at the restaurant I want you to come to. It's called Romanoff's. It's in Beverly Hills, California." And I threw tickets for everybody in the family on the table, and they came to California and had dinner on me at Romanoff's.
EB: Yes. I went back to Broadway to do The Lady Refuses, with the Spooner Sisters and Lou Tellegen, who was Sarah Bernhardt's leading man, and by this time he was kind of a has-been, I guess, but I didn't even know who the hell he was. Then I did a lot of others, ending up with a play called Iron Man for Norman Bel Geddes, who was Barbara Bel Geddes' father. He did a play that was a hit right before that called Dead End.
EB: Well, I knew all those [Dead End] kids on Broadway, 'cause they all worked for Bel Geddes and the theatre was right on the same block, so I knew them all -- Billy Halop and the rest of them. So, George Abbott saw me in it and hired me for Brother Rat, and I did that and What a Life, which was also a hit, and then Too Many Girls.
EB: It was, I guess. By golly, yeah, I think it was.
EB: Well, not mentioning where you're going. I'm on the telephone calling my wife or my girlfriend and you're not supposed to let anybody know where you are, and I whisper in the telephone, "I'm on the USS Navarro," you know, and the next thing you know the ship is sunk. So that was to teach: Keep your mouth shut. I didn't realize that that was Preston that did that, but that's right.
EB: Yes. Before he did McGinty, he wrote The Power and the Glory and some other things that were big hits. Then he did The Great McGinty at Paramount, and I knew of the deal -- everybody did -- of a writer giving up his script if he was allowed to direct. I thought that was a great idea. I personally thought that anybody who was willing to do that must be a very smart man because the person who writes it must know more about his own script than anybody else who could direct it -- if he was that good a writer, and of course Preston was.
So when The Miracle came along, I had a difficult time because I didn't want to work with Betty Hutton anymore, merely because [Paramount Pictures head] Buddy De Sylva was using me to build up Betty. She got her first picture with me, and they knew that I would help her with the camera angles, keeping your face in front, and a lot of other things, and I would give her all the tricks. And she and I got along beautifully together, except when I went to see The Fleet's In, there were three or four extra songs put in [for Hutton] that none of us knew about. Dorothy Lamour was mad. Bill Holden was mad. I was mad, too. Then we did Happy Go Lucky, and the same thing happened. And then Star Spangled Rhythm. They're building her up to be the big star. And there's nothing wrong with that because she deserved every second of it. Betty's a great gal. We have been friends from day one. But I rebelled. And when The Miracle of Morgan's Creek came along, I turned it down. And they told Buddy why. And Preston Sturges called me -- and we had not met as friends before that -- and he says, "What's this I hear that you don't want to do a Preston Sturges movie?" And I said, "I would love to do a Preston Sturges movie." And he said, "Well, you didn't like this script?" And I said, "I didn't read it, Mr. Sturges. The reason I'm not doing it is because --" and I told him about Betty's songs that were put in by Buddy De Sylva. He didn't like Buddy De Sylva anyway, and he said, "Look: There are no Betty Hutton songs in this except one that I wrote where she has to sing as a bass and we're using a man with a bass voice. That's the only song she'll be mouthing and I will not write another because it's not a musical we're doing here, it's a serious comedy." I said, "You'd promise me that?" He said, "Do you want it in writing?" I said, "No, instead of that, let me read the script so that I will know my lines when I get there because I will do it. And thank you very much for wanting me and thank you for calling." So, boom, we became friends from day one on that one.
When I read the script, it was written to make Betty Hutton a star. [Her part] was at least eight times the size of my part. So I looked at this and I study it and I study it because now I'm gonna do exactly what I want to do, not to steal the picture but to steal the scenes that I'm in, or do everything I could do to steal them. And that's what I did. The only thing that Sturges had in [the script for the Norval Jones character] were the spots and the hay fever to keep him out of the service; I added a St. Vitus' Dance and the real sneeze routine and the nervousness and the excitement. And every time I'd do something, he would love it.
There was a screen door, and one time I went up to the prop man and asked him to take some of the nails out so that when I walk into the screen it falls in. I said, "I'm doing this as a gag for Sturges." So when Bill Demarest has me on the porch and he's got the gun and he's cleaning it and I'm stuttering and he congratulates me and says, "Go in and talk to her," and I'm "Th-thank you v-v-very m-much," you know, I can't talk, and the gun goes off and I try to talk and I can't talk and I walk through the screen door. Well, Sturges falls off the camera -- laughing. He couldn't stop laughing. And I said to him, "We did this as a gag, and I'm sorry. Now we can shoot the scene." He said, "We shot the scene. That thing is in. That is wonderful. The only thing I'm worried about is I might have moved the camera when I fell off it." Henny Youngman became a very close friend of mine for years because he claims that walking through the screen door bit in that movie was the biggest laugh he had ever heard in a theatre. And of course, when you went to the Paramount or places like that where there were 2,000 people in the house, you couldn't hear the dialogue at all.
That also gives you a rough idea of Sturges. He loved anything that was expressive. If you would overdo it, he would bring you down hard to make it believable. As a comedian, everyone tends to overplay to try to get a laugh. But Sturges said, "The laughs are written in. Just play it out. Be real. Be a real person." He said to me, "I don't want Eddie Bracken in this picture. I want Norval Jones." And that made big sense to me.
[Working with Sturges] was like working with a guy who wanted to have a party all the time. He was very serious about his work, but in between shots, he was fun and we would play games. One of his was a memory test. He would let us write down 100 articles, like No.1 is the Empire State Building; No.2 is a pair of dice; No.3 is -- you know, whatever. And he would study it the night before coming in, and any time during the picture, even if he was directing someone, we would yell out, "49!" and he'd turn around and give us 49 and go right on talking with the people and was absolutely accurate at all times. Thoroughly amazed everyone on the set. But at the same time, we're having an awful lot of fun. I asked him how he did it, and he wouldn't tell me and he wouldn't tell me, not for a long time after the two pictures were over. He never did tell me until much later on when he went to Howard Hughes and was doing pictures with him. I asked him how he did it and he said, "Well, I have 100 visualizations that tie into the number, like one would be something alone, and I would see the Empire State Building with King Kong climbing up on a one, so it's one big thing. I would see twins of number two, so I would visualize twins having a fight over a pair of dice." So whenever I said two or one, he immediately knows, and he had memorized that for the whole hundred things. He never lost it. "Once you have visualized something," he says, "you can never forget it."
EB: It stood out to me when you figure out how you're gonna play it. It didn't matter how small or big the roles are. I'm not the kind of actor that goes out and counts the lines; it was just that one picture and merely because I was fighting Buddy De Sylva -- whom I loved, incidentally. But I didn't agree with him using people; he used Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and everybody else to make Betty Hutton a star, and to me Betty Hutton was a star no matter what. But when we're used to build her up without them even thinking about us, you get pretty upset about it. You don't want to lose your own career.
But when you read Sturges' scripts, they were right there. You wouldn't change his dialogue. Once in a while, something would come up and you'd up and use something. If he didn't like it, boom! You'd get murdered. But if he did, he wouldn't say anything; he's gonna get credit for it anyway. Of course, with the stuff I was doing [in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek] -- stuttering all over the place -- I couldn't help but ad lib.
When we did the scene in The Miracle when Betty and I are getting married, Porter Hall is trying to marry us and she starts to stutter, just like I do. And I'm thinking, What's she doing here? But at the same time, I was going right along with her because it was right on target. Sturges didn't know she was gonna do it, I didn't know she was gonna do it, but it was right on. It took us at least 10 takes [to finish the scene] what with people breaking up. On the ninth take or the eighth take or whatever the hell it was, Sturges got up and bawled out every single person on the set. "What the hell do you think you're doing here?! This is a movie, we're making it and we want it to be honest. Cut out the laughter!" So now we're all scared stiff because he's so mad. It was called for, too, because we were having so much fun giggling, we'd never get the scene done. Then, finally, we go into it and Betty and I are going strong, doing it great because we're playing it dead serious, and Sturges falls off the camera laughing. He breaks up. And he says, "Well, we'll all have some coffee and forget this and we'll come back and pick it up later" (laughs). There was so much fun with that man. Dead serious, no question about it. Mean sometimes. He was Lucifer and he was Jesus Christ in one man.
EB: The Hays Office stopped the picture. Being in bed with a girl and not having one foot on the floor -- I mean, these are stupid things. That's unreal.
EB: No, we didn't think about that. I tell you, when I was doing that movie, I knew damn well that I was in a smash hit comedy. There was no question about that. And when the stuff came in from the Hays Office and from the military, it was ridiculous. The way the guys were drinking in the picture -- "You can't show GIs drinking in the movie." That's like saying that GIs don't drink. That's silly. So Sturges added a line for the military, where Frank Moran says, "If I drank as much sarsparilla as you guys did, I'd have a hangover myself." And that was all right; the Marine Corps took that as okay.
Then they had a scene where Betty hits her head and she was married with a curtain ring -- that was added to take the sting away, as far as the Hays Office was concerned. But this is even more stupid! You mean to say now the Armed Service is going to motels with young girls and knocking them up. That's still in the picture. We would laugh at the stupidity of the censorship.
EB: Oh yeah, a huge success. And then Hail the Conquering Hero. The funny part of it is, Morgan's Creek was great for the laughers, the people who wanted the big laughs, but Hail the Conquering Hero was great for the people thinking they had a gem on their hands. They were both good, as far as I'm concerned. I just love them both.
EB: Sturges' way of doing things -- I remember Ethel Barrymore coming to see the first cut of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. And when I'm proposing to Betty on the porch and saying, "What do you mean so sudden? Ever since we were little kids together, I've thought about you, and I went to sewing class and cooking class just to be near you, Trudy." That particular scene? Well, it's comedy because we just did a comedy scene that really wasn't comedy at all: I was going out of my mind because I thought she was propo-po-po-po-po-posing to me, you know, and I fell off the porch and I go and sit next to her and she says, "It's so sudden." That's a shocker. And I tell her why it's a shocker. And then she starts to cry and says, "I can't do it to you, Norval." And Bill Demarest comes out and grabs me by the necktie and picks me up and I'm hanging by my necktie, right? Well, that's when Ethel Barrymore hit Preston Sturges with her pocketbook! Saying, "You can't do that, you can't do that!" with tears coming down her face. And then Sturges came in at that moment to get one of the big laughs of the movie. Because it gave relief to everybody who was suckered into this particular scene. And that's the trick of Sturges.
That also describes me because when you're doing comedy, you play it just exactly the same way you do as when it's dead serious. You know, when people see you getting all these laughs, they call you a comedian. I'm anything but. I can do it. I can do stand-up and pantomime, knowing I'm going after the jokes but even then, I play it real. I try to be real, even in the outrageous things I may do. I'm an actor, not a comedian. I'm not looking at a role to get laughs. I'm looking at the role to make you believe what's happening is happening.
EB: Sturges was, too! This was on the island of Guam. [An Army base was showing] The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, two Japs fell out of a tree, and they gave me credit for capturing them. They were UCLA men and could speak English fluently, and they literally fell out of the tree laughing and were captured. Well, Sturges has to get credit for that, too, you know, but I'll take it.
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