Orson Welles famously dubbed Jackie Gleason ‘The Great One,’ but not for his comedy. Welles was referring to Gleason as serious actor. Yet finding film evidence to support the claim is tough. The Chaplinesque mime of GIGOT/’62' proves bathetic; the failing, irascible Dad of NOTHING IN COMMON/’86 doesn’t stand a chance under Garry Marshall’s alternately coarse & inept megging. There’s always the cool, grace-under-pressure Minnesota Fats in THE HUSTLER/’61, but where else to look? Television anthology shows? Surely not this lazy piece of soft-soap nostalgia, with vet helmer George Marshall sleeping-walking thru a pastel colored turn-of-the-last-century family drama about an irresponsible, irrepressible soft-hearted daddy with a weakness for the bottle? Glynis Johns & Charles Ruggles, as long-suffering wife & skeptical Father-in-Law, find the dark shadows behind the bonhomie, but no one else, certainly not the two unmemorable daughters, help matters. But it lies in stealth behind every rote comic move Gleason makes in what is more-or-less a reprise of his Tony Award-winning perf as Uncle Sid in TAKE ME ALONG, a 1959 B’way musical of Eugene O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS.
No small figure of the American stage, Uncle Sid. He’s O’Neill’s first sketch for the tortured alcoholic souls of his final masterpieces, the roles long owned by Jason Robards: Hickey in THE ICEMAN COMETH; James in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY and MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN. The connection is particularly noticeable when you hear all the talk about Hickey in ICEMAN before he shows up. Hickey was Sid. Just how Gleason might have gone about playing this guy is pure conjecture. Even Orson Welles couldn’t have found a way to discipline Gleason into getting thru it. But as a second-way of thinking about what may be the greatest roles of the American stage, this film mediocrity is all we’ve got to go on.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: PAPA may have been conceived as a semi-musical, but only a few choruses of ‘Bill Bailey’ and the Oscar-winning original ‘Call Me Irresponsible’ remain. And is Gleason doing it ‘live’ on set? Most unusual for the time.
DOUBLE-BILL: O’Neill’s AH, WILDERNESS comes off wonderfully in its 1935 filming, mercifully trimmed & winningly atmospheric under Clarence Brown’s affectionate helming even if Wallace Beery is over-parted as Uncle Sid. A musical version, SUMMER HOLIDAY/’48 (unrelated to Gleason’s TAKE ME ALONG) has Frank Morgan as a pitch-perfect Sid, but the part is cut to nothing. The film is phenomenally well directed by Rouben Mamoulian, but its raison d’etre, restarting Mickey Rooney’s post-WWII career, sinks everything. And he was so good in the earlier film as the kid brother.