Book Report: George Burns: The Hundred Year Dash by Martin Gottfried (1996)

Book coverNot to be confused with Bob Greene’s The 50-Year Dash which came out at roughly the same time. This boko, which I bought in 2008 (closer to its publication date than to today). Jeez Louise, it’s amazing how I can remember that book sale at St. Martin’s fairly clearly, but I don’t remember things from recent years. Mostly because most things in recent years have not been memorable, I reckon. But let’s not get maudlin and introspective again (or still) here.

This 329-page (with index) biography of George Burns tells in great detail, based not so much on Burns’ own (often ghost-written) accounts (in his other books) but on interviews with people who knew him and other primary written sources. It’s not a hagiography–it does not omit Burns’ frequent infidelity to his wife nor shy away from exposing, indirectly, the man’s insecurities which drove him. But it doesn’t make his flaws the center of the story, which is of a man who liked show business and wanted to get into it, succeed in it, and to continue in it his whole long life.

I mean, Burns’ career had so many different stages. He started in vaudeville and struggled as a solo act; he met with Gracie Allen and was part of a successful vaudeville act; he and Allen did some movies in the 1930s, usually short reprising of their vaudeville routines; they had a successful radio show which transitioned into a successful television program (the television show beginning when he was 54 years old); when Gracie retired and then died, Burns tried unsuccessfully to work on television with a number of series and continuing his nightclub act, neither of which worked (as nightclub acts were in decline as entertainment, perhaps due to television), leading to a fairly fallow artistic decade or fifteen years where although he was still producing and making money on business deals, he was not a popular entertainer; but in the 1970s, (at 79 years old), he takes a role in the film The Sunshine Boys and wins an Oscar as the Best Supporting Actor for it, leading to a resurgent career that saw him publishing books, appearing on television frequently, and starring in movies like the Oh God! series–strangely enough, I saw the first one a couple of times on television and the third one a lot because it was on Showtime when I was in the trailer, but I never see it on videocassette or DVD.

I found Burns’ resilience and longevity inspirational. I came to the part of the biography dealing with the death of Gracie Allen when Burns was like 68 years old, and the biography had 100 pages left.

You know, I’ve been letting the old man in a bit lately, and I’m inspired a bit by how Burns had whole decades short of success and carried on and succeeded.

You know, I am not much of a book collector these days, but I do have the urge to seek out Burns’ filmography. I know that only a few episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show survive–and they’re packaged not only on dollar DVDs you could buy in the grocery store twenty years ago but also in expensive collectible sets in collectible tins on Amazon. But maybe get some of the later films if not Damsels in Distress where they danced with Fred Astaire.

At any rate, this particular edition is not a collectible, but it is an oddity in my collection. Not only is it an ex-library book, but it’s also a BookCrossing book. Which looks to have been (and apparently still is) a Where’s George? (which is also apparently still a thing) for books. Or maybe it’s not still a thing–although the Web site has an up-to-date copyright date, clicking around in it yields a number of “no results” and stack traces. At any rate, it is or was a way to label books so that when you put them in a little free library or leave them lying around, the next person to pick them up can enter or could have entered a code into the Web site so you could see that it was being read and maybe where. But the ultimate result is that the book has a couple of extra labels on it with the penultimate owner’s user name (presumably penultimate as I bought this book and BookCrossing books are philosophically to be given away freely) and two or three little fliers in the pages like blow-in cards in a magazine.

Well, this book has been in my stacks for sixteen years now, so it has been out of circulation and will be until my estate sale. Note that these cards cannot be classified as Found Bookmarks because they were not actually used to mark the previous reader’s place.

Oh, and one more anecdote about this book: On my way to a book signing at ABC Books last weekend, I brought my sons and a friend of theirs along (they were along for a promised lunch at a buffet), and he and I got to talking about what we were reading. I told him about this book, and prefaced it by asserting that he would not know who George Burns was. And he did not. He’s a couple weeks short of turning 18, and George Burns, although an interesting figure in the history of 20th century entertainment whose career spanned every major genre of entertainment except video games, was in prehistory for a teen today. I mean, he was not even from the 20th century. He was born in the 19th century, which is not even covered in modern school history classes (I presume). So I was an old man talking about an old man. To be honest, I mostly talk about old or dead men, so this is not actually a variation on my theme.

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