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Obituary: George Burns

George Burns was old for such a long time before his death that it became increasingly difficult to credit that he must once have been young. He also represented a unique case in the history of light entertainment in having smoothly, if in leisurely fashion, effected the transition from straight man to comic. In 1925, his technique refined by years on the vaudeville circuit (as a member of a children's singing quartet, exhibition roller-skater and stand-up comedian), he met and married Gracie Allen, a pert soubrette whose gamely long-suffering foil he would be for the next 30 years in Hollywood films, on radio and television.

To pigeonhole him without further qualification as the straight man of the team, however, is to underestimate his contribution to their success. To be sure, with her apparently inexhaustible fund of gnomic aphorisms and giddy non-sequiturs (she seems never to have uttered a straightforward sequitur in her entire professional life), it was on Gracie Allen's personality that the act was predicated. Yet, in view of the often contrived and mechanical surreality of her gobbledygook humour, one eventually found oneself wondering whether he might not actually be the funnier of the two. He was, aptly enough considering his surname, a virtuoso of the slow burn; and, arguably, it was less Gracie's scatterbrained solecisms than the wordless, deadpan bemusement of George's reactions to them, the expression on his face altering as subtly as a landscape traversed by the sun's shadow, that prompted one to laughter.

In their long-running television series, moreover, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (which the single-channel BBC broadcast four decades ago, week after week, to a captive and captivated audience), there was nothing quite so reliably droll as his own first-person monologues - with, as sole props, the cigar which had become his trademark, a hefty Havana whose glowing tip he would pensively inspect between anecdotes, and the (for the period) novel and magical ripple of canned laughter on the soundtrack. And, even if it feels a very, very long time ago, no devotee of the series will have forgotten his laconic envoi "Say goodnight, Gracie" when his befuddled spouse had perpetrated an especially egregious pun.

Although the essentially theatrical nature of their partnership might have struck one as resisting easy integration into the conventional linear and illusionistic structures of mainstream Hollywood cinema, Burns and Allen appeared in a score of films during the Thirties and Forties. The most notable of these were the W.C. Fields comedy International House (1933), the extended desert- island joke We're Not Dressing (1934), and a delightful if little-known Fred Astaire musical, A Damsel in Distress (1937), based loosely and somewhat incongruously on one of P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings Castle novels.

Following Allen's last film, Two Girls and a Sailor, a pleasant, minor MGM musical of 1944, they redirected their attention exclusively to radio and television. It was not until 30 years later that the now widowed Burns (Gracie had died in 1964) returned to the cinema, enjoying a personal triumph as an old show-business trouper reunited for a valedictory performance with his erstwhile partner, the curmud- geonly Walter Matthau, in the 1975 film version of Neil Simon's Broadway hit The Sunshine Boys. Two years later, he took the title role in Oh, God!, playing the deity as a tartan-capped, white-sneakered, wisecracking codger, the most senior of senior citizens. And, no doubt encouraged by the conviction he brought to this role, he was sufficiently confident of his own immortality to sign an exclusive contract with Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas for a series of personal appearances this year, in the very week of his centenary.

Because of his physical frailty that, alas, was not to be. But now he will at least have been granted the privilege of comparing his impersonation of the Almighty with the original model. Say goodnight, George.

Gilbert Adair

Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns), comedian, writer, producer: born New York City 20 January 1896; married first Hannah Siegel (marriage dissolved), 1926 Grace Allen (died 1964; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 9 March 1996.