A Penner Pal

Just in case you’re wondering, the photo below (which used to appear on the masthead of this blog) is a still from “The Day the Bookies Wept,” a 1939 RKO picture starring Joe Penner and featuring Richard Lane, Tom Kennedy (pictured in the center as Joe’s fellow cabbies) and (not pictured) a young Betty Grable. That’s Penner with the money in hand.

Joe Penner in “The Day the Bookies Wept.”

“Bookies” was the sixth of seven films Penner would headline for the studio (he only appeared in ten features), but it was the one which made Frank Nugent of the venerable New York Times finally crack a smile. As Ernie Ambrose, a taxi driver who raises pigeons and — as the plot progresses — manages a racehorse for his fellow cabbies, Penner successfully rose above the creative confinement of his radio catchphrases to carry what Nugent called “one of the funniest shows of the season” in his September 14 review:

“Until today, the best we’ve ever said about Mr. Penner’s comic talents was that they came to the square root of zero, extended to the fifth decimal point. Now we take it back. In “The Day the Bookies Wept,” at the Rialto yesterday, Mr. Penner is superb. Every time he opens his mouth the script-writers put a good line into it. Or nearly every time: on the off-moments he relies on his adenoids, which are almost as funny.”

Sadly, Penner passed away from an apparent heart attack on January 10, 1941, while appearing in Philadelphia with a touring company of “Yokel Boy,” the show which helped make Phil Silvers (aka Sgt. Bilko) a star long before he carried his fast-talking, conniving persona to television and the army.

Penner was a star on radio, stage and screen for the final eight years of his short life (he was voted 1934’s top radio personality over Crosby, Cantor and Jolson), but he’ll be forever linked to his “wanna buy a duck” line by the few that still remember him.

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He did leave us a parting gift, however. Even though he died before television changed the presentation of popular entertainment, he helped launch the careers of small screen stalwarts Lucille Ball (who co-starred with him in 1938’s “Go Chase Yourself”) and Ozzie and Harriett Nelson (who enjoyed their first network airwave adventures as Penner’s bandleader and vocalist).

Quite a bequest from a humble duck salesman.

For more on Joe Penner, check out “Wanna Buy a Duck,” the website dedicated to his films, radio shows, and everything Penner.

craig hodgkins

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~ by Craig Hodgkins on July 15, 2007.

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