The only girl who acts with her back… and front, too – Carol Burnett
by Ernest Havemann
Above an endlessly receding chin, her lower lip juts like a hitchhiker’s thumb. Her long, sensitive and disdainful nose swoops down to greet it. She is perhaps the only woman in the world who looks in profile like a monkey wrench.
Her name is Carol Burnett and her face — that strange, protuberant, elongated, restless, expressive, entirely ludicrous yet oddly beautiful face — is now show business’s favorite funny valentine.
She is only 28, and has been burdened for most of her brief career by some of the soggiest material that the producers and writers of weekly television ever foisted onto a star strong enough to bear it. Yet she already rivals Lucille Ball as the most popular comedienne in TV history. On the rare occasions when she has had something to get her ample teeth into, as she did on the Jan. 29 Garry Moore Show, and hopefully will do again in her own CBS special on Feb. 24, she outsatirizes Imogene Coca and outhollers Martha Raye.
She is about to make her first movie, which will add another dimension to her fame, and in the fall will appear in her first full-scale Broadway musical. She already has a million-dollar contract with CBS, and by the end of the year she may be lighting her cigarettes with it.
It is partly the face. Besides that eternally pouting lower lip and that anteater nose, Miss Burnett has the most eloquent eyes seen anywhere outside the silent movies. Her irises, which are small, dark, piercing and as sharply focused as twin radar beams, are surrounded by an incredible expanse of flashing white eyeball. When she opens her eyes wide she looks as startled as the world’s first fawn. When she casts them upward, she seems to have fainted, even died. When she casts them downward, she is unbearably shy — or is it unspeakably wicked? And, for variety, she can cross them, cock them and play tic-tac-toe with them.
She is at her best in comedy skits where she is cast as an unsophisticated maiden exposed to a designing male, and has a chance to display all the outraged innocence of which that mobile face is capable. The eyes open wide. She, a country girl unused to the perils of the big city, has been caught by surprise. Then they slowly narrow to suspicious slits of new-found cynicism. Her mouth falls open; her pout intensifies; her long and disconsolate chin wriggles toward a hiding place somewhere deep in her throat.
“Watch it!” she rasps in a police siren voice. The phrase is her trademark. Even TV viewers who chance to be in the kitchen when they hear it know what has happened; some cad has got fresh with our Carol — and will never dare do it again.
She would be funny, however, even without the face. Her body is long, lean, double-jointed and strung together with its own unique springs and sinews; she has an end-less repertoire of trips, limps, scampers, falls and leaps of joy. She is indeed one of the few people in show business who have been able to do a completely effective double take with their backs to the audience. In one of her most famous TV skits, vaguely patterned after the science-fiction shows, the women of the world were mysteriously destroyed.
Miss Burnett, a drab spinster who had been chasing men for years without success, was the sole exception. She learned the news when she turned on her radio; it was too good and too unbelievable to register; she turned away. Then it dawned. Her shoulders tensed; her hair seemed to rise on the nape of her neck; indescribable sparks of emotion leaped out of her back. It was one of the funniest double takes of all time — and her face was never once seen.
Although her gestures and grimaces seem spontaneous and totally unplanned, Miss Burnett is a hard worker who studies every role at great length, and who knows at any given moment what she has just done, is doing now and is going to do next.
“The first time I ever forgot I was homely,” she says, “was the first time I heard an audience laugh” — and she is not about to let the audiences stop if she can possibly help it. She will do anything within or without reason to get a laugh. She has a permanent hole the size of a walnut in her left thigh muscle, souvenir of an overenthusiastic pratfall in one of her early appearances in summer stock.
During the three years that she was a regular on the Garry Moore Show, she at various times 1) seriously sprained her back doing a somersault over a sofa, 2) smashed the cartilages of a foot in a fall out a window and 3) permanently discolored the tissues around her right hip while sliding down what was supposed to be a department store counter.
For one memorable appearance with Moore, she suggested that it would be great fun if she appeared in a glamorous evening gown and-started singing Come Rain or Come Shine as well and as seriously as she possibly could, only to be greeted in the second chorus by an insistent trickle of rain turning into an utter torrent until at last she was totally liquefied while gargling the final note.
Because of the technical problems of putting the show on tape, this meant that she would have to endure the dousing four times within eight hours, a torturous ordeal for a skinny gal in the midwinter drafts of a New York television theater. Although she already had the beginnings of a cold on the day of the program, she submitted to the four immersions cheerfully — then went to bed to nurse what her doctor said was a close call from pneumonia.
After leaving the Garry Moore Show last season to strike out on her own, Miss Burnett put together a little revue and toured it across the nation. The highlight was a parody of the Moiseyev dancers in which she permitted herself to be tossed around so vigorously that she constantly had a fresh crop of bruises on her arms, legs and rib cage. The show represented eight weeks of agony but was an elegant success. Theater managers had to put in extra seats to accommodate the crowds in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Dallas and Kansas City, and in Detroit the second balcony of the Shubert Theater was opened for the first time in years. The show ended with a triumphant two-week stand in Las Vegas.
Audiences can sense Miss Burnett’s unflinching determination to entertain them, and they also seem to sense something else… (Article continues in print magazine.)