In a previous blog, I mentioned reading “Red Skelton: The Mask Behind the Mask” (Indiana Historical Society Press) by Wes. D Gehring. I was asked for some additional thought. Well, here goes:
In the book, Gehring, a Ball State film professor and author of a stack of books, primarily about film funnymen, does an effective job of straddling the two sometimes opposing forces of academic and popular biographical writing. The opening sections are bogged down with unnecessary and excessive name-drop references with only tangential relationship to the subject at hand (a problem compounded by the photo selection: In a Skelton bio, do we really need full-page pics of Charlie Chaplin, David Letterman and “The Honeymooners”?). But when Gehring gets down to telling Skelton’s story, it’s a fascinating one–from his dubious Vincennes roots to becoming one of the most popular personalities in Hollywood.
Many readers here might ask who Red Skelton was? The reason that question is asked today is one of the more fascinating points in the book. Skelton was, Gehring argues, as important, if not more, to television history than Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. But nowadways he’s a trivia question answer rather than an icon. In large part, that’s because of Skelton’s late-career anger with his network for cancelling his show. In a classic cutting-off-his-nose-to-spite-his-face move, he refused to allow clips from his shows to be shown or reruns broadcast. While the popularity of Ball and Gleason grew exponentially, Skelton fell off the radar.
A meticulously researcher, Gehring isn’t afraid to admit, on occasion, the impossibility of separating myth from reality—something refreshingly honest in a biography. And if his book tips more toward analysis of Skelton’s films than his more culturally significant and impactful TV and radio work, so be it. I read through to the end and am looking forward to refreshing my memories of Skelton’s work through some DVD hunting at the library.
Your thoughts? Does anyone else out there have memories of Skelton’s films, radio broadcasts, or TV shows?