“Gracie, did the maid ever drop you on the head when you were a baby?”
“Don’t be silly, George — we couldn’t afford a maid. My mother had to do it.”
(George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Burns and Allen Show)
If you read enough books, watch enough films, or listen to enough radio shows, you’ll soon realize that stories are full of common character types. As Solomon once observed, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). In other words, there really aren’t any completely novel, one-of-a-kind ideas — at some point or in some form, someone else has thought of the same thing you’re thinking of. It’s like that with characters: someone thinks up a character that they think is perfectly unique, a few other people do the same thing, and before you know it, there’s another stereotype. Although some characters in stories are more unique than others, there are several character types which are recurring throughout literature, film, radio . . . pretty much any medium designed for storytelling. Over the next several weeks, I’d like to examine one of the most amusing of these character types, Dumb Doras.
Dumb Doras are great for a laugh, whether in a leading role or a secondary one. You know the type: the (usually) pretty girl with nothing but feathers in her head, who drives the other characters completely dizzy and adds comedy to the plot, usually at her own expense. She’s scatterbrained, nonsensical, and even childlike in her thinking, speaking, and behavior. The Dumb Dora type has been around for about as long as people have been spinning stories, and is quite a useful type in storytelling, when done well. There are, however, rules that a writer must keep in mind when creating a Dumb Dora; otherwise, the writer is likely to either significantly offend readers with his supposed hatred of intelligent women or to create a character so nauseating and ridiculous that readers just stop reading out of sheer frustration (or both scenarios). To see how to use this character type well, let’s start by looking at a few examples of Dumb Dora done right. This week, the focus is on two terrific Dumb Doras from radio and film:
Gracie (The Burns and Allen Show)
“I read in the papers that the Los Angeles police are hunting for a Chicago gangster. But why do they want one from Chicago? Can’t they be satisfied with a hometown boy?”
I would be completely remiss if I did not start out with one of the best known and most beloved Dumb Doras of all time, that of Gracie from the Burns and Allen Show. George Burns and Gracie Allen stumbled upon this character largely by accident (they performed a skit that made Gracie look like a dizzy dame, and the audience loved it), and rode the coattails of the character to fame in vaudeville, radio, television, and even motion pictures. In fact, they even went as far as to have the character run for president against highly favored incumbent Roosevelt in the 1940 election! As an interesting side note, although Gracie lost the presidential race (she did manage to get 42,000 votes), she was elected mayor of a town in Oregon!
Gracie’s mental shortcomings got her into numerous amusing situations and conversations. In one incident, she got George roped into volunteering for scientific experiments to be performed on himself at the local hospital, then tried to break in and rescue him by pretending to be having a baby. “You’re going to have a baby in the experimental laboratory?!” a hospital employee asked, aghast. “Well, it’s my first child and it’s an experiment,” Gracie logically explained. In another situation, Gracie was convinced that Mickey Rooney was getting an inferior education and wanted to adopt him and provide better for him (this is back when he was a child star). Mickey patiently told Gracie that he was studying algebra. “Say something in algebra, then,” Gracie challenged him. “Um, pi r squared,” Mickey replied after a pause. “Oh no, Mickey, pies are round!” Gracie corrected him.
How did Gracie Allen manage to play such an admittedly foolish woman without irritating people or offending other women?* There were a few main reasons for the success of the character:
- Gracie’s personality — Although Gracie was dizzy and dumb, she was also sweet, kind, and cheerful in her nature. In short, Gracie Allen made the character so likable, even lovable, that the lack of intellect actually became endearing.
- George’s treatment of Gracie — George’s obvious love for Gracie made her more lovable to audiences. However, there were definite limits to how far George could respond to her dizziness. As George and Gracie learned early in their career together,
audiences felt very protective of Gracie. When Burns and Allen performed a vaudeville routine in which George kept preventing Gracie from singing, a man in the audience became so irate that he stormed the stage, demanding that George “Let that little girl sing!” As George explained years later, he and Gracie found that so long as George humored Gracie, or at least put up with her in an amused fashion, audiences responded favorably.
- Although Gracie was frequently the butt of the joke, it was she who put herself in the position, not other characters (except in a few rare instances). Although other characters may be amused or even vexed with Gracie, it never felt to audiences like the other characters were making fun of her.
Susan Vance (Bringing up Baby)
“There is a leopard on your roof, and it’s my leopard, and I have to get it, and to get it, I have to sing.”
One of my all-time favorite Dumb Doras is Katharine Hepburn’s zany Susan Vance, from the hilarious 1938 screwball comedy, Bringing up Baby. This film, for those who haven’t seen it, is about a madcap heiress (Susan Vance) who intrudes upon the calm life of a zoologist and soon has the poor man serenading a leopard and following a dog seeking a dinosaur bone. It’s great fun; if you haven’t seen it, go rent it! Better yet, buy it! (To wet your appetite, click HERE to see a scene from the film)
Susan is best summarized as an ADHD Dumb Dora. She talks fast, thinks almost as fast (but never logically), and joyously prances from one mess to another. Life is a giant game to her. Even when misfortunate strikes, such as breaking a heel on her shoe while traipsing through the woods of Connecticut looking for a lost leopard, Susan cheerfully cries out, “I was born on the side of a hill,” and entertains herself by hobbling around with one leg now higher than the other. When she and the majority of the cast of the film wind up in jail, Susan comes to the rescue with one of her zaniest ideas yet (I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to see the film).
Why does Susan’s character work? Why doesn’t she drive the audience completely batty? Here again, there is more than one reason:
- The leading man’s reaction. As with George and Gracie, much of the audience’s acceptance of Susan is based on how poor Dr. David Huxley responds to her. Although she completely exasperates and derails him, Dr. Huxley still puts up with her. He displays annoyance at some points, but he is never cruel to her. From early on, in fact, it’s evident that the professor, in spite of himself, rather likes her.
- Again, the personality of the character. Susan, like Gracie, has a sweet and endearing nature underneath the fluffiness and the dizziness. You just can’t help but like her, even though you know she would drive you crazy in real life!
- What’s this? Another similarity to Gracie? Why yes; the audience accepts the character because although she’s the butt of the jokes, she puts herself there. Once again, the other characters are not maliciously singling out or abusing this character. Perhaps audiences have an innate protective instinct within them: they know that Dumb Doras can’t possibly protect themselves (the poor dears are just too dizzy), so the audience expects the other characters to respect that weakness. Anyhow, that’s my theory.
*Offense over Gracie may have occurred in isolated cases, but the vast majority of audiences absolutely loved the character.