Every so often in the arts, someone will make something indirectly inspired by or directly cribbed from a previously-established work, and then find themselves in the surprising position of having that creation surpass the popularity of the original. For example, the makers of Airplane! drew their plot and entire bits of dialogue from the 1957 melodrama Zero Hour, yet their film is the more widely remembered. Nowadays, it’s referred to as the “Weird Al Effect,” where people are more familiar with song parodies performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic than they are the actual song they derived from.
Before that term came about, this could just as easily have been called “The Leghorn Swoggle,” as Kenny Delmar, the star of It’s a Joke, Son!, our Kiddee Matinee on Sunday, February 15th, ultimately saw a cartoon chicken walk away with his gimmick faster than you could sing, “Doo-Dah!” So let’s take a spell to put this colorful history back together for you, to engage in a little bit of… Reconstruction… though as you’ll discover, the character in question may take offense to that word.
Boston-born Kenny Delmar had started out as a child actor in the ‘20s and became a radio performer with roles in Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds and The Shadow. He told Life magazine that as a teenager he hitchhiked to California and was given a ride by a garrulous Texan, describing the encounter in this manner:
“Everything he said, he bellowed. And everything he bellowed, he repeated. I was one damn Yankee who never got a chance to slip a word in edgewise. I filed him away in my mind as a character to remember.”
Delmar was serving as announcer for Alan Young’s NBC radio sitcom in 1944 when he first started channeling that Southern motormouth as a character called Counselor Cartonbranch. However, Young’s sponsors demanded that Cartonbranch be dropped from the show, objecting to what they felt was ridicule of their right-wing politics. Word of the interference got to another performer at the network, Fred Allen, who made a deal with Young to acquire Delmar and his character for his radio program.
Allen had previously created “Town Hall Tonight,” a sort of great-grandfather to “The Daily Show,” in that Allen would perform comedy material based on current news events, and checked in with a fictional group of “ordinary Americans” (much like the latter’s ersatz field correspondents) to get their opinions. He later reconfigured that concept into the segment “Allen’s Alley,” where Delmar’s bayou blusterer became Senator Beauregard Claghorn.
Senator Claghorn debuted in the fall of 1945 and quickly became a breakout character. The senator, though clearly too young to have had any direct participation in the War Between the States, made it known loud and clear and louder where his loyalties remained, through such quips as, “I loaned Mason and Dixon the chalk the day they drew up the line!” When Allen would attempt to ask him about a topic of the day, he’d get a whirlwind of groanworthy puns (“There was a big debate. Somebody was runnin’ down Senator Hill… Runnin’ down Hill! That’s a joke, son.”), wild metaphors (“Your tongue’s waggin’ like a blind dog’s tail at a meat market!”), and cornpone logic (“Women can be politicians… Ah say, a woman can even be President. But Ah say there’s one thing a woman can never be, son: the Father of Our Country!”).
When Life interviewed Delmar the following spring, they proclaimed him “the most quoted man in the nation.” The popularity led to tie-in records, dolls, even compasses that pointed south.
Earlier in the ‘30s, before Delmar properly formulated his character in New York, in Los Angeles, a small following was building for “The Sheriff,” a similarly domineering, repetitive-talking personality originated by Jack Clifford for the West Coast-only program “Blue Monday Jamboree.” Though the program was already long gone by the ‘40s, Robert McKimson, a newly elevated animation director at Warner Bros., was fond of him, and suggested it as the model for a rooster attempting to outsmart pugnacious headline character Henery Hawk in the then-gestating cartoon Walky Talky Hawky. Mel Blanc recorded the vocals for the cartoon in January 1945, months before the debut of Senator Claghorn on the radio that same year. Blanc’s vocals for the rooster are more akin to Yosemite Sam than what would become familiar later.
When audio was recorded that November for a followup cartoon, Crowing Pains, Delmar’s character had been firmly established, and McKimson and his writers incorporated his ever-present “Ah say,” and “____, that is!” into the rooster’s banter. By summer 1946, when Walky Talky Hawky was released, recording for the third entry, The Foghorn Leghorn, commenced. It’s here where our beloved banty blowhard finally got his proper name, started making his own bad puns (“Keep your eye on the ball! Eye! Ball!”), and first said verbatim, “That’s a joke, son!” By now all pretense was out the window – those Termite Terrace boys poached, I say, poached the Senator’s schtick like a three minute egg!
Delmar, meanwhile, used the summer hiatus from Allen’s show to film It’s a Joke, Son! just as Walky Talky Hawky was prepared for release, so he was not yet aware of the impending encroachment on his character. The film was conceived quickly to ride his popularity. Writers Paul Girard Smith, a Ziegfeld Follies and radio veteran who worked with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and Robert E. Kent, skilled at fast turnover projects like Dick Tracy vehicles and ‘50s rock musicals, created an expanded backstory to show how Claghorn had managed to become involved in affairs of state in the first place. Director Benjamin Stoloff had made dozens of comedy shorts and genre features, and had previous experience in depicting larger-than-life characters, having previously made Palooka with Jimmy Durante, an adaptation of the Joe Palooka comic strip.
It’s a Joke, Son! depicts the civilian Claghorn’s bellicose antebellum discourse undercut by his cowed deference to his strong-willed status-conscious wife Magnolia (Una Merkel) and doting treatment of their daughter Mary Lou (June Lockhart), and reveals they have been attempting cotillion lives on a canned-food budget. When an unexpected windfall arrives, Claghorn gives the money to Mary Lou’s suitor Jeff to start a business, only to learn Magnolia has pledged it to the local Daughters of Dixie who want to run her for state senator against the despised Northern-funded Senator Leeds. The machine behind Leeds recognizes her as a threat, warning the hack, “You’re in the South now, baby. And down here a woman is more than a woman; she’s an institution, a superstition.” In a plot that would not sound out of place in our modern-day political climate, to pay off his impending debt, Claghorn takes money from Leeds’ team and launches himself as a third-party candidate to fracture the vote. But when he proves more popular than both his wife and the incumbent, the muscle behind the machine tries to physically swing the election their way.
Delmar played Claghorn on radio until 1949, and rarely seemed to be publicly concerned with the lifting of his character by the Looney Tunes gang. There had always been a back-and-forth between their camps: Fred Allen and his players were often satirized in WB cartoons before Delmar joined their program, and Mel Blanc was a resident performer for Allen’s close friend and on-air frenemy Jack Benny’s radio program, for whom Delmar also did announcing. Reportedly, when WB copyrighted Foghorn Leghorn, Delmar was required to clear any future Claghorn usages with them, which likely led to the phasing out of the character. In his 1946 Life profile, he hinted that he was already a little weary of the role, saying, “Somebody is always calling us at 3a.m. just to find out what Claghorn sounds like over the phone.”
However, Delmar continued to mine aspects of his creation in other venues. On Broadway, he played “Senator Hominy Smith” in the musical Texas Li’l Darlin’. In commercials for Quaker cereals, he voiced “Senator Hey,” who in one spot lectures his young nephew Beauregard on the virtues of Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice.
And in the ‘60s, he voiced multiple characters for Total TeleVision productions, the creators of Tennessee Tuxedo and Underdog, many with kinship to Claghorn. Commander McBragg would recount preposterous tales of his Naval adventures to an initially unwilling listener, while The Hunter was a bloodhound detective with a Southern drawl and “Ah say” exclamations. When TTV first created The Hunter, they initially planned on a Delmar sound-alike until their sound supervisor suggested they invite Delmar himself, leading to his long voice residency with the studio.
For this rare 35mm screening of It’s a Joke, Son!, we’ve brought the roaster and the rooster together, presenting classic Foghorn Leghorn cartoons in tandem with the man who inspired them, for a Kiddee Matinee that’ll put the “South” back in “SoCal.” Don’t let us make this pitch only to have you miss it! Any of this gettin’ through to you, son?