radio-television-film professor

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

According to Kathy Fuller-Seeley, “To Be or Not to Be,” a comedy that openly ridiculed Nazis at the beginning of America’s entrance into World War II, is the strangest movie that radio star Jack Benny starred in, but it was also his best. 

Fuller-Seeley, a radio-television-film professor at UT, will be screening the film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1942. The film is about an acting troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland who attempt to help a Polish resistance soldier find a German spy that has plans that could destroy the resistance movement.

Fuller-Seeley first wanted to present the film because of its humor, as well as the critical recognition the film received from magazines such as TIME and Variety.

Additionally, Fuller-Seeley wanted to show the film because of Jack Benny’s uncharacteristic performance. Prior to the film’s release, Benny was famous for his radio show, “The Jack Benny Program,” which ran for three decades. Fuller-Seeley is currently writing a book about Benny and his radio career.

“This is his best performance,” said Fuller-Seeley. “It’s his most unusual performance because he’s playing a character who’s not Jack Benny.”

She also wanted to show the film because of its legacy. Both Fuller-Seeley and Tom Schatz, a radio-television-film professor, said that the film was significant because it satirized the Nazis.

“It was one of the few Hollywood movies, especially this early in the war, that dealt with Nazi Germany and dealt with the Nazis in a comedy,” Schatz said. “The fact that this was made at all was interesting.”

As a result, the film has been noted as one of the first “black comedies.” Schatz said the film helped expand the role of comedy by making controversial subjects, such as Nazism, fair game to ridicule.

Fuller-Seeley hopes that the screening will allow the audience to see how talented a performer Benny was, even in a film that was not typical of his normal work. 

“Not a lot of people have seen [the film], so I want them to enjoy a very smart comedy — a very well made film,” Fuller-Seeley said.

Next month, Fuller-Seeley will present another talk about Benny’s work as a radio and television personality.

Media and theater pioneer Gordon Wilkison died Wednesday in his Austin home. Wilkison devoted nearly 30 years to filming and archiving UT football games, and he captured rare footage of the 1966 shooting at the University, when Charles Whitman killed 14 people from the top of the tower.

Wilkison was active in the theater and film community and was instrumental in the development and conservation of local theaters and acting troupes such as the Paramount Theatre and the Zachary Theatre Center, now ZACH Theatre.

George Wead, a former member of ZACH’s board and a retired radio-television-film professor, was a close friend of Wilkison’s. 

“Gordon was a funny and wonderful man. I met him because we were all very active in the theater scene,” Wead said. “It is hard to recreate to someone the wonderful and strong people that were there with him.”

Wead said Wilkison played a large role in the Austin theater scene.

“Austin owes him a great deal. In that city, with the theater folks and Gordon, it was a great time to be alive,” Wead, who now lives in Bridgewater, Va., said.

Phyllis Schenkkan, a family friend of Wilkison’s, first met him when introduced by her late first husband, former UT radio-television-film professor Robert Schenkkan.

“Gordon was very important doing photographic work and he was very important in the city’s theater community,” Schenkkan said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Among his many projects, Wilkison was part of the group that edited the tape of former President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, upon request of the family of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. Wilkison’s material, including footage of Austin and news from the 1960s, was donated to the Texas Archive of the Moving Image

“The Gordon Wilkison collection is an unparalleled contribution to the city of Austin,” said Caroline Frick, radio-television-film professor and executive director of the Texas Archive. “When you see news collections throughout the country, 80 percent of collections that had material from the ‘60s no longer exist. The fact that he produced the films, collected them and then gave them to an education institution is almost invaluable.”

Under the Neal Spelce Collection, the archive includes Wilkison’s footage of Whitman firing on top of the UT tower, which was broadcast nationally and all around the world. 

Radio-television-film junior Graham Norwood said the footage retains its impact 56 years later.

“It hasn’t lost any of its shock over the years,” Norwood said. “It still manages to put the viewer back in the campus cross-fire. [Wilkison] really captured the chaos and carnage of the day with precision.”