BISON HAVE ACCENTS, BUFFALO NOT
Ben Wright, like Abraham Sofaer or Jay Novello,
belonged to that club of supporting actors who created characters
by affecting refined accents.
This they did well enough, but alas never quite convincingly enough.
In real life they had a claim to these accents,
but something in their renditions always sounded fake.
Ben Wright, for example, lived the first three decades of his life
in England, but once in Hollywood, his English accent didn't sound
any less phoney than any other American actor's.
Such were Sofaer's and Novello's looks that they invariably played
darker ethnics struggling in socially precarious situations,
while Wright had a bearing which got him the lighter European parts
with officious accents.
In other words, Wright's roles always had him carrying
the proverbial swagger stick,
whereas Sofaer's and Novello's characters were always
at the wrong end of that stick.
But that's what accents get you, in movies and television.
Virginia Gregg may have the longest movie resumé
among the Gunsmoke radio actors,
but Ben Wright appeared in the most big-name movies.
Scroll through the names of the characters he played,
and you'll find that every one required an... accent.
Whether his character wore jodhpurs or swastikas
or a pith helmet or apron, or sat behind
a judge's bench or wielded a butler's clothes-brush,
Wright unfailingly supplied each
with the required stiff and proper accent.
Look through his radio resumé, and you'll find an even longer
roster of such roles,
all preceded by their... accents.
Ben Wright is best known by fans of radio westerns
for his role of Hey Boy in the radio version of Have Gun-Will Travel.
The concept of this character (and of Miss Wong as well)
is hardly politically correct from the viewpoint of today,
but keep in mind the tv show started in 1957 and the radio in 1959.
That said, were he alive today, Ben Wright may have an uneasy time
explaining his "Ah so!" portrayal of Hey Boy,
especially in the context of the oft-quoted claim of his being
an expert dialectician.
The only thing that excuses his Hey Boy
was Virginia Gregg's vocal creation of counterpart Miss Wong
(whose tv version would be not so thoughtfully named Hey Girl,
but would actually be more dignified).
Both actors may have painted their characters
in the Chinese gong style,
but at least Wright gave his Hey Boy a chopstick tongue
that made him understandable; foregoing elocution entirely,
Gregg rendered Miss Wong in bird sounds,
making it doubtful that she produced more than a few words
in the entire series
that could be distinguished by any ear East or West.
The only thing that excuses the Hey in Wright's Boy and Gregg's girl,
is Kam Tong's physical portrayal of Hey Boy ambulating
in a pseudo-Chinese manner
across the hotel lounge in HGWT tv episodes such as 'The Outlaw.'
Kam Tong's and Lisa Lu's tv portrayals of Hey Boy and Hey Girl
may have been less vocally stereotypical,
but Kam Tong's hoppee-on-tiptoeey walk
has to be seen to be believed.
Somewhere in the repository for all the racially typed performances
ever generated by Hollywood, Wright and Gregg and Tong
have earned hallowed ancestral places inside fortune cookies.
September 19, 2005
Copyright © 2006-2013 E. A. Villafranca, Jr.
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