In most ways, Joan Davis will be done a disservice, from her coming out as a bona-fide radio comedy lead to her premature death fourteen years later.
Bad enough that Joanie’s Tea Room introduces her, invariably, as “America’s queen of comedy,” a title that sounds just a little too smugly pretentious attached to a woman who hasn’t exactly won it, by acclaim or otherwise. Worse is that the introduction and the show itself are accompanied by a somewhat smarmy publicity campaign not of the ill-fated star’s own making.
Madonna Josephine Davis is a gifted comedian. Having earned mostly positive notices for blending physical and verbal comedy without exaggerated effort in B-movies that were probably too low for her talents, she is turning the wisecracking, squeakily twanging man-chaser into a cut slightly beyond the type’s clichés. She certainly has the potential to live up to the “queen of comedy” billing.
There will be those as often as not who live up to it far further without the tag introducing their programs, Marian Jordan (as the irrepressible Molly McGee), Jane Ace (in the ears of the critics if not her audience size, anyway), Gracie Allen, and Fanny (Baby Snooks) Brice in particular. But when Lever Brothers signs her to do Joanie’s Tea Room for Swan Soap, the company blunders on the side of promotion.
Lever drops a cool-sounding million-dollar contract on Davis in 1945 and lands the show a delectable CBS time slot leading in to the network’s relentless Monday night champion, Lux Radio Theater. Considering Davis’s previous two seasons’ success, co-starring with Jack Haley on Sealtest Village Store, which they took over from Rudy Vallee, you could hardly blame Lever for wanting to prime Davis’s pumps.
Unfortunately—as Jim Ramsburg will come to remind a post-millenium readership, in Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953—industry insiders will be just as quick to remind anyone who cares to pay close attention that the million dollars aren’t going to Davis alone. The lucre will have to cover Davis’s cast and crew as well—for two years. That, of course, will not stop the fan magazines and the show business gossips from dining voraciously on the Million Dollar Girl. They’ll pump Davis as the highest-paid woman in radio for a brief time, the small details be damned.
They don’t do the earnest Davis any big favours.
The good news is that Joanie’s Tea Room will pull up third on Monday nights in its first season. The better news: She has the clever Abe Burrows (Duffy’s Tavern) as her head writer. The bad news is how deceptive the finish will prove. Davis may predict her new young singer, Andy Russell, will bring the bobby soxers to their radios post haste, but Joanie’s Tea Room actually pulls below the rating Burns & Allen earned in the same time slot (8:30 p.m. Eastern time) in the previous season. The show will finish just shy of the nationwide top twenty for the full season, but her 14.4 Hooper rating will leave her way behind Fibber McGee & Molly (27.1, second only to Bob Hope) and the show she left to do Tea Room in the first place: Sealtest Village Store, which finishes at number thirteen with a 16.7 Hooper, featuring Jack Haley and his new co-star—Eve Arden.
The good news continued: Joanie’s Tea Room will stay in her night’s Top Ten for two years. The bad news continued: In its second season, the average Hooper rating on Monday night stays at 13.4 but Davis’s rating will fall five notches from its maiden season. Once again, she’ll finish top twenty nationwide on the season, but once again—especially in light of the national average ratings dip—it will prove slightly deceptive. This time, Haley and Arden may tumble to number thirty-six but Davis will still be beaten by Fibber and Molly (who remain number two behind Bob Hope on the season), Burns & Allen (enjoying a nice comeback once their Maxwell House Coffee Time rounds into complete shape), and a new team taking over The Fitch Bandwagon, who are destined to force that show’s eventual renaming . . . into The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show.
By fall 1947, Joanie’s Tea Room will close, the show proving too expensive for Lever Brothers, considering its less than million dollar overall performance. Which is hardly Davis’s fault; she is effective and plays very well with her cast, but she comes to sound, invariably, like a character listeners think they’ve heard elsewhere and better. Lever will pick up a show that bounces around CBS without major sponsorship until September 1947, when the sponsor takes it on for its Lipton Tea subsidiary: Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.
In fact, the mercurial Godfrey will finish 1947-48 over fifty percent higher in the Monday night Hoopers than Joanie’s Tea Room ever does, not to mention turning out as something nationwide that Davis can’t: the number ten show in the nation for the season.
Davis herself will be moved to Saturday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern time, under what Ramsburg will remember as CBS’s “first experiment in co-op sponsorship—affiliated stations received commercial availabilities within the program instead of cash payment from the network for carrying the show.” The retooled Joan Davis Time will be scheduled opposite NBC’s Your Hit Parade (with Frank Sinatra returning to host it) and ABC’s Gangbusters.
And, it will be buried, almost unceremoniously, despite its strong enough new supporting cast (Mary Jane Croft, Lionel Stander, Hans Conreid). Part of the problem: The writing will prove inconsistent. Most of the problem, other than the aforesaid air of deceptive familiarity: Listeners who give her a pull probably sense a serious volume of wind knocked out of her after the promise of Joanie’s Tea Room. She will not seem as on as she has been before.
On Saturday nights in 1947-48, Judy Canova will prove the top-rated funny lady. In the season’s final nationwide ratings shakeout, Fibber & Molly (as usual, number two overall, but now the number one comedy of the season), the newborn My Friend Irma (with two leading ladies, Marie Wilson and Cathy Lewis), Phil’s Alice, Gracie, Baby Snooks, and Canova, will be the season’s comedy queens. Twenty-one comedies overall will finish in the season’s top fifty. Davis will be nowhere among them. And the remainder of Davis’s radio career will prove a disappointment to the comedian herself and to those who saw her as a genuine comer in 1945.
Davis has already been through off-air turmoil; her marriage to longtime husband and entertainment partner Si Wills ends in 1948 when the couple divorces. (There will come to be longtime speculation that Davis has enjoyed a long-term affair with Eddie Cantor—he of “Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider” and the five unmarriageable daughters schtick that came to sting the young ladies in real life—but the speculation will never be proven in finality.) But in 1949, Davis retools again, this time to Leave It to Joan, and she will be a summer replacement for Lux Radio Theater, the powerhouse for which she once served as a promising lead-in, in 1949.
The results will seem promising enough that the American Tobacco Company rolls her over to the regular season, for Lucky Strike. But the cigarette makers, crazily enough, place Davis on CBS across from a pair of powerful-enough comedies, The Life of Riley and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Even with NBC moving Riley to 10 p.m. midway through 1949-50, it will be too late to save Leave It to Joan. She will finish top ten—barely–on the night, but she’ll be nowhere near the national season’s top fifty at the finish. Ahead of her this time? Fibber & Molly (who slip to a mere number four on the season), My Friend Irma, Baby Snooks, Burns & Allen, Judy Canova, Eve Arden—now fronting the show that makes her name for all time, Our Miss Brooks—and Hattie McDaniel as Beulah.
Except for a pocketful of effective guest turns on NBC’s last-gasp big variety offering, The Big Show (1950-52), Davis’s network radio career is finished. In 1952, however, she will get one more chance at broadcasting stardom, on television. A pilot she does based on Leave It to Joan (as Let’s Join Joanie) will go no further, but I Married Joan will—both ways.
Featuring Davis as the manic, scatterbrained, putzy wife of a mild-mannered local judge, I Married Joan is an obvious I Love Lucy wannabe (just about everyone will want one when Lucy becomes a superhit) made worse when Davis, yet again, is announced invariably as “America’s queen of comedy” when Lucille Ball has the title locked down cold without anyone having to introduce her that way.
It should be so much better for Joan Davis but, in circumstances often beyond her control, it can never be. Six and a half years after I Married Joan dies, following three failed new television pilots, so does Davis herself, of a heart attack at age 53. Two and a half years later comes an undeserved and grotesque postscript: her daughter, her grandsons, and her mother will die in the fire that destroys their home.
Perhaps Abe Burrows will offer her best valedictory:
In films she always played the funny-looking friend of the heroine. So I was startled when I first mer her in person; she was a poised and very attractive woman. There’s a picture of Joan on my office wall, and people keep saying to me, “Who’s that beautiful blonde?”
In those days comediennes were not supposed to be beautiful and poised. Of course, there were women playing elegant comedy on the legitimate stage and in movies . . . but when it came to vaudeville, nightclubs, or radio, most of the female comics somehow tended to (or were driven to) turn themselves into broad knockabout clowns . . .
When I saw how attractive Joan was, I started to write material for her that was different from what she had been doing. It turned out to be very successful. John Crosby . . . wrote a review of the show I was writing for Joan, and said, “Abe Burrows has done for Joan Davis what Flo Ziegeld did for Fanny Brice.” I was proud of that mainly because I thought of it as a tribute to Joan. I was very fond of her, and we were very close.
Tonight: Joan (Davis) is asked whether she enjoyed a fraternity tea dance; Andy (Russell) sheepishly apologises for breaking a few dishes accidentally; and, Joan all but goads him into giving the movies a try.
Additional cast: Verna Felton, Sharon Douglas, Shirley Mitchell, Wally Brown. Announcer: Harry Von Zell. Music: Paul Weston Orchestra, Andy Russell. Director: David Titus. Writers: Abe Burrows, Jay Summers, Jack Harvey, Si Wills.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Escape: Night in Havana (CBS, 1949)—A too-well-known former thief (Tony Barrett) promises his fiancee (Jeannette Nolan) to stay straight until he’s tempted overwhelmingly by the prospect of a large reward for recovering a lost emerald, which would enable him to begin married life without relying on her income. Additional cast: Alan Reed, William Conrad, Ted Von Eltz, Jeff Corey, Jack Webb. Announcer: Frank Goss. Music: Del Castillio. Director: William N. Robson. Writer: Walter Brown Newman, based on the short story by Burnham Carter.
Bold Venture: Passage for Mario Carrada; or, A Row at the Cannery (Syndicated: Frederick Ziv Company, 1951)—The son of a murdered Cuban politician wants revenge for his father’s death; journalist Johnny Thomas (Sheldon Leonard), who befriended father and son alike, reaches out to Shannon (Humphrey Bogart)—who also knew and admired the young man’s father—with $2,000 and a proposition to bring the younger man into Havana, where his father’s enemies may not necessarily have him an unmarked man. It’s Bogie and Baby and slightly mad fun, when all is said and done. Sailor: Lauren Bacall. King: Jester Hairston. Inspector LaSalle: Nestor Paiva. Additional cast: Unidentified. Music: David Rose. Director: Henry Haywood. Writers: Morton Fine, David Friedkin.
The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Stanley and Livingstone (NBC, 1939)—The troupe (Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, Phil Harris, Dennis Day, Don Wilson) takes a whack at satirizing the film story of the reporter and the explorer—after they get finished dealing with Dennis’s imperious, battleaxe mother (Verna Felton) and bandleader Kay Kyser. Announcer: Don Wilson. Music: Mahlon Merrick with the Phil Harris Orchestra. Writers: Ed Beloin, Bill Morrow.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Gildersleeve’s Diary (NBC, 1940)—Curiosity merely stokes the Snoop of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) when he finds the unlikely treasure after Gildersleeve’s (Harold Peary) maid carelessly discarded it, and even the usually discreet Molly (Marian Jordan, who also plays Teeny) has a small thrill over the prospect of reading the big blowhard’s private blusterings before he figures out it’s disappeared in the first place. Nick Depopolous: Bill Thompson. Mrs. Uppington: Isabel Randolph. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
The Great Gildersleeve: A Job Contact (NBC, 1944)—Still smarting over being dumped as Summerfield water commissioner, after the new mayor moved a cousin into the job, Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) ponders both a fresh water crisis at home—prompting rounds of calls from people who think he’s still the commissioner—and a possible new job running a factory preparing to revert to civilian production. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Marjorie: Louise Erickson. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Hooker: Earle Ross. Leila: Shirley Mitchell. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweeten. Director: Frank Pittman. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
The Great Gildersleeve: Congressman Gildersleeve (NBC, 1947)—Blasted awake from a pleasantly romantic dream, Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) gets up in a strikingly good mood that gets turned into a lament over life passing him by and, after a conversation with Peavey (Richard LeGrand) and a challenge from Hooker (Earle Ross), a yearning to run for the House. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Marjorie: Mary Lee Robb. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Bessie: Pauline Drake. Announcer: John Wald. Music: Jack Meakin. Writers: John Elliotte, Andy White.
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: Setting the Record Straight (Hmmmm, 1959)—The show’s opening theme music changes, before the shambolic duo decide to examine what is or isn’t rigged, perhaps in light of the television quiz show scandal, aided and abetted by Wally Ballou (Bob Elliott) and Webley Webster (Ray Goulding). Also: an episode of “Broken Down Grand Hotel.” Writers, if you must: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.
The Whistler: A Case for Mr. Carrington (CBS, 1947)—A young man’s struggle with his father over control of a Jamaican sugar plantation proves only too tempting to an American (possibly Gerald Mohr) who’s bought into the plantation, wants to keep his fiancée (possibly Betty Lou Gerson) from breaking their engagement over his lack of dividends from his investment thus far . . . and, he’s attracted the attention of a Jamaican police inspector who may have given him a motive to do the barely unthinkable. The Whistler: Bill Forman. Announcer: Marvin Miller. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Whistling: Dorothy Roberts. Sound: Gene Twombly, Ross Murray. Director: George Allen. Writer: J. Donald Wilson, possibly Harold Swanton. Note: This episode would be re-performed in 1952; this recording was made from a broadcast by Dallas public radio.
Suspense: Log of the Marne (CBS, 1951)—Ray Milland delivers an understatedly tense performance, as a British naval officer ordered to command and rescue a crippled British gunboat—rescuing British subjects under heavy siege from Communist ships on the Yang-tze during the war to overthrow the Nationalists—when the ship is unable to gain safe passage down river, unless he obeys Communist demands that he admit to aggression the ship didn’t commit. Strikingly effective, considering the contortions involved in changing names and historical condensation. Fraser: Ben Wright. Additional cast: Joseph Kearns, Charles Davis, Antony Ellis, Jack Kruschen, Raymond Lawrence, William Johnstone. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Lucien Morowick, Lud Gluskin. Sound: Berne Surrey. Director: Elliott Lewis. Writer: Gil Brown, adapted from the book by Laurence Earle.