The War at 79 Wistful Vista: Old-time radio listening, 14 November

Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Attends Night School; a.k.a. Fibber and Molly Fight Inflation (NBC, 1944)

Fibber, Molly, and Johnson’s Wax, if not first then maybe best in World War II . . . (Photo: NBC, S.C. Johnson.)

Few if any old-time radio comedies were quite as accommodating in supporting the World War II effort as Fibber McGee & Molly, and with the full and uncompromised support of their longtime sponsor. That support didn’t begin or end with the show’s legendary D-Day broadcast, in which Jim and Marian Jordan, ever the McGees, turned over the entire half hour—which aired on the same day D-Day launched—to patriotically themed music, with only occasional interjections from the couple and one break-in from NBC News.

Indeed, just about all of the 144 episodes aired between Pearl Harbour and V-J Day either integrated wartime themes or issues into the storyline or became the entire story line. of the show’s episodes either integrated wartime themes or issues into the scripts or focused on particular such issues entirely.

They weren’t exactly pure propaganda broadcasts, of course. The show’s masterminds, the Jordans and writers Don Quinn and Phil Leslie, were too clever to go that far, even if many an episode ended with either or both Jordans offering a word of encouragement to the effort. “There is another day coming,” Marian Jordan said, at the end of the show’s V-E Day episode, after husband/partner Jim saluted those who died in combat, “and may it be coming soon, when we can celebrate complete victory. To leave our jobs now and quit before the job is finished would be false to the wives and children they left behind.”

By no means is Fibber McGee & Molly the only World War II-era radio show to use its platform to inform or even inspire during the war. As Mickey Smith has reminded readers of How Fibber McGee & Molly Won World War II, a remarkable and objective enough summary of the show’s war effort, numerous programs did likewise—even the soap operas: Mary Marlin’s husband turned up in Tunisia . . . with his eyes bandaged; the husband of Portia Faces Life‘s protagonist was accused falsely of Nazi spying when he worked as an American intelligence officer; Young Widder Brown‘s ever-faithful true love, the star crossed Dr. Anthony Loring, spent the war as an Army Medical Corps doctor; Young Dr. Malone was commissioned in the British armed services during a star-crossed lovers’ storyling; Ma Perkins became a Gold Star mother when one of her sons was killed in action; and, Stella Dallas went to work in a war plant and, while she was at it, helped to foil a plot by enemy agents.

Fibber McGee & Molly, however, took up a vantage point sometimes to be forgotten in the years, decades, after the war, and played it cleverly for laughs and quiet education alike, perhaps more cleverly than the aforesaid soaps or even its fellow comedies, including its hit spinoff The Great Gildersleeve, which didn’t exactly shy away from wartime show themes. Gerd Horton, in Radio Goes to War, isolated the point, using government rationing as a significant example:

 

Don Quinn. (Photo: NBC)

The show’s writer, Don Quinn, usually left it to Fibber to bring up all the self-serving criticisms against government rationing measures—“They should have foreseen this”; “What in the case of an emergency?”—“It’s an infringement of civil liberties”—only to have each of his charges deflated by the show’s more respectable and socially responsible characters. Yet Fibber echoed many of the sentiments of actual citizens, who were as dissatisfied as he was about the measure. Like Fibber, these citizens were told through both subtle and more direct means to lighten up and put their petty self-interest aside and focus more on the national interest and the war effort.

So effective was the show, which dominated its Tuesday night time slot for well over a decade, that no less than the Office of War Information (run by another radio titan, news legend Elmer Davis) tried an experiment: it gave Fibber McGee & Molly the sole rights to an OWI plug appealing for merchant seamen, according to Horton: “On the day after the program was aired, according to the War Shipping Administration, the number of people who signed up to be merchant seamen doubled.”

Smith has written that, although he found no evidence offering Don Quinn’s personal views of war and its combatants, he did fall upon a Time article which noted Quinn, following a McGee episode on gas rationing, received a telegram from William Jeffers, in charge of the nation’s wartime rubber, complimenting him on the gas rationing program . . . and a letter from his local ration board denying him a request for just a little supplemental gasoline. (A World War I veteran, Quinn lived about thirty miles from NBC’s Hollywood studio.)

A key to what made the McGees so effective in putting over their war-issue stories without lapsing into blatant propaganda: their sponsor. Johnson’s Wax “avoided the blatant use of . . . “brag” commercials in which the sponsor boasted of the significant contribution of a single product to victory by America,” Smith wrote. “There were references to the use of waxes in various ways by the military. More often the listeners were reminded of ways in which their use of this product was consistent with the war effort.”

And yet, if you listen carefully enough, you can hear between every word, every line the McGee company uttered of or around the war, a sober resignation that you won’t stop war until you can change man.

Johnson didn’t stop with the McGees, either. A well-regarded NBC drama that adapted contemporary war-themed books for radio, Words at War, limping along as a sustainer, attracted the ear of Jack Louis, representative of the agency who handled Johnson and other sponsors, who convinced the wax makers to take a chance on it as a McGee summer replacement in 1943. Words at War would become a critical hit in its time, which lasted until the war ended; John Dunning, in On the Air, would praise it for “hit[ting] the air with a punch that no post-war ‘now it can be told’ rehash could ever match.”

The sad irony: Louis would be the man who provoked Johnson’s Wax to end its fifteen-year relationship with Fibber McGee & Molly in 1950. Not just because of the Jordans’ reluctance to move to television (a reluctance that proved prescient when a late 1950s attempt to make a TV version, with Cathy Lewis and Bob Sweeney in the title roles, bombed dramatically) but because, according to Smith, “he became disenchanted with the level of comedy provided.”

If that’s true, it must be one of the most egregious misjudgments in the history of broadcasting: Fibber McGee & Molly still had life aplenty left to live, hanging in during network radio’s dying decade, stopped only by Marian Jordan’s eventual losing battle with cancer.

They may have sounded just a little too quaint and out-of-time by the end, in the ears of smugger-than-thou listeners well enough seduced by television. But the First Couple of 79 Wistful Vista would have the posthumous last laughs. Decades removed from their live radio performances, they would sound exactly as Dunning described: “two ordinary people from the heartland, through tenacity and hard work, climbed to the heights and showed the Hollywood insiders how radio should be done.”

If Jack Louis convinced Johnson’s Wax to make a big mistake in 1950, even he couldn’t convince them to make a second one: Johnson’s preserved over seven hundred Fibber McGee & Molly broadcasts, intact. Successor sponsors Pet Milk also preserved just about every McGee show they sponsored, too, between 1950 and 1953. Enabling listeners who weren’t born even when Jim Jordan died in 1988—the last of the show’s principal figures to pass (imagine Fibber’s reaction!)—to hear, even in the topicality of the war storylines and messages, how far beyond time the show proves to be.

Tonight: The Sage of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) wants to finish what he barely started in his youth (he’ll expose, inadvertently, just how he got his high school diploma), especially when he’s embarrassed having to bluff because he has no basic idea about inflation and can’t bear his own ignorance being exposed.

Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. Alice: Shirley Mitchell. Beulah: Marlin Hurt. Doc Gamble: Arthur Q. Bryan. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie. (Historical note: This is the first Fibber McGee & Molly episode on which Quinn’s protege Leslie receives a full writing credit.)

 

SPEAKING OF WORDS AT WAR . . .

Words at War: One Damn Thing After Another (NBC, 1944)

Former NBC and Los Angeles Times correspondent Tom Treanor’s account of his years wandering into and covering World War II battles in Europe and Africa, whether or not he might be accredited officially, gets an intelligent and straightforward radio adaptation. One  made all the more poignant when you heed the early episode announcement that 26 wartime correspondents have already died on the battlefields, with 28 more yet to join them, from United Press International correspondent Webb Miller in 1940 (during the London Blitz) to Ernie Pyle, the legendary Scripps-Howard correspondent (on the Pacific island le Shima) in 1945.

And, that Treanor himself was one such casualty, three months before tonight’s broadcast.

Treanor.

Treanor might have been seen as an unlikely war correspondent at first. He shifted to war reporting after spending a spell enough as the Times‘s society editor. But he would make himself into an effective war reporter, enough to merit a feature in Time in 1943, where his habit of mailing rather than cabling his writings to the Times earned him something of a reputation as a maverick. He has roamed North African and European combat zones even before the United States entered the war, and has finally earned war correspondence accreditation by way of a press friend in India.

One significant part of Treanor’s reputation: his stubborn enterprise. He has become known enough for making his way, despite his lack of official credentials, by hitchhiking aboard supply trucks and carrying a portable typewriter on which he often writes right in the middle of the worst of a battle. But he has found himself elevated to celebrity status in his own right after he tucked himself into a landing ship tank (LST) in early 1944—and found himself in the middle of Anzio.

He could survive Anzio, and he could (and did) join the D-Day invasion. But he couldn’t avoid a collision east of Chartres en route the front—a collision with an American tank, which ran over his jeep 18 August 1944; he died of his injuries the following day. The cruel irony: Treanor often wrote affectionately and respectfully of tank crews during the war. He may not have lived long enough to read One Damn Thing After Another himself.

Tom Treanor: William Janney. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Jack Costello. Music: William Meter. Director: Anton M. Leader. Writer: Gerald Holland, based on the book by Tom Treanor..

 

FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .

Comedy

The Great Gildersleeve: Gildy Rebuffed by Eve (NBC, 1943)—Freshly enchanted with school principal Eve Goodwin (Bea Benaderet), Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) is surprised by a “peace offering” from a contrite Leila (Shirley Mitchell) and a confession from his flighty water works secretary (Pauline Drake), but he’s slightly staggered by Eve’s wariness over their budding romance. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Marjorie: Lurene Tuttle. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Hooker: Earle Ross. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweeten. Director: Cecil Underwood. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.

Our Miss Brooks: Babysitting for Three (CBS, 1948)—Lamenting the usual indifference from her would-be paramour Boynton (Jeff Chandler), Connie (Arden) concurrently laments the unusual absence of a student (Tommy Cook) whose attendance is rarely broken up, whose academic performance is enviable, and who turns out to be saddled with caring for his younger siblings while his father’s on the road working and his mother is hospitalised—affording Connie a chance to keep an eye on Boynton, who lives three doors away, assuming she survives being roped into helping the kid babysit the younger ones. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Conklin: Gale Gordon. Walter: Richard Crenna. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Additional cast: Sandra Gould, Bobby Ellis, Jess Philbin. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.

The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: A New Drug (NBC, 1948)—Stingy Willie (Robert North) has bought the Harris children (Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield) a chemistry set, which doesn’t cause Phil (Harris) half the trouble Willie’s easier access to Scott (Gale Gordon) and Remley’s (Elliott Lewis) suggestion to inflate his profile do. Herself: Alice Faye. Julius: Walter Tetley. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.

The Halls of Ivy: The Late Student (NBC, 1951)—Reading Whitman to justify an aimless but pleasurable drive in the country with his wife (Benita Hume Colman) is child’s play for Hall (Ronald Colman) compared to their car breaking down, during which they meet a friendly and extremely intelligent student (Vic Perrin) walking long distances to and from the Ivy library—a student who left Oregon to attend an Ivy to which he isn’t even registered. Additional cast: Paul Frees, Jerry Hausner. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Henry Russell. Director: Nat Wolfe. Writers: Milton and Barbara Merlin.

 

Crime Drama

Box 13: Damsel in Distress (Mutual, 1948)—The friend (Lurene Tuttle) of a teenager (Betty Lou Gerson) threatened with extortion contacts Holliday (Alan Ladd) instead of the police to shield her parents, who have a peculiar attitude toward their daughter. Suzy: Sylvia Picker. Kling: Edmund MacDonald. Additional cast: Alan Reed, Frank Lovejoy. Announcer: Vern Carstensen. Music: Rudy Schrager. Director: Richard Sandhill. Writer: Russell Hughes.

The Whistler: Nightmare (CBS, 1948)—Police chase bank embezzler Philip Adams (Joseph Kearns) into a heavily foliaged maze of estates, into one of which he slips, badly injured, to be surprised in more ways than one. Hilda Wyatt: Eve McVeigh. The Whistler: Marvin Miller. Music: Wilbur Hatch. (Whistling: Dorothy Roberts.) Director: George Allen. Writers: Robert Eisenbach, Jackson Gillis.

 

Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Dr. Christian: The Steve and Charlotte Story (CBS, 1937)—An ambitious local poet hopes to divorce her unwilling husband, until he seems to fall for an attractive accident victim he escorted from Christian’s (Jean Hersholt) office. Pretty standard entry in the series if you’re a first-time listener, though it certainly belies the idea that its audience providing the stories is a recipe for complete disaster. Nurse Price: Lurene Tuttle. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Art Gilmore. Music: Ivan Ditmars. Director: Neil Reagan. Writer: Ruth Adams Knight.

You Are There: The Capture and Exile of Napoleon (CBS; AFRS Rebroadcast, 1948)—Bonaparte is kept captive aboard a British warship after Waterloo, complete with a minor uprising among ordinary folk, comments from Napoleon’s valet, expressions of some regret among Frenchmen and some festivity among Englishmen, an interview with the emperor himself—in which he blames himself, and his Russian campaign, for his eventual downfall—and the pronunciation of his exile to St. Elba promising a new era for a much-bruised and dissipated France. Yes, it does go a little over the top here and there but, considering its subject, that may not necessarily be inappropriate. Even if it was easier for Goodman Ace (the show’s actual mastermind, though it won’t be known for years) to capture CBS emperor Bill Paley with the idea for this show in the first place . . . Reporters: John Daly, Don Hollenbeck, Jackson Beck. Additional cast: Unidentified. Sound: Jim Rogan. Director: Robert Lewis Shayon. Writers: Irve Tunick, Joseph Liss, Michael Sklar.

 

Fantasy

Quiet, Please: The Evening and The Morning (ABC, 1948)—A condemned man (Ernest Chappell, who also narrates) who killed the woman he loves, the widow of his best friend, is brought by a jailer (Martin Lawrence) to the dead man’s cemetery, where he reveals the surreal reason why he killed the woman (Bess Johnson)—at her behest. Music: Albert Buhrman. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

 

Quiz

Information, Please: Let’s Play Post Office (NBC Blue, 1939)—Or, barring that, let’s play with a postmaster general—U.S. Postmaster General James Farley. Typically understated, humourous brain food. Panelists: Franklin P. Adams, John F. Kieran, Oscar Levant. Host: Clifton Fadiman.

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