One of old-time radio’s most memorable on-air rivalries launched 70 years ago tonight. And it came about in the first place because two men, representing five characters between them, were preparing to leave the cast of Fibber McGee & Molly when World War II beckoned.
As Mayor La Trivia—he who dissipated inevitably into a furnace of fury when Fibber McGee drove him to an incoherent, staccato, tongue-tied twist—Gale Gordon proved invaluable when it came to replacing the spun-off Harold Peary’s Gildersleeve as the pompous among McGee foils and deflationists.
Bill Thompson, of course, could be considered Fibber McGee & Molly‘s continuing Most Valuable Player, other than Jim and Marian Jordan themselves. He was four characters of equal value, if not quite equal popularity: the tall-tale-dragging Old Timer, the locquacious and half-indecipherble restauranteur Nick Depopolous, and the smarmy con Horatio K. Boomer.
But Gordon had just hit the Coast Guard running, and Thompson was about to go into the Navy. This may have done wonders for the war effort, but at 79 Wistful Vista it threatened disaster. All it took to avert that disaster was Elmer Fudd himself.
Arthur Q. Bryan’s vocal performance as the enunciation-challenged Elmer was such a hit out of Leon Schlesinger’s Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes animation operation that the operation would build its eventual gigastar, Bugs Bunny, from the Fudd shorts’ blueprints. In fact, the portly Bryan himself had also been the physical model for Fudd’s original chunky incarnation.
But he had also been noticed by radio producers, most of whom insisted he bring one or another variation of Elmer to the air. Then, in 1941, Bryan got his first chance to work without the Fudd voicings, and with the Jordans themselves, when the couple took their film hit The Whole Town’s Talking to Lux Radio Theater, and Bryan portrayed a district attorney on the broadcast, a D.A. with several of the qualities Gamble would display and play to the full hilt later.
That early hint of on-air chemistry between Bryan and the Jordans couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed by McGee mastermind Don Quinn. But it would be Quinn’s eventual writing partner and protege Phil Leslie who made the marriage. Bryan fell into Leslie’s orbit in the fall of 1942, when Leslie wrote Major Hoople—a short-lived radio adaptation of the comic strip Our Boarding House—and Bryan himself played the title role.
The writer joined Quinn earlier in 1943, and when Fibber McGee & Molly needed a man to step into the soon-to-be-emptier space, Leslie wasted little time recommending Bryan. Come 6 April 1943, Bryan premiered as Dr. Gamble, an eloquent, well-spoken, courtly man, normally. The Hippocratic Oath notwithstanding, Gamble would often leave the impression that his true mission in life, from that night until the show’s eventual demise in the late 1950s, was deflating McGee’s self-delusional ego so profoundly that the Sucker of 79 Wistful Vista seemed to go down far faster than it took the hydrogen explosion to take down the Hindenburg. Every so often there would be references to Gamble’s medical practise, but they came to seem fleeting enough, compared to the zinger exchange between the doctor and McGee, not to mention the almost equal solicitiousness Gamble displays to the lady of the house.
Cleverly enough, Quinn, Leslie, and Bryan sketched Gamble with enough depth to let slip now and then that, behind the brickbats, the two opposites actually had a kind of stubborn affection for each other. It probably wouldn’t have worked if they were terminal antagonists, any more than it would have worked if the show’s original pompous pretense-pricker, Gildersleeve himself, had been nothing but a barely-neighbourly headache.
Tonight: Gamble enters making a house call upon the McGees, when Fibber (Jim Jordan) can’t decide which is bringing him lower—the bug that’s bugging him or the new doctor. The rivalry soon to become one of radio’s most enduring doesn’t actually take hold just yet; if anything, it seems Gamble seems more inclined to poke at terminally henpecked Wimpole (Thompson)—at first.
Not to worry. What’s merely hinted tonight will explode full blown soon enough, launching a continuing contest played so adroitly by the new entrant that Bryan and his sawbones will be considered too vital to lose, even when Gale Gordon and Bill Thompson return from the war to pick up where they left off and stay for a long, long while.
Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. Mrs. Uppington: Amanda Randolph. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fixing Doc’s Car (NBC, 1948)—By this time, of course, the good doctor (Arthur Q. Bryan) and the Sage of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) are very well established competitors: Doc asks to leave his car in the McGee driveway until his mechanic can give it a tune up, but McGee is only too willing to try saving Doc a few dollars by doing the job for him—something he doesn’t mention until after Doc leaves to return to the hospital. Molly/Teeny: Marian Jordan. Foggy Williams: Gale Gordon. Wimpole: Bill Thompson. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
The Milton Berle Show: Salute to Motoring (NBC, 1948)—In which Mr. Television-to-be salutes the 1948 automobiles. And it’s almost enough to make you wish the announcer wasn’t really kidding when he quips, “Many have seen our star behind the wheel, and some want to see him under it.” The opening is funnier, though you can’t help wondering if there isn’t a kernel of truth in Berle’s quip that, according to the latest Hooper ratings, 85 percent of the actors on the show weren’t listening, either. Cast: Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson, Mary Shipp, Johnny Gibson, Al Kelley, Billy Sand. Announcer: Frank Gallop. Music: Ray Bloch Orchestra, Dick Barney. Writers: Hal Block, Martin Ragaway.
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie and Finnegan Double Date (NBC, 1949)—After Archie (Ed Gardner) wins the coin flip with Eddie (Eddie Cantor) for who gets the night off after the bar’s spring cleaning, he lands a prize date—after he agrees to bring a friend for the friend she won’t leave behind. Miss Duffy: Hazel Shermet. Eddie: Eddie Green. Finnegan: Charles Cantor. Writers: Ed Gardner, Bob Schiller, Larry Rhine.
Lights Out: Cat Wife (NBC, 1938)—One of old-time radio’s unquestioned macabre classics: A troubled marriage goes from bad to worse, when a husband (Boris Karloff, in the third of five consecutive anniversary appearances from the show’s Chicago base) bars his wife’s (Betty Winkler) friends from their home, but comes swiftly enough to regret dismissing her as a heartless cat—after the lady undergoes a peculiarly literal transformation.S ound: Bob Graham, Ed Joyce, Ed Bailey. Writer/director: Arch Oboler.
Suspense: Fire Burn, and Cauldron Bubble (CBS, 1943)—Opening night of Macbeth in Drury Lane is compromised for a retired, remarried actress who just wants to enjoy the evening on her first wedding anniversary: she’s haunted by a threat against her remarriage, purportedly from her late first husband, prompting her new husband to express alarm to the show’s producer/star (Paul Lukas), who knew the dead actor perhaps too well. It checks the soap at the door and works. Additional cast: Unknown. The Man in Black: Joseph Kearns. Announcer: Possibly Truman Bradley. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Sound: Berne Surrey. Director: William Spier. Writer: John Dickson Carr.
The Clock: The Man with the Strange Trunk; a.k.a. Death Valley (ABC, 1947)—Liz and Henry Briggs (Margaret Christensen, Don Cosby), who own a struggling off-highway gasoline station and lodge outside Death Valley, are piqued by an otherwise amiable traveler (Len Bullen) who stops by their pumps, checks in for at least one night, engages them with his rare book-trading profession, but flinches when they express further curiosity over his large, sticker-festooned, unusual-looking steamer trunk—and with good reason, so they fear. Trooper: Jerry Wells. The Clock: Hart McGuire. Announcer: Gene Kirby. Director: John Saul. Writer: Lawrence Klee.
Frontier Gentleman: The Powder River Kid (CBS; AFRTS Rebroadcast, 1958)—He’s seriously wounded former outlaw (Joseph Kearns), who still carries a large price on his capture but has been living a quiet, traveling life with his likewise reformed wife (Paula Winslowe) . . . and he may be dying from poisons the bullet has eroded into his system, prompting him to ask Kendall (John Dehner) for a strange final favour. The understatement makes it work. Additional cast: Lawrence Dobkin, Barney Phillips, Robert Rudier. Announcer: John Wald. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Antony Ellis.