Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel: The Ocean Cruise (NBC, 1933)
About fifteen years before he’ll become a smash hosting the absurdist quiz show You Bet Your Life, Groucho Marx, with brother Chico, is actually wrapping up season one and done of a charming little comedy that isn’t going to be renewed despite finishing fifth in the Monday night ratings. Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel may not be the blockbuster Amos ‘n’ Andy still is, but it’s a bona-fide hit, anyway, all things considered. Why cancel?
Flywheel is part of a novel (for its time) concept radio historian John Dunning would describe as “umbrella programming”: Sponsor Standard Oil, promoting Essolube motor oil and Esso gasoline, fashioned an umbrella known as Five Star Theater, in which a different show in a different genre aired each night—comedy on Monday nights with the Marx Brothers; classical music on Tuesday nights (apparently, with a symphony orchestra fashioned by Josef Bonime); melodrama on Wednesday nights; condensed opera on Thursday nights; and, crime drama (usually, Charlie Chan) on Friday nights—and all shows aired on different networks, with steady and enthusiastic cross-promotion.
Of the five, the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chan were the best ratings pullers, but Flywheel was its undisputed champion. Allowing its lead-in from Amos ‘n’ Andy, which aired half an hour earlier, Flywheel finished fifth Monday night and seventeenth overall on the season.
Michael Barson, who would edit and present a remarkable collection of the show’s scripts in the late 1980s, will suggest these reasons for the show’s disappearance:
1) Standard Oil didn’t necessarily appreciate the difference between a radio audience in the 7:00pm EST hour and the 9:00pm EST hour. Flywheel aired in an hour when it is believed only 40 percent of radio owners are actually tuning in, and given that the rating it does pull, its fifth place Monday night finish, and its seventeenth-place seasonal finish, are remarkable and might impress a more knowledgeable sponsor into staying with the show for a new season.
But Ed Wynn, the Fire Chief (for Texaco)—on Tuesday nights this season, at 9:30pm EST—pulls down a jaw-dropping 40.5 season’s rating, clearly dominating Tuesday nights and finishing second on the overall season to Eddie Cantor’s 55.7 (for Chase & Sanborn coffee) on Sunday nights, numbers that only look impressive until you factor that 60 percent of radio owners are tuning in in the 9:00pm hour.
The numbers alone, Barson would observe (though he will get the actual rating numbers wrong), will be “[t]he only rating that really mattered to Standard Oil.” It still makes no sense for the refiner to give up on a show that’s number five on its night and in the top twenty on the season overall.
2) So if giving up on Flywheel, Shyster & Flywheel doesn’t make logical sense by the true ratings numbers, then the real, the likeliest reason the show doesn’t continue, say Barston and others, is that the Marx Brothers are itching to get back into the film studios.
Flywheel has hinted at it often enough. The scripts have used some routines lifted very liberally from the Marx Brothers’ existing films. Moreover, at least fifteen routines from the show will turn up in the film they make after Flywheel wraps, Duck Soup—including the famous treason trial sequence, right down to Groucho’s switch from prosecution to defence. (The later-to-be-fabled stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera may also have been inspired by a Flywheel routine.)
It probably won’t hurt Standard Oil that they won’t have to pay the $6,500 a week Groucho and Chico Marx split (Harpo Marx, for perhaps the obvious reason, wasn’t a part of Flywheel) between them for Flywheel. Certainly, for the sake of their film career yet to come, if you don’t count the reputed fallow period between Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera, losing Flywheel may not be that terrible a loss.
But for the sake of radio, losing Flywheel probably means losing one of the medium’s more genuinely sophisticated comedies in the last hours before Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and other post-vaudevillian humourists hit genuine stride. It also leaves the Marx Brothers, however unfairly, with an image as radio also-rans, Groucho in particular, considering how many of his future radio endeavours won’t do even as well as Flywheel has done, until You Bet Your Life.
The final analysis, then: Flywheel is a success when all was said and done, and with all factors taken into balance, but the lure of films proves too much for the Marx Brothers to abandon for very long.
Tonight: In the only complete installment of this better-than-credited comic exercise known to have survived intact, not to mention what proved the last show of the short-lived series, our intrepid scramblers of law and disorder (Groucho and Chico Marx) find themselves stowing away aboard a cruise ship, tucked aboard a lifeboat, stuck for an idea for getting ashore without getting bastinadoed by ship officers, and don’t ask what the hell they were doing on board in the first place.
Additional cast, orchestra, and director: Unidentified. Writers: Nat Perrin, Arthur Sheekman, George Oppenheimer and Tom McKnight.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Musical Arrangement for a War Bond Drive (NBC, 1945)—With the Third Reich history and the Pacific side of the war heading for its climax and finish, Uncle Sam’s favourite nephew in Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) takes over the planning for a big rally on behalf of the seventh war bond drive, much to the disdain of its original planner Mrs. Carstairs (Bea Benaderet). Molly: Marian Jordan. Alice: Shirley Mitchell. Beulah: Marlin Hurt. Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: The King’s Men, Billy Mills Orchestra. Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Phil’s Boat (NBC, 1949)—Phil (Harris) and Alice (Faye) are trying to decide their vacation plans when Remley (Elliott Lewis) suggests a way for Phil to get Alice to agree on Hawaii—buy his own yacht, which could leave Phil with that sinking feeling when he realises just what he buys. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Anne Whitfield. Willie: Robert North. Julius: Walter Tetley. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Box 13: Death is No Joke (Mutual, 1949)—An invitation to a country home from its owner’s correspondent sounds harmless and simple to Dan (Alan Ladd) . . . until he misses death by a hair when his brakes are cut. Suzy: Sylvia Packer. Kling: Edmund MacDonald. Additional cast: Possibly Alan Reed, Frank Lovejoy, Luis van Rooten, Lurene Tuttle. Writer: Russell Hughes.