Shirley Mitchell was thatclose to giving up on Hollywood entirely when she landed the old-time radio supporting role of a lifetime in the early 1940s.
The Toledo, Ohio native—who died of heart failure on Veteran’s Day, a week after she celebrated her 94th birthday—suddenly found herself a valuable supporting player as Southern widow Leila Ransom, who couldn’t seem to decide whether to marry or mangle The Great Gildersleeve. Indeed, Leila became (in John Dunning’s words) “such a strongly negative character that at one point a California women’s club picketed NBC, urging Gildersleeve with their signs not to marry her.”
Only too memorably, in The Great Gildersleeve‘s second season, did Gildersleeve get thatclose to marrying Leila, shaking off a case of cold feet only to be jilted at the altar in a season-ending surprise.
Mitchell would return to the role for a spell in fall 1943 and play Leila sporadically over the next few seasons. At the same time, she became one of the irregular regulars in Wistful Vista, renting a room from Fibber McGee & Molly as the complete opposite of Leila, Alice Darling, who wasn’t exactly Rosie the Riveter but who did in the local aircraft plant who only seemed like a dumb blonde–at first. Smarter than her years when all was said and done, whether with the men in her life or with befuddled McGee. (Whom she greeted, almost invariably, with a cheery “Hiya, Pops!”)
Somehow she continued to keep a number of “boys” on the string and simultaneously at arm’s length (the number of phone messages she received daily was often mentioned by McGee). Alice was by no means stupid, but her sentence structure could be unconventional. “The boy that his father owns the airplane plant” is but one example of her mixed-up syntax.
—Mickey Smith, in How Fibber McGee & Molly Won World War II. (Albany, Georgia: Bear Manor Media, 2010.)
From those two shows, Mitchell would go on to forge a distinguished career in radio and television as a supporting actress. She played the shrill wife to henpecked George Appleby on The Red Skelton Show; she played Lucy Ricardo’s friend Marian Strong in I Love Lucy (most memorably in the “Lucy Tells the Truth” episode); she played neighbour Marge Thornton in the short-lived Please Don’t Eat the Daisies; and, she played a kind-of Leila Ransom relative as Kate Bradley’s cousin Mae Belle on Petticoat Junction.
Mitchall also had prominent roles in such shows as The Jack Benny Program, The Loretta Young Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Doris Day Show, Green Acres, The Odd Couple, Chico and the Man, Trapper John, M.D., Dallas, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The widow of songwriter Jay Livingston (“Mona Lisa,” “Buttons and Bows,” the Christmas classic “Silver Bells,” and television’s memorable “Theme from Bonanza”), whom she married in 1992 (she was divorced from her first husband), Mitchell may have been the last surviving adult cast regular or semi-regular on The Great Gildersleeve, Fibber McGee & Molly, and I Love Lucy alike.
LEILA RANSOM, RIP
While the town bristles with activity approaching Gildersleeve’s (Harold Peary) wedding to Leila (Shirley Mitchell), Marjorie (Lurene Tuttle) laments possibly losing her beloved uncle, Leroy (Walter Tetley) drives Uncle Mort nuts with his cackling of assorted wedding songs, Birdie (Lillian Randolph) fears his marriage means the end of her job, and Gildy decides he needs a break from the house.
What he doesn’t need is a case of cold feet accompanied by nightmares. Which leads to a surprise at the altar—for both halves of the pending couple . . .
Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Hooker: Earle Ross. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweetin. Director: Cecil Underwood. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) is enchanted by Eve Goodwin’s (Bea Benaderet) introducing him to higher culture and prospective new romance, not necessarily in that order. He’s also grounded Marjorie (Lurene Tuttle) for coming home late from a date, restored Leroy’s (Walter Tetley) piano lessons, and otherwise does whatever he can to brace for Leila (Shirley Mitchell) return to Summerfield.
Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Hooker: Earle Ross. Peavey: LeGrand. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweetin. Director: Cecil Underwood. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
Even as a romance with Eve (Bea Benaderet) seems to be beginning, however tentatively, Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) finds himself trying to reconcile himself to Leila’s (Shirley Mitchell) return, after her letter has him torn between daydreams of contentment and wariness toward another heartbreak.
But after Leila returns to her former home under mischievious Hooker’s (Earle Ross) escort, Gildersleeve gets a surprise almost as jarring as the one he got on their should-have-been wedding day.
Eve: Bea Benaderet. Marjorie: Lurene Tuttle. Leroy: Walter Tetley. Birdie: Lillian Randolph. Peavey: Richard LeGrand. Announcer: Ken Carpenter. Music: Claude Sweetin. Director: Cecil Underwood. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
Further enchanted with Eve (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 also 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.
. . . AND, RIP, ALICE DARLING . . .
The First Couple of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim & Marian Jordan) prepare to rent their spare room to a war worker on Doc’s (Arthur Q. Bryan) reference, but “Al Darling” turns out to be the daughter (Shirley Mitchell) of Doc’s longtime friend.
Uncle Dennis: Ransom Sherman. La Trivia: Gale Gordon. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
Alice (Shirley Mitchell) has the McGees (Jim & Marian Jordan) bustling to look presentable for her new boyfriend, who seems extremely nervous about the evening—especially with Alice desperate to be alone with him while McGee insists on entertaining them when a thunderstorm moves into the neighbourhood.
Beulah: Marlin Hurt. Mr. Wellington: Ransom Sherman. Mr. Richards: Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan). Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
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: 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.)
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Our Miss Brooks: Babysitting for Three (CBS, 1948)—Eve Arden, Jeff Chandler, Tommy Cook, Jane Morgan, Richard Crenna, Gloria McMillan, Sandra Gould, Bobby Ellis, Jess Philbin. Connie laments the unusual absence of a model student until she learnes he’s saddled with caring for his younger siblings with his mother hospitalised and his father working on the road. Sensitive treatment of an issue that became far more widespread with the “latchkey kids” of two decades later. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: A New Drug (NBC, 1948)—Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Robert North, Jeanine Roos, Anne Whitfield, Gale Gordon, Elliott Lewis, Walter Tetley. Stingy Willie buys the Harris children a chemistry set, which doesn’t cause Phil half the trouble Willie’s easier access to Scott and Remley’s (Elliott Lewis) suggestion to inflate his profile do. The usual madcap mayhem. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
The Halls of Ivy: The Late Student (NBC, 1951)—Ronald and Benita Colman, Vic Perrin, Paul Frees, Jerry Hausner. When the Halls’ car breaks down during a pleasant drive in the country, they run into a friendly, highly intelligent student who left Oregon to attend Ivy—where he isn’t even registered. Typically classy series entry. Writers: Milton and Barbara Merlin.
Box 13: Damsel in Distress (Mutual, 1948)—Alan Ladd, Lurene Tuttle, Betty Lou Gerson, Sylvia Picker, Edmund MacDonald, Alan Reed, Frank Lovejoy. The friend of a teenager (Betty Lou Gerson) threatened with extortion contacts Holliday instead of the police to shield her parents, who have a peculiar attitude toward their daughter. Ride it out. Writer: Russell Hughes.
The Whistler: Nightmare (CBS, 1948)—Joseph Kearns, Eve McVeigh, Marvin Miller. Police chase bank embezzler Philip Adams into a heavily foliaged maze of estates, into one of which he slips, badly injured, to be surprised in more ways than one. Cleverly played. Writers: Robert Eisenbach, Jackson Gillis.
Dr. Christian: The Steve and Charlotte Story (CBS, 1937)—Jean Hersholt, Lurene Tuttle. 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 office. Standard entry 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. Writer: Ruth Adams Knight.
Words at War: One Damn Thing After Another (NBC, 1944)—Former NBC/Los Angeles Times correspondent Tom Treanor’s (William Janney) 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 adaptaion, made all the more poignant when you heed the early announcement that 26 wartime correspondents have already died on the battlefields, with 28 more yet to join them—including Treanor himself, three months before tonight’s broadcast. Writer: Gerald Holland, based on the book by Tom Treanor.
You Are There: The Capture and Exile of Napoleon (CBS; AFRS Rebroadcast, 1948)—John Daly, Don Hollenbeck, Jackson Beck. Bonaparte kept captive aboard a British warship after Waterloo, complete with a minor uprising among ordinary folk and the pronunciation of his exile to St. Elba promising a new era for a much-bruised and dissipated France. A little over the top now and then but, considering the subject, that isn’t necessarily inappropriate. Writers: Irve Tunick, Joseph Liss, Michael Sklar.
Quiet, Please: The Evening and The Morning (ABC, 1948)—Ernest Chappell, Martin Lawrence, Bess Johnson. A condemned man who killed the woman he loves, the widow of his best friend, is brought by a jailer to the dead man’s cemetery, where he reveals the surreal reason why he killed the woman—at her behest. Chilling. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.
Information, Please: Let’s Play Post Office (NBC Blue, 1939)—Clifton Fadiman (host), Franklin P. Adams, John F. Kieran, Oscar Levant. Or, let’s play with a postmaster general—U.S. Postmaster General James Farley. Typically understated, humourous brain food.