It takes Elmer Fudd not just to step into a World War II breach on Fibber McGee & Molly seventy years ago tonight, but to instigate one of old-time radio’s most memorable in-show rivalries. All because two key cast members were leaving to go to war.
Gale Gordon as Mayor La Trivia has proven invaluable in replacing spun-off Harold Peary’s Gildersleeve as the pompous among Fibber McGee’s deflationists, though La Trivia, almost invariably, would end an encounter in a choked-blustery fuddle. And Bill Thompson, arguably the cast’s most valuable player, has held down three characters of near-equal value, if not near-equal popularity: the tall-tale-dragger Old Timer, the locquacious and half-indecipherable Nick Depopolous, and the smarmy Horatio K. Boomer.
The problem tonight is that Gordon has just hit the Coast Guard running and Thompson is on the threshold of the Navy. Which may do wonders for the war effort directly but threaten disaster at 79 Wistful Vista.
Enter Elmer. Or, Arthur Q. Bryan, the actor whose vocal performance as Elmer has been 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 had also been the physical model for Fudd’s original chunky incarnation. But Bryan has been noticed by radio producers, most of whom insisted he bring one or another Elmer variation to the microphones, until he got his first shot at working without even a hint of Elmer—with Jim and Marian Jordan themselves.
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 ties the knot between them once and for all. 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—andBryan 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.
Tonight in 1943, Bryan premiers as Dr. George Gamble (he’ll rarely be addressed by his given name), an eloquent, well-spoken, courtly man, normally. The Hippocratic Oath notwithstanding, Gamble will often leave the impression that his true mission in life, from that night until the show’s eventual demise in the late 1950s, is deflating Fibber McGee’s self-delusional ego so profoundly that the Sucker of 79 Wistful Vista seems to go down far faster than it took the hydrogen explosion to take down the Hindenburg.
Every so often there would be references to (and jokes about) 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.
Quinn, Leslie, and Bryan will be clever enough to sketch 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 work if they are terminal antagonists, any more than it would work if the show’s original pompous pretense-pricker, Gildersleeve himself, had proven nothing but a barely-neighbourly headache.
Gamble, however, won’t be spun off into his own series. Which will be just as well. He, and the actor who bring him to life, will prove more than perfect just where he is.
TUNE IN TONIGHT:
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.
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.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Milton Berle Show: Salute to Motoring (NBC, 1948)—Milton Berle, Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson, Mary Shipp, Johnny Gibson, Al Kelley, Billy Sand. 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.”
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie and Finnegan Double Date (NBC, 1949)—Ed Gardner, Charles Cantor, Hazel Shermet, Eddie Green, After Archie (Ed Gardner) wins the coin flip with Eddie 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. Classic Archieing.
Lights Out: Cat Wife (NBC, 1938)—Boris Karloff, Betty Winkler. In a macabre radio classic, a troubled marriage goes from bad to worse, when a husband bars his wife’s friends from their home but comes swiftly enough to regret dismissing her as a heartless cat—after the lady undergoes a peculiarly literal transformation. Don’t miss it.
Suspense: Fire Burn, and Cauldron Bubble (CBS, 1943)—Joseph Kearns (the Man in Black), Paul Lukas, unidentified additional cast. Opening night of Macbeth in Drury Lane is compromised for a retired, remarried actress who’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 who knew the dead actor perhaps too well. It checks the soap at the door and works.
The Clock: The Man with the Strange Trunk; a.k.a. Death Valley (ABC, 1947)—Hart McGuire, Margaret Christensen, Don Cosby, Len Bullen, Jerry Wells. An amiable traveler piques the owners of a struggling off-highway gas station who become curious and then fearful over his unusual-looking steamer trunk. Stay with it.
Frontier Gentleman: The Powder River Kid (CBS; AFRTS Rebroadcast, 1958)—John Dehner, Joseph Kearns, Paula Winslowe, Lawrence Dobkin, Barney Phillips, Robert Rudier. A seriously wounded former outlaw, who still carries a large price on his capture but lives a quiet, traveling life with his likewise reformed wife, may be dying from poisons the bullet has eroded into his system, prompting him to ask Kendall for a strange final favour. The understatement makes it work.