Film put a shot of high octane fuel Bob Hope’s radio career, and just in time, too, considering his first two very lame seasons aboard CBS and NBC Blue prior to 1938. Ironically, it was a radio sub-theme that cleared the fuel line and kicked the motor over.
Ol’ Ski Nose appeared in The Big Broadcast of 1938, the fourth and last in the series that was little more than a string of radio variety shows brought to screen, albeit a fun series when all was said and done. It presented Hope as, of all things, a popular radio host trying to juggle three ex-wives and his girlfriend (played by Dorothy Lamour).
With W.C. Fields in dual roles as a shifty ocean liner owner and the twin brother he sends aboard the liner’s rival for a big race between the two, and a supporting cast including Martha Raye, Shirley Ross, and Leif Erickson, The Big Broadcast of 1938 was a hit . And Hope became its unlikely breakout star—especially when he sang his soon-to-be signature song, “Thanks for the Memory,” with fellow support player Shirley Ross.
NBC snapped up Hope for the master Red network and took a chance that he’d join Fibber McGee & Molly in giving them a Tuesday night comedy powerhouse. It was like betting maximum on a thirty-line slot machine and hitting the maximum bonus of free spins.
The doings and undoings at 79 Wistful Vista (which began the 1938-39 season without ailing Marian Jordan, leaving husband Jim and writer Don Quinn to keep the show going until her 1939 return) still owned Tuesday night, but Hope delivered just what NBC wanted. He’d finish the season third on Tuesday and tied for twelfth (with Orson Welles’s Campbell Playhouse*) on the season overall.
It provided just the beginning of a dominance between the McGees and Ol’ Ski Nose that make them Tuesday night’s one-two power punch for twelve straight seasons to come.
TUNE IN TONIGHT . . .
If only Bob Hope could have done a comparable favour for the Marx Brothers, one of whom is his signature guest tonight, at a time when they’re enjoying a remarkable film comeback.
Minus Zeppo, who’d stepped back from the troupe to become a talent agent with non-performing brother Gummo, the Marx Brothers—who’d been at a few loose ends since their Paramount Pictures contract expired with 1933′s Duck Soup—found themselves signed to MGM. They also found themselves assigned to a youthful producer, Irving Thalberg, who’d loved the troupe personally and had a master plan to bring the brothers back to film prominence.
Thalberg decided it was time to take the Marx Brothers back to the future, sort of. He reached to their roots in Broadway and vaudeville with one hand and plotted to install them into reasonably-plotted stories with his other hand. In particular, Thalberg suggested the Marxes road-test the routines that would or wouldn’t make the cut for the forthcoming A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
The plan worked. Both films were hits (though the doomed Thalberg wouldn’t live to see A Day at the Races finished and released) and re-established the Marx Brothers as one of the nation’s top comedy teams. Thalberg’s strategy didn’t just give the troupe a clever way to tighten up their films without losing their edge-of-chaos style, it enabled them to promote the films on other ways.
Say, on radio.
Say, with often-enough takes, re-takes, and re-makes of one of the films’ most fabled routines, A Day at the Races’ “Tootsie-Frootsie Ice Cream” sketch, in which Chico hustles Groucho for one after another racetrack “necessity,” usually of dubious value, while selling ice cream from a freezer pushcast.
Tonight Chico gives Ol’ Ski Nose a good tootsie-frootsieing, playing a small remake of the famous film routine, and the show is worth the listen for that alone. Not that you’ll be disappointed if you’re a fan otherwise: A lull in election returns (“There’ve been so many campaign speeches on the radio that last night I turned on my radio and it handed me a cigar”) and Chico’s attempt to hustle Rose Bowl tickets to Ol’ Ski Nose aren’t exactly disappointing themselves.
But Hope is on his way to radio dominance while the Marxes will continue their too often futile attempts to establish themselves as radio stayers. At least until a certain quiz format idea Groucho doesn’t like at first changes his career entirely, over a decade later . . .
Additional cast: Jerry Colonna. Announcer: Bill Goodwin. Music: Skinnay Ennis Orchestra, Six Hits and a Miss. Writers: Possibly Mel Shavelson, Milt Josefsberg, Norman Panama.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Great Gildersleeve: A Quiet Evening at Home (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Information, Please: Half a Quartet (quiz; NBC, 1943)
Suspense: The Bet (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
The Green Hornet: The Hornet Drops a Hint (crime drama; ABC, 1945)
Escape: Plunder of the Sun (adventure; CBS, 1949)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Cuckoo Clock (comedy; NBC, 1949)
Richard Diamond, Private Detective: Dead Man’s Letter (crime drama; NBC, 1950)
Dragnet: The Big Hit-and-Run Killer (crime drama; NBC, 1951)
The Marriage: Ben’s Shady Client (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Our Miss Brooks: The Convict (comedy; CBS, 1953)
The Six Shooter: The Return of Stacy Gault (Western; NBC, 1953)
* You weren’t seeing things, gentle reader, even if you know that it was the night before Halloween in 1938 when Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater of the Air delivered “The War of the Worlds” and, seemingly, scared the living bejabbers out of any or everyone who heard the cleverly newsy adaptation of the H.G. Wells fantasy.
After duly apologising for having provoked such an actual or alleged uproar, and humbling himself all the way to the bank, Welles got a tap on the shoulder from Campbell’s—the soup giant wanted to sponsor the program, moving it to Friday nights, and renaming it Campbell Playhouse.