9 November: The extended lives of Fibber and Molly

 

Jim & Marian Jordan, the irrepressible McGees . . . (Photo: NBC.)

Jim & Marian Jordan, the irrepressible McGees . . . (Photo: NBC.)

They were as homey in person as they sounded.

Harold Peary, their former cast member, about Jim and Marian Jordan, a.k.a. Fibber McGee & Molly.

Fibber McGee & Molly‘s “lasting charm, however,” Gerald Nachman has written of them (in Raised on Radio), “was in the unspoken but enduring affection Fibber and Molly seemed to feel toward each other despite his stubborn fulminations and her skeptical Irish nature . . . Molly forgave McGee his every illusion and self-delusion, waiting for ‘Himself’ to calm down and admit what a jerk he’d been. Surpassing all the other husband-and-wife comedy teams, perhaps including even George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly were radio’s most identifiably loving couple.”

Which may help explain a lot of why, even if the network knew classic series radio was on its deathbed by the end of the 1952-53 season, NBC was unwilling to envision life without the McGees just yet.

Jim and Marian Jordan—who played the McGees and made them the nation’s (if not the world’s) neighbours—probably only thought their 30 June 1953 episode, “The Fishing Trip,” was the final time Marian would end the broadcast with her long-familiar “G’dnight, all.” They were resistant to television despite the network’s nudges, and Marian Jordan’s health issues (she suffered a heart attack in the early 1950s as well) made it difficult for the couple to think about moving to the picture tube even if they’d wanted to do it.

NBC bought the Fibber and Molly names in 1949. The idea when we made the sale was that we were to continue pretty much as we had. Then the pressure started on us to do TV right away. But all our people and our common sense told us not to do it. After all, we were on top of the radio heap and had fine contracts—and we felt we shouldn’t do TV until it was necessary. And our doctor told us not to. If the business had been developed and refined in 1953 the way it is now, we might have started on TV. But there was too much emotional stress then. We didn’t know how to do it, and nobody else did either.

Jim Jordan, to United Press International reporter Rick DuBrow, February 1960.

 

Once upon a time, NBC did envision their Tuesday night radio dominators reaching television . . . (Photo: NBC.)

Once upon a time (specifically, in this 1944 ad), NBC did envision their Tuesday night radio dominators reaching television . . . (Photo: NBC.)

So NBC came up with another idea. Series radio itself might be terminally ill by now but Fibber McGee & Molly wasn’t. The network talked the Jordans into returning for 1953-54 practically on their own terms: a newly-streamlined, semi-serialised strip show format of fifteen minute programs that the couple could record at their complete and unpressurised convenience.

Theoretically, the Jordans could spend two or even three days a week recording the shows, then take it nice and easy the rest of the week, a semi-retirement they’d earned if anyone did. The studio audience might be missing, but the Jordans by this point could probably have done Fibber McGee & Molly in their sleep and in an empty warehouse if called for.

They’d keep such stalwarts as writer Phil Leslie (Don Quinn’s protege) and actors Arthur Q. Bryan (Dr. Gamble) and Bill Thompson (the Old-Timer, Wallace Wimpole). Marian Jordan would keep Teeny around. They might lose longtime announcer Harlow Wilcox (John Wald stepped into the job) or castmates Isabel Randolph (Mrs. Uppington) and Gale Gordon (Mayor La Trivia), but there’d be enough to keep the Wistful Vista home fires and humour burning.

The new strip version of Fibber McGee & Molly premiered 5 October 1953. It would run twice a day beginning in 1955, continuing until 577 total fifteen-minute programs were recorded and aired. And, in 1957, the Jordans tried retiring again, particularly considering Marian Jordan’s increasingly fragile health.

Once again, NBC didn’t want to lose them without another fight, but they didn’t want to tax the Jordans any further than needed. This time, they asked for, and the Jordans agreed to, a series of ten five-minute, two-person vignettes per week, to air aboard the daring weekend marathon NBC Monitor. For the next two years, the Jordans delivered an estimated thousand such vignettes, retiring again when the last of them aired first-run in 1959.

It didn’t mean the end of the Jordans on the air just yet. NBC had enough material to repeat dozens of the vignettes to enthusiastic listeners for at least two to three more years. And if not for Marian Jordan’s worsening health, Fibber McGee & Molly might have carried on aboard the Monitor weekends for several years to come.

The network finally let the couple go in 1960—United Press International’s story sub-headlined it, “T’aint Funny to McGee,” and suggested the cause may have been a combination of perceived confusion between the Jordans and the actors (Cathy Lewis, Bob Sweeney) playing the McGees on television at last, and the failure of Stardust, a radio program to which the Jordans also contributed vignettes.

But NBC still might have considered bringing the Jordans back. Assorted radio histories suggest the network re-entered negotiations with the couple for a possible Monitor return. It took Marian Jordan’s failed thirteen-month battle against cancer to put paid at last to Fibber McGee & Molly as an active, working property in 1961.

Nothing, however, put paid to the show’s genius in transcending its times and places.

 

TUNE IN TODAY . . .

Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Makes His Own Chili Sauce (NBC, 1943)

The Stewed Chef of 79 Wistful Vista (Jim Jordan) stews over breakfast at what he thinks is Lend-Lease’s depriving him of his favourite foods in general and his favourite chili sauce in particular. So, being of the think-I-can-do mind, McGee decides to to call Molly’s (Marian Jordan, who also plays Teeny) bluff and make his own.

It’s only fair to presume that Julia Child, Graham Kerr, James Beard, Wolfgang Puck, and Rachael Ray studied this kind of culinary craft as a classic example of how not to do it . . .

Doc: Arthur Q. Bryan. Alice: Shirley Mitchell. Uncle Dennis: Ransom Sherman. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.

 

Fibber McGee & Molly: Buying Teeny’s Gift at the Bon-Ton (NBC, 1953)

Teeny (Marian Jordan, who also plays Molly) is preparing for her birthday and working her usual inverted wiles to cajole a gift out of her pal Fibber (Jim Jordan), who hustles to the Bon-Ton to buy her the bell-ringing pogo stick she’s craved. Now, if only Molly can keep him from being diverted by other new playthings catching his eye.

Store Announcer: Elvia Allman. Clerk: Cliff Arquette. Announcer: John Wald. Director: Max Hutto. Writers: Phil Leslie, Ralph Goodman.

 

Fibber McGee & Molly: Molly’s Trip to Peoria (NBC, 1957)

Molly (Marian Jordan) has a little case of wanderlust and talks Fibber (Jim Jordan) into a little road trip different than the usual trip to Dugan’s Lake. Leading to an unusual suggestion for separate vacations, which unnerves Molly just a little considering they’ve never been separated, but upends McGee when his own vacation brainstorm backfires.

Director: Max Hutto. Writers: Phil Leslie, Ralph Goodman. (Note: Opening and closing music and announcements excised.)

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: Jack to Make a New Film (comedy; NBC, 1941)
The Abbott & Costello Show: Costello’s Horse, Peanut Butter (comedy; NBC, 1944
Suspense: You Were Wonderful (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1944)
Duffy’s Tavern: Eddie Quits (comedy; CBS, 1945)
Life With Luigi: Luigi Finds a Stolen Diamond Ring (comedy; CBS, 1948)
Dragnet: The Big Dive (crime drama; NBC, 1952)
Frontier Gentleman: Holiday (Western; CBS, 1958)
Gunsmoke: Target—Chester (Western; CBS, 1958)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Bob & Ray Gourmet Club, Newly Refurbished (improvisational comedy; OK, I’m stumped . . . , 1959)

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