14 November: Waxing wartime

Fibber & Molly up to their necks in Johnson's wax products. (Photo: S.C. Johnson.)

Fibber & Molly up to their necks in Johnson’s wax products. (Photo: S.C. Johnson.)

Fibber McGee & Molly has been remarkably effective in putting over wartime issue stories other comedies often stumble to deliver, largely because the first couple of 79 Wistful Vista and their master writer Don Quinn avoid lapses into blatant propaganda. And, with the full consent and support of their sponsor.

S.C. Johnson “avoided the blatant use of . . . ‘brag’ commercials in which the sponsor boasted of the significant contribution of a single product to victory by America,” Mickey Smith would write, decades later, in How Fibber McGee & Molly Won World War II. “There were references to the use of waxes in various ways by the military. More often the listeners were reminded of ways in which their use of this product was consistent with the war effort.”

Listen carefully enough, however, and you can hear between every word and line from the McGees and their usual partners in mirth the sober resignation to the thought that, as the bellettrist Albert Jay Nock would phrase it in a letter to a friend, “you are not going to stop war until you change man.”

The wax company didn’t stop with the McGees, either.

Treanor's account gets a Words at War interpretation just months after the author's death.

Treanor’s account gets a Words at War interpretation just three months after the author’s death.

Words at War, to become a well-regarded NBC drama adapting contemporary war themed books for radio, once limped along as a sustainer until it caught the ear of Jack Louis, who represented the agency handling Johnson and other sponsors. Louis convinced Johnson to take a chance on Words at War as the McGees’ summer replacement in 1943.

It paid off. Words at War became a critical hit in its time, lasting until World War II ended. John Dunning, in On the Air, would praise it for “hit[ting] the air with a punch that no post-war ‘now it can be told’ rehash could ever match.” Which proves to have been quite an accomplishment for the man who eventually provokes Johnson’s Wax to end its fifteen-year relationship with Fibber McGee & Molly in 1950.

Louis didn’t do it solely because of stars Jim and Marian Jordan’s reluctance to move to television. Smith would discover Louis “became disenchanted with the level of comedy provided.” If that’s true, it must be one of the most appalling mis-judgments in broadcast history.

The McGees still had life aplenty yet to live. They’d hang in admirably during network radio’s dying decade, stopped only by Marian Jordan’s eventual losing battle with cancer. Pet Milk would pick up Fibber McGee & Molly for 1950-51 and stay until 1952-53, when Reynolds Aluminum sponsors the show’s final season of weekly half-hour comedy.

Perhaps Louis came to believe the McGees sounded just a little too quaint and out-of-time to the ears of smugger-than-thou listeners now seduced to television. But decades removed from their radio lives, they would sound to generations yet to come exactly as Dunning would describe: “two ordinary people from the heartland, through tenacity and hard work, climbed to the heights and showed the Hollywood insiders how radio should be done.”

The good news would prove to be that Johnson’s, Pet, and Reynolds wouldn’t make a second mistake. The three sponsors preserved over seven hundred Fibber McGee & Molly broadcasts, intact. Thanks to that foresight, listeners who aren’t even born when Jim Jordan himself will die in 1988 can hear, even in the topicality of the wartime storylines and messages, how far beyond their and just about any time Fibber McGee & Molly will prove to be.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Words at War: One Damn Thing After Another (NBC, 1944)

Former NBC and 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.

It’s made all the more poignant when you heed the early episode announcement that 26 wartime correspondents have already died on the battlefields, with 28 more yet to join them, from United Press International correspondent Webb Miller in 1940 (during the London Blitz) to Ernie Pyle, the legendary Scripps-Howard correspondent (on the Pacific island le Shima) in 1945.

And, that Treanor himself was one such casualty, three months before tonight’s broadcast—an Anzio survivor, Treanor didn’t survive a tank running over his jeep 18 August 1944. The cruel irony: Treanor often wrote affectionately as well as respectfully of tank crews during the way.

Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Jack Costello. Music: William Meter. Director: Anton M. Leader. Writer: Gerald Holland, based on the book by Tom Treanor.

Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Attends Night School; a.k.a. Fibber and Molly Fight Inflation (NBC, 14 November 1944)

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 Gamble: 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 . . .

Dr. Christian: The Steve and Charlotte Story (crime drama; CBS, 1937)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Traffic Ticket (NBC, 1939)
Information, Please: Let’s Play Post Office (quiz; NBC Blue, 1939)
Box 13: Damsel in Distress (crime drama; Mutual, 1948)
Our Miss Brooks: Babysitting for Three (comedy; CBS, 1948)
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: A New Drug (comedy; NBC, 1948)
Quiet, Please: The Evening and The Morning (fantasy; ABC, 1948)
The Whistler: Nightmare (CBS, 1948)
You Are There: The Capture and Exile of Napoleon (CBS; AFRS Rebroadcast, 1948)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The One Hundred Thousand Dollar Stamp (NBC, 1950)
The Halls of Ivy: The Late Student (comedy; NBC, 1951)

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