24 January: Fibber without Molly? T’ain’t no laughing matter, McGee

At any period during the show’s long, distinguished, and beloved life, Fibber McGee & Molly could give the impression that without Marian Jordan’s presence as honey-natured Molly—at least after the show got its first makeover and her character was smoothed just so—the show would have fallen apart, the world of Wistful Vista would have collapsed like the proverbial house of cards without her affectionate sensibility.

But according to Clair Schulz, in Fibber McGee & Molly On the Air, 1935-1959, the precise opposite turns out to have been the case:

 

The Jordans. (Photo: NBC.)

The Jordans. (Photo: NBC.)

Fibber really was the indispensable half of the team for without him there was no show. On the two occasions when Jim’s illnesses prevented him from appearing, Molly was also not present as Gildersleeve and Leroy [from The Great Gildersleeve] filled in on March 28, 1944 and the rest of the cast took over on March 27, 1951. During Marian’s long absense from 1937 to 1939, and on several occasions in later years when she did not appear, Fibber and company continued on, for the prime mover kept things moving along smoothly until she returned. Plainly put, Molly was too sensible and kindly to be funny all alone whereas impetuous, short-tempered Fibber could be a riot just talking to himself.

Molly McGee might not have been able to carry the show by herself for more than the odd episode, but I’m not entirely convinced that Schulz is entirely right. As unpretentious as their radio alter egos, the Jordans needed each other to make it work completely. Sadly underrated as comic performers even during the height of their radio careers, the Jordans were seamless together.

It does testify to Jim Jordan’s abilities that he could and did manage to carry the show from November 1937 through April 1939, when Marian Jordan dropped out of the then-rising show to recover from what was described at the time as a nervous breakdown. (Only three decades following her death of ovarian cancer would it be revealed she backed away to fight a battle with the bottle, a battle into which she fell under the pressure of raising two children while performing a rising weekly radio show and making increasing personal appearances to promote it.)

The rock-solid company of fellow Chicago-based players the Jordans built prior to Marian’s withdrawal proved imperative, as Jim Jordan worked as arduously in sustaining the show’s momentum—under the unlikely rubric of Fibber McGee & Company—as he did in shepherding his wife’s recovery. Somehow, they muddled through; a recurring entry during Marian’s absence would be her husband’s closing many a show with a short endearment toward his lady.

Somehow, too, the company compensated for the First Lady of 79 Wistful Vista’s absence by managing to pull up in fourth place on Tuesday nights for the season. Its full-season Hooper rating was 13.4, and it finished at number 21 overall on the season.

But to argue flatly that Jim Jordan was the no-questions-asked indispensable half of the team is to flatten a fact: When Marian Jordan returned, Fibber McGee & Molly was catapulted to first place on Tuesday nights. Its 17.6 Hooper snuck past Al Jolson’s 17.3 (despite Jolson’s departure the same month of Marian’s return) and helped shove Bob Hope—for whom Fibber McGee & Molly led in—to third place with a 15.4, at the beginning of Hope’s own long run as a Tuesday night powerhouse.

In the interim, the show moved to Hollywood for production. And its first full season from there, 1939-40, would show Fibber McGee & Molly the number one network program on Tuesday nights (a whopping 24.8 rating in a season during which the average Tuesday rating would be 16.0) and the third most popular show on the season as a whole, beaten only by Jack Benny’s season-leading 30.9 and the 30.7 of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy—despite the latter exercise having been cut to thirty minutes from its former Chase & Sanborn Hour presentation.

And it begins a remarkable ten-year run as one of the nation’s two most popular radio shows of any kind for the Jordans whose cumulative stock in comedy trade was an endearing, neighbourly self-mockery. Making a listener feel not that they were listening to aloof, distant comic gods but, rather, the couple next door who’d bawl you out for not dropping by for coffee for too many days.

TUNE IN TONIGHT:
Fibber McGee & Company: McGee Minds a Baby (NBC, 1938)

Tonight: All the Squire of 79 Wistful Vista wants for his evening is a good cigar and a quiet evening at home. All he’s going to get, alas, is a chance to babysit a neighbour’s (Betty Winkler) little daughter while mom has a date with the beauty parlour, and a scramble with Silly Watson (Hugh Studebaker) trying to care for the little girl without disaster. Chris Gildersleeve: Harold Peary. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, Clark Dennis. Writer: Don Quinn. (Note: Some music selections and commercial minutes edited out of recording.)

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Lux Radio Theater: Clarence (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1938)
The Great Gildersleeve: Sabotage (comedy; NBC, 1943)
Suspense: My Dear Niece (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1946)
Escape: Treasure, Inc. (adventure; CBS, 1950)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Fibber Can’t Decide Which Suit to Buy (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Family Theater: A Star for Helen (dramatic anthology; Mutual, 1951)
The Great Gildersleeve: A Shower for Marjorie (comedy; NBC, 1951)
Gunsmoke: The Old Lady (Western; CBS, 1953)
The Marriage: Getting to Know Bobby Logan (comedy; NBC, 1954)
Our Miss Brooks: Foreign Teachers (comedy; CBS; AFRTS rebroadcast, 1954)
The Six Shooter: Helen Bricker (Western; NBC, 1954)
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Duke Red Matter (Part Two; crime drama; CBS, 1956)

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