What Mr. Chase doesn’t know about comedy, Mr. Sanborn doesn’t know, either. But Standard Brands, NBC, and enough of the country will learn soon enough after tonight’s Chase & Sanborn Hour.
Arch Oboler won’t be a name remembered much for comedy, if at all. He’ll be remembered as the brains that succeeded mastermind Wyllis Cooper in producing and delivering perhaps radio’s most incandescent horror exercise, Lights Out. But when he dips into comedy there are those who wish his lights were out.
His silly but delightful parody of the Garden of Eden story isn’t particularly hazardous to the nation’s moral health when seen merely on paper. But then Mae West gets hold of it as tonight’s guest. It is not for nothing that people say Dame Mae could read the telephone book and make it sound like conscious seduction.
Playing Eve opposite Don Ameche’s Adam, West assures the headaches will begin even if the studio guffaws were expected and welcome. Because Sunday night radio in this time and place is not exactly where many listeners think it’s appropriate to mock the Garden of Eden or the fallen Adam and Eve, never mind turning it into a steam pit in which Eve flips the tables and charms the snake.
They also think it isn’t exactly a bright idea for West to engage Edgar Bergen’s wooden alter-ego Charlie McCarthy in a slightly bawdy routine of their own, considering that for all his affected sophistication McCarthy’s character is still just a young boy.
The clergy flips, period, led by the Legion of Decency. Founded in 1935, the Legion is the creation of the Roman Catholic Church, tasked to enlist other religious organisations in opposing indecency on the airwaves as well as on film, its primary target. The National Council of Catholic Women weighs in as well, threatening to launch a boycott of Standard Brands.
But where the Legion might merely protest and lead a flood of protests to NBC, the Women’s National Radio Committee will get probably the most telling shot off at the program. “The home is our last bulwark against the modern over-emphasis on sensuality,” the committee howled, “and we cannot see why Miss West and others of her ilk should be permitted to pollute its precincts with shady stories, foul obscenity, smutty suggestiveness, and horrible blasphemy.”
Finally, the Federal Communications Commission—which is swamped somewhat with indignation over the broadcast, and which is investigating NBC over it—took no explicit action against the network. But as Colby Quarterly would recall decades later, it warned NBC toward regulating its programming the better to soothe affiliates around the country whose listeners seem to form the bulk of the protests.
Expecting NBC to “insure against features that are suggestive, vulgar, immoral or of such other character as may be offensive to the great mass of right-thinking, clean-minded American citizens,” the FCC endorsed selfregulation, as well as the networks’ assumption that a universal standard of “good taste” could be determined in program content oversight. This presumption of a cultural consensus operated to validate the ethical demands of the moral reformers and religious organizations and rejected or marginalized those Americans who longed for radio to broaden its discursive horizons. It therefore navigated radio towards reaffirming program standards that supported a more conservative and intolerant social, cultural, and industrial order.
Seventy-eight years later, it will be difficult to believe the sketch left West guilty of anything more than provoking a few none-too-guilty laughs. (It may be easier to believe that, in that time and place, it wasn’t quite as acceptable for a woman to drop a few bawdy double- or triple-entendres on radio as for many a male comedian such as Fred Allen, Bob Hope, or Jack Benny.) If anything, it will be easier to imagine Howard Stern denouncing the script as classic American sexual repression.
But let the record show that two weeks after the West hoopla, The Chase & Sanborn Hour will become a ratings blockbuster, finishing the 1937-38 season as the number one Sunday night show. Its 32.1 Hooper rating will be more than double the average Hooper on the night, and it’ll be good enough to make the show the number one radio program of the season overall.
Additional cast: Nelson Eddy, Dorothy Lamour, Clarence Stroud. Music: Robert Armbruster Orchestra. Announcer: Ken Niles. Additional writers: Alan Smith, possibly Carroll Carroll.
Additional Feature: A trilogy from Wistful Vista
Fibber McGee & Molly: Quiz Show Smokes for Folks (NBC, 1944)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Shirley Mitchell, Arthur Q. Bryan, Marlin Hurt, Harlow Wilcox. First, our man McGee kvetches about a mistake on his bank statement, never mind that the bank made the mistake in his favour, which figures; then, he prepares to go on a radio quiz, with Teeny, of all people, testing him before air time. Child’s play? Writers: Don Quinn, Phil Leslie.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Buying Christmas Cards at Kremer’s (NBC, 1954)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Bill Thompson, Natalie Masters, Ken Christy, Arthur Q. Bryan. The McGees run into Wimpole at the drugstore, and he tells them his sister can give them a good break on the Christmas cards she sells—unaware of who produces some of them. Bingle jells, futhermucker! Writer: Phil Leslie.
Fibber McGee & Molly: A Gift for Doc Gamble (NBC, 1955)—Jim and Marian Jordan, Arthur Q. Bryan, Lawrence Dobkin, Elvia Allman, Jack Moyles. Continuing Christmas shopping in the middle of a busy Bon-Ton, the McGees ponder a gift for Doc Gamble, but the Sport of 79 Wistful Vista insists on spending two dollars less than the doctor spends on them . . . to even things out from last year. This is also called checking the unbalanced. Writer: Phil Leslie.
Further Channel Surfing . . .