Sunday, April 06, 2014

Old Time Radio Spotlight: Fibber McGee and Molly!

Fibber_and_Molly_1937Fibber McGee and Molly may well be my favorite of old time radio's situation comedies. It starred James Jordan as Fibber McGee and Marion Driscoll as Molly, Fibber's wife. There were 1,611 episodes produced, and aired from April 16, 1935 to October 2, 1959 -- that's 24 years! James and Marion were a real-life husband and wife, who met at choir practice at the Catholic church they both attended in Peoria, Illinois. Jim, as he was better known, originally wanted to be a professional singer, while Marian had opes of being a music teacher. They married in 1918, with Jim being drafted five days after their wedding, being sent to France. Apparently, Jim saw no action in World War I, instead becoming part of a military touring group. After his tour of duty, Jim and Marian decided to start a vaudeville act.

They had two children, Kathryn Jordan (born in 1920) and James Jordan (born in 1923). After the birth of their daughter, Marian went back on the road with Jim, leaving Kathryn with Jim's parents, but after James Jr. was born, she stayed home with the kids for a time. The children joined them on the road, but in 1923, they found themselves stranded in Lincoln, Illinois with the kids and no money. Their parents wired them money to get home, but after Jim went to work in a local department store, he still wanted to be in show business, and the couple went back to vaudeville.

In 1924, they were staying with Jim's brother in Chicago when, while listening to the radio, Jim said he and Marian could do better than the act on the air. His brother bet him $10 they couldn't, so the couple went to WIBO in Chicago, where they were put on the air, and after their first show, were offered a contract for a weekly show, sponsored by Oh Henry! candy. For the next six months, they appeared on the Oh Henry! Twins show, switching to station WENR by 1927. They built a home on a lot next door to the house they were renting, and in 1939, they moved to the West Coast, buying a home in Encino. During this time, Jim invested in the bottling company for Hires Root Beer!

It was during the third year performing in Chicago radio that Fibber McGee and Molly originated. The characters were variations on characters they'd earlier performed in Luke and Mirandy, where Jim played a character similar to Fibber, and The Smith Family, where Marian played a character similar to Molly. Harry Lawrence was the original writer of the show, later hiring Donald Quinn to write it. They considered Quinn's contributions important enough that the salary for the show was split between the couple and Quinn! Around this time, Marian developed her little girl voice for a character named "Tini." Along with Fibber McGee and Molly, they also started a show called Smackout, a 15-minute daily program that aired on WMAQ in Chicago from 1931 until 1933, when it was picked up by NBC for two years. The show was called Smackout because Jim's character ran a general store that never had what his customers wanted -- they were "smack out" of it.

It was when Henrietta Johnson Lewis, one of the owners of the S.C. Johnson company, suggested to her hsuband, Johnson Wax advertising manager, to try Fibber McGee and Molly on a national network that their signature show went national. The agreement gave Johnson ownership of the character names.

The show debuted on NBC on April 16, 1935, and in three seasons, it became the country's top-rated radio series. Fibber was foible-prone, and also had a habit of telling tall tales and speaking lines that were very alliterative. Molly was Fibber's patient wife who tried to keep him down to earth. In the 20th show, Fibber and Molly's home address was mentioned for the first time; 79 Wistful Vista would become one of the more famous addresses in pop culture history. They got the house by winning a raffle.

From November 1937 to April 1939, the show briefly metamorphosized to Fibber McGee and Company, as Marian Jordan took an absence from the show to deal with a lifelong battle with alcoholism. The scripts at this time were often built around Molly's absence.

The most famous recurring gag (in nearly every episode) involved the hallway closet. At some point in an episode, Fibber would realize that something he was looking for was probably in there, and despite Molly's protests, would open the door -- causing every single item to fall out. There was even one episode that revolved around cleaning up the closet! This closet became so popular that "McGee's closet" became slang terminology for any closet that was overpacked with stuff.

Regular characters on the show included Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, first introduced as a dentist, and then later he's the owner of Gildersleeve Girdles. He proved to be the most popular character of the supporting cast, played by Harold Peary, and would be spun off into his own show. Gildersleeve and McGee were friendly enemies, often engaging in arguments, which usually had Gildersleeve (whom Fibber called "Gildy") ruefully remarking, "You're a hard man, McGee." He had a wife mentioned on the show, but never heard, and this wife was dropped when he got his own show.

While the Johnson Wax Company and, later, Pet Milk, was the show's sponsor, announcer Harlow Wilcox, the announcer, would often appear in the storyline itself. Often, his interactions with the McGees would incorporate the second commercial in the program -- mostly sneaking it into the conversation, to McGee's annoyance.

The Old-Timer was played by Bill Thompson, a hard-of-hearing senior citizen who called Fibber "Johnny" and Molly "Daughter." He refuses to tell his real name, although at various times he's called "Roy," "Rupert Blasingame," "Mr. Fumble" and "Mr. Sims." When McGee tells a joke, the Old-Timer often replies, "That ain't the way I heard it," and retells the joke, usually in distorted fashion.

The Little Girl, based on the Tini character, was played by Marian, and called "Sis" by Fibber. Most often, the little girl would appear in an episode after Molly leaves the room, although sometimes the two characters would interact. She'd often make statements ending with the phrase, "I betcha!" and when food would be mentioned, she'd say, "I'm hungry!" She'd also lose track of her conversations with Fibber, requiring Fibber to reiterate the story told to him so far.

Mayor LaTrivia, played by Gale Gordon, was inspired by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. When he appeared, the usual gag involved Fibber and Molly misunderstanding a figure of speech, sparking a routine similar to those found on Abbott and Costello, and resulting in LaTrivia's getting angry at them -- once he left, it would be revealed that Fibber and Molly were just winding him up.

Foggy Williams (also played by Gordon) was a local weatherman and next-door neighbor who'd let Fibber borrow his tools, and take credit or blame for the current weather. Billy Mills was the leader of Billy Mills and the Orchestra, who played the music for the show. He'd crack wise in the show, and sometimes his interactions would make it clear that Fibber and Molly knew they were characters in a radio show!

Dr. George Gamble was played by Arthur Q. Bryan, who originated the voice of Elmer Fudd in the Warner Bros. cartoons. He and Fibber have been friends and rivals for a long time. The two would often insult each other about their weight. Ole Swenson, played by Richard LeGrand, was the janitor at the Elks Club.

Mrs. Abigail Uppington (Isabel Randolph) was a snooty society matron, called "Uppy" by Fibber, who liked to deflate her ego. Another high society matron of Wistful Vista was Mrs. Millicent Carstairs, played by Bea Bernaderet (who originated the voice of Betty Rubble).

There were several other recurring characters, such as Myrt the telephone operator (usually not heard, Fibber would recognize her voice when he'd use the phone and have a conversation with Myrt (when McGee would say, "Myrt, is that you?" Molly would usually say, "Oh, dear."). Beulah was the McGee's black maid, voiced by a Caucasian male, Marlin Hurt! Beulah was later spun off into her own series.

The running gags in the show, other than the hallway closet, included Molly's "T'aint funny, McGee!" when Fibber would tell a bad joke; Molly's Uncle Dennis who lived with the McGees and was rarely seen (Fibber constantly wanted to get rid of him); Fibber's lack of a regular job, often involving Mayor LaTrivia giving him a job at City Hall that ends up being mundane; and Fibber's tall tales involving his past deeds, leading to a punning nickname for himself.

The characters of Fibber and Molly were seen in four movies, the first one as supporting characters. In 1959, the show was brought to television, but only lasted a year.

One of the things about this show that I love is that you can tell that for all the ribbing Molly gives McGee, she clearly and dearly loves an cherishes him, and the feeling is mutual. Listening to the series, you can't really help but feel like you're listening in on friends of yours. The usual episodes don't have a whole lot in the way of a plot (honestly, some of the show's plots seem almost shoehorned in between the gags), and this makes the show feel much more real to me than many other radio sitcoms (and especially TV sitcoms). Sometimes, the plots could be extended over several episodes, such as when the McGees go on a vacation trip. During these episodes, you wouldn't get the regular recurring characters, naturally.

You can listen to the show for yourself by downloading MP3s, such as from this site, which has them sorted by year (a great way to get into the show). You can also listen to the show and find out much more about all the characters by going to the "official" website, www.fibbermcgeeandmolly.com.

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