Fibber And Molly’s Lasting Appeal

Twenty four years is a long time to do anything, especially to have America come visit you at home every Tuesday night. That is just what Jim and Marian Jordan did from April 1935 until Sept 6, 1959, playing the beloved Fibber McGee and Molly.

In the TV world, a show that lasts more than four seasons is considered a classic. The characters on such a classic will have evolved dramatically in that time, but the Fibber who was still getting laughs at the twilight of his career on NBC’s Monitor had not changed all that much from the Fibber who drove his jalopy to the seashore on April 16, 1935.

As much as any situation comedy, Fibber McGee and Molly found a workable formula and pretty much stuck with it. Some of those elements changed in the later years of the run, which reflected the real lives of the players. The successful formula took a while to be fully developed, but when it did come together, it was one of the most successful in radio.

For the audience, the foundation of that success was Fibber and Molly themselves, played by real life couple Jim and Marian Jordan. A marriage bond as strong as the one enjoyed by the Jordans, especially in the pressure cooker world of show business, will strike us as exceptional today. Jim and Marian’s success, both in marriage and show business, are reflections of their mid-western values.

As important as the characters and the actors who play them are to the success of a comedy program, they would not last without great scripts to work from. This was important enough that from the beginning the fees paid for Fibber McGee and Molly were split three ways- a share apiece for Jim and Marion, and the third full share for their writer, Don Quinn. Quinn was not the most disciplined of writers; often he would wait until the last minute before actually writing the script, and in the final hours would lock himself in his office with a typewriter, a big plate of sandwiches, a big pot of coffee and two cartons of cigarettes. What emerged was usually comic genius, rarely in need of revision.

For most of the years Fibber and Molly were on the radio, the program stuck to a regular framework in its half hour format. The show never forgot that Johnson’s Wax was paying the bills. To that end, Quinn became a genius at working the sponsor’s plug into the storyline. Announcer Harlow Wilcox became more than the guy who introduced the show and read the commercials, he was an important character who always had a comment for Fibber’s foible of the week. For Fibber’s part, he was always amazed at Wilcox’s ability to sneak a plug for the Wax Company into any conversation, and commiserated with the audience who knew the commercial was coming.

Fibber McGee and Molly followed a format that lent itself to running gags. Some of these were the supporting characters themselves, most of whom could get a laugh just by walking up to the microphone. These included Mr. Old Timer, whose amazing powers never quite matched his aged persona, Wallace Wimple who lived in constant fear of his wife, Mayor LaTrivia who Fibber would reduce from civility to a near nervous breakdown on a regular basis, and pompous neighbor Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve who proved popular enough to get his own show. Another spinoff from Fibber and Molly was Beulah, who started as the McGee’s maid; Beulah always got a laugh in the studio, not just for her character, but because she was played by a white male actor.

Fibber McGee and Molly are more than a reflection of a simpler time. They were part of a world which never existed but which we all know as well as we know our own home town. How else could Fibber have gone 24 years with no job other than town busy-body? The time we spend in Wistful Vista is more than a visit home, it is a time to laugh and forget about the trouble of the real world.

 

Murder By Experts: Origins of a Classic Old Time Radio Show

Murder By Experts was a commercial. By itself, that is not a bad thing. After all, radio itself was built as a means of marketing. The empires of the huge networks were based on selling things. So the last thing on my mind is to berate Experts for being a commercial. In fact, the purpose of this post is to praise it for being such a subtle, yet effective one.

screamPart of the subtlety came from the fact that Murder By Experts was broadcast over the Mutual Network. NBC and CBS programs were more disciplined, in that they usually had sponsors of their own, or they were sustained by the network until they could find a sponsor. Many Mutual programs were syndicated, meaning that the local broadcaster would insert the local commercials. Because they were syndicated, Mutual programs had to be good enough to sell themselves to the local stations. A show on another network may have been written to appeal to the audience in the big eastern cities, but it was still heard by affiliates in the rural Midwest.

There was little worry about the appeal of Murder By Experts. It was put together by one of the most successful writing teams in radio, David Kogan and Robert A. Arthur. Kogan had grown up on radio drama and pulp fiction stories, and wanted to create stories of his own. While attending class in writing for radio at Columbia University, he met Arthur. Arthur was a world traveler, having grown up in an Army family, had a master’s degree in journalism, and a compulsive need to tell stories. The pair began collaborating on programs for Mutual affiliate WOR.

Ellery_Queen_NYWTSTheir first effort was Dark Destiny, which set their working relationship. Generally, they would begin with a brainstorming session where plotting and characters would be developed. One partner or the other then sat before the typewriter and put the script together, and Kogan would usually finish by directing the show. After Dark Destiny, the duo went on to create their signature program, The Mysterious Traveler, and they also worked on The Sealed Book, Master Detective, Nick Carter and others.

Murder By Experts was a departure for the writing team, but that was the ingenious subtlety of the program. Rather than inventing new plots, they would adapt the recommendation of an “expert”, another writer of thriller fiction. The subtlety was that each program would gain attention for three different mystery writers. The first would be the show’s host, John Dickson Carr. By the time of the broadcasts, Carr was already a well recognized name in the Mystery fiction game, but his latest project got a nice plug in each episode (the same would be true of his replacement, Brett Halliday after Carr left the series in mid-1950).

CN 012464Along with the host, the guest “expert” would get a plug for his latest story as well as giving a plug to the author whose tale was presented in that episode. With their own success seemingly in hand, Kogan and Arthur were willing to do what they could to help other writers to make a living. In fact, it may have led to their demise. Murder By Experts is included in the list of victims of McCarthyism; Kogan and Arthur were involved in the Radio Writers Guild, a labor union which fell under the spotlight of the House Un-American Activities Committee. By then, Experts was already the victim of Mutual’s lack of sponsor support.

Good Night Lauren Bacall

She was only 19 when she turned what could have been a rather mediocre film into one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic classics. The film was also the starting point for one of Hollywood’s greatest romances. It also launched the career of a young woman who would become one of the biggest stars of all time.
When Lauren Bacall asked Humphrey Bogart “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow” audiences fell in love. Of course, so did Bogie. Bogart was trapped in an unhappy marriage to Mayo Methot. Methot and Bogie enabled one another’s alcoholism, but Mayo was a mean and violent drunk. The couple were nicknamed the Battling Bogarts. By the time Bacall came along, Bogart had enough, and divorcing Methot and starting a relationship with a girl 26 years his junior was the most natural thing in the world.

Humphrey-Bogart-and-Lauren-Bacall-on-their-wedding-day-May-21-1945-01Born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, Bacall became very close to her mother after her parents divorced. Her mother began using her maiden name and put her daughter through private school while working as a secretary. Betty often played hookie to to watch her idol, Bette Davis, at the movies. She took acting lessons and worked as a theater usher, but had better luck as a fashion model.
Howard Hawks’ wife saw a small picture of Betty in a magazine, and insisted that the director give her a screen test. Hawks’ secretary sent her a ticket to Hollywood by accident (her instructions were to find out more about the model), and Hawks put her in To Have and To Have Not (1944).
During the screen test, Betty was so nervous that the only way she could keep from trembling was to tuck her chin to her chest and tilt her eyes up toward the camera. This became “the Look”, Lauren Bacall’s trademark. Hawks changed her name to Lauren, and the nicknames “Steve” and “Slim”, those of Hawks and his wife, were used by the characters in the film.
Married to Bogie, Lauren Bacall became “den mother” to the Holmby Hills Rat Pack. Bogie was smitten with his glamorous young wife, who inspired him during one of the richest periods of his career. The couple starred in a number of classic films together. Betty joined Bogie in Africa while he was filming The African Queen (1951), where they became good friends with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

Bold Venture Radio Show starring Bacall and Bogart

Upon their return from Africa, the Bogarts went to work taping the syndicated radio program Bold Venture. A recording studio was set up in their home, and profits from the project were earmarked for their son’s trust fund. The characters and situations of Bold Venture were loosely based on some of their most popular movie roles, especially To Have and Have Not and Casablanca where Bogie played a fiercely independent American hotel owner.
After Bogie passed away, Bacall was briefly engaged to Rat Pack leader Frank Sinatra. She was married to Jason Robards (Lauren Bacall is the only Oscar winner to have been married to two other Oscar Winners). She also starred in several pictures, including The Shootist (1976), John Wayne‘s last picture (Wayne and Bacall became great friend despite their “significant political differences”). In 1999, the American Film Institute selected Lauren Bacall as one of the 25 most significant female movie stars in history.
Ms. Bacall kept a residence at the Dakota on Manhattan’s Upper West Side since the early Sixties. Her passing on August 12, 2014, was announced on a Twitter message from the Bogart Estate. She was 89.
Good Night Lauren Bacall, say Hi to Bogie for us.

Enjoy this 1952 broadcast of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appearing on Bing Crosby’s variety show: http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Bing-520213-094-Humphrey-Bogart-and-Lauren-Bacall-OTRCAT.com.mp3