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Fibber McGee and Molly

Fibber McGee and Molly was a radio show that played a major role in determining the full form of what became classic, old-time radio. The series was a pinnacle of American popular culture from its 1935 premiere until its end in 1959. One of the longest-running comedies in the history of classic radio in the United States, Fibber McGee and Molly has stood the test of time in many ways, transcending the actual or alleged limitations of its medium, form and concurrent culture.

From vaudeville to Smackout

The genesis of Fibber McGee and Molly occurred when small-time husband-and-wife vaudevillians James "Jim" and Marian Driscoll Jordan, native Illinoisans who met in church, began their third year as Chicago-area radio performers. Two of the shows they did for station WENR beginning in 1927, both written by Harry Lawrence, bore traces of what was to come and rank as one of the earliest forms of situation comedy.

In their Luke and Mirandy farm-report program, Jim played a farmer who was given to tall tales and face-saving lies for comic effect. In a weekly comedy, The Smith Family, Marian's character was an Irish wife of an American police officer. These characterizations, plus the Jordans' change from being singers/musicians to comic actors, pointed toward their future.

The Jordans teamed with Donald Quinn, an unemployed cartoonist the couple hired as their writer in 1931. For station WMAQ in Chicago, beginning in April 1931, the trio created Smackout, a 15-minute daily program which centered on a general store and its proprietor, Luke Grey (Jim Jordan), a storekeeper with a penchant for tall tales and a perpetual dearth of whatever his customers wanted: He always seemed "smack out of it." Marian Jordan portrayed both a lady named Marian and a little girl named Teeny, as well as playing musical accompaniment on piano. Smackout was picked up for national airing by the National Broadcasting Company in April 1933, and the show endured until August 1935.

A member of the S.C. Johnson company's owners, Henrietta Johnson Lewis, married to the advertising executive who handled the Johnson's Wax account, recommended that her husband, John, give the show a chance as a national program for the company.

From Smackout to Wistful Vista

If Smackout proved the Jordan-Quinn union's viability, their next creation proved immortal. Amplifying Luke Grey's tall talesmanship to braggadocio in a Midwestern layabout, Quinn developed Fibber McGee and Molly, with Jim playing the foible-prone Fibber and Marian playing his patient, common sense, honey-natured wife. The show premiered on NBC April 16, 1935, and, though it took five seasons to become an irrevocable hit, it touched a nerve with enough listeners seeking cheer amid despair. In 1935, Jim Jordan won the Burlington Liars' Club championship with a story about catching an elusive rat.

Existing in a kind of Neverland where money never came in, schemes never stayed out for very long, yet no one living or visiting went wanting, 79 Wistful Vista (the McGees' address) became the home Depression-exhausted Americans visited to remind themselves that they were not the only ones finding cheer in the middle of struggle and doing their best not to make it overt. With blowhard McGee wavering between mundane tasks and hare-brained schemes (like digging an oil well in the back yard), antagonizing as many people as possible, and patient Molly indulging his foibles before catching him lovingly as he crashed back to earth yet again, not to mention a tireless parade of neighbours and friends in and out of the quiet home, Fibber McGee and Molly built its audience steadily, but once it found the full volume of that audience in 1940 they rarely let go of it.

Marian Jordan took a protracted absence from the show in late 1938-early 1939 (as part of a lifelong battle with alcoholism, although this was attributed to "fatigue" in public statements). The show was retitled Fibber McGee and Company during this interregnum, with scripts cleverly working around Molly's absence (Fibber making a speech at a convention, etc.). Comedienne ZaSu Pitts appeared on the Fibber McGee and Company show, as did singer Donald Novis.

Recurring characters

Fibber McGee and Molly was one of the earliest radio comedies to use regular characters, nearly all of whom had recurring phrases and running gags almost equal to those of the stars. These included:

  • Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary) - the pompous next-door neighbor who Fibber enjoyed twitting and arguing with.
  • The Old-Timer (Bill Thompson) - a hard-of-hearing senior citizen with a penchant for distorting jokes, prefacing each one by saying "That ain't the way I heared it!" For no apparent reason he refers to Fibber as "Johnny" and Molly as "Daughter". A recurring joke is that he refuses to tell his real name. In one episode (01/29/1946) he finally claims that it is 'Rupert Blasingame.'
  • Teeny, also known as "Little Girl" and "Sis" (Marian Jordan) - a precocious youngster who was usually trying to cadge loose change from Fibber, and ending half her sentences with "I'm hungry!" and, especially, "I betcha!" Teeny was also known to lose track of her own conversations. When Fibber tried to show interest in what she was saying, she would seem to forget all about it. Her conversation would switch from telling about to asking about whatever it was. Then, when Fibber would repeat all she had been telling him, Teeny would reply "I know it!" in a condescending way. Her appearances were usually foreshadowed by Molly excusing herself upstairs or to the kitchen and Fibber wistfully delivering a compliment to her starting, "Ah....there goes a good kid", upon which the doorbell would ring and Teeny would appear. On rare occasions Molly and Teeny would interact.
  • Mayor LaTrivia (Gale Gordon), whose name was inspired by New York's famous mayor Fiorello La Guardia, would go from frustration to stark-raving confusion by the McGees' literal interpretations of his colloquialisms.
  • Foggy Williams (Gordon) - local weatherman and next-door neighbor to Fibber and Molly who tells fanciful stories, lets Fibber borrow his tools, takes credit or blame for the present weather conditions, and exits every scene with the line "Good day...probably."
  • Billy Mills - wisecracking leader of Billy Mills and the Orchestra, who played short instrumentals in the first half of each episode.
  • Dr. Gamble (Arthur Q. Bryan) - a local physician and surgeon with whom Fibber had a long-standing rivalry and friendship.
  • Ole Swenson (Richard LeGrand, who also played Mr. Peavey on The Great Gildersleeve) - a Swedish-born janitor at the Elks Club, always complaining that he was "joost donatin' my time!".
  • Mrs. Abigail Uppington (Isabel Randolph) - a snooty society matron whose pretensions Fibber delighted in deflating. Fibber often addressed her as "Uppy".
  • Millicent Carstairs (Bea Benaderet) - another of Wistful Vista's high society matrons, known to Fibber as "Carsty".
  • Wallace Wimple (Thompson) - a hen-pecked husband constantly dominated and physically battered by "Sweetieface," his "big ol' wife", whose real name was Cornelia, and who never appeared on the show.
  • Alice Darling (Shirley Mitchell) - a ditzy aircraft-plant worker who boarded with the McGees during the war.
  • Horatio K. Boomer (Thompson) - a con artist with a W.C. Fields-like voice and delivery.
  • Nick Depopoulous (Thompson) - a Greek-born restaurateur with a tendency toward verbal malapropisms.
  • Myrtle, also known as "Myrt" - a never-heard telephone operator that Fibber is friends with. A typical Myrt sketch started with Fibber picking up the phone and demanding, "Operator, give me number 32Oooh, is that you, Myrt? How's every little thing, Myrt?" Commonly, this was followed with Fibber relaying what Myrt was telling him to Molly, usually news about Myrt's family, and always ending with a bad pun. Myrtle made one brief on-air appearance on June 22, 1943 when she visited the McGees to wish them a good summer--the McGees did not recognize her in person.
  • Fred Nitney - Another never-heard character, Fibber's old vaudeville partner from Starved Rock, Illinois.

The most unusual character might have been the McGees' black maid, Beulah. Unlike the situation on The Jack Benny Program, where black actor Eddie Anderson played "Rochester," Beulah was voiced by a Caucasian male, Marlin Hurt. The character's usual opening line, "Somebody bawl fo' Beulah??", often provoked a stunned, screeching sort of laughter among the live studio audience; many of them, seeing the show performed for the first time in person, did not know that the actor voicing Beulah was neither black nor female, and expressed their surprise when Hurt delivered his line.

The character of Uncle Dennis (Ransom Sherman), who was the subject of a running gag (see below) and was generally never heard, did appear in a few episodes in 1943, including "Etiquette" on November 23, 1943 and "Fibber Makes His Own Chili Sauce" on November 9, 1943.

Running gags

Much of the show's humor relied on recurring gags, unseen regulars and punchlines that sometimes popped up here and there for years.

When McGee tells a bad joke, Molly usually answers with the line "T'ain't funny, McGee!" Molly's Uncle Dennis is one of the more common unseen regulars; often referred to, and sometimes heard making noise. He lives with the McGees, and is apparently an enormous alcoholic, becoming a punch line for many Fibber jokes and even the main subject of some shows in which he "disappeared."

McGee is never mentioned as having a job, a device later made equally famous by Ozzie Nelson. However, Mayor LaTrivia often offers McGee jobs at City Hall, the jobs usually sounding exciting when the duties are vaguely described, but always ending up being very mundane when the actual job is named. For instance, a job "looking in on the higher-ups at City Hall" turns out to be a window-cleaning job. Another interesting assignment was to be where McGee would need to maintain a disguise to remain deep undercover for days at a time, but as the Wistful Vista Santa Claus.

McGee, apparently, is very proud of past deeds, sometimes recalls an interesting nickname he picked up over the years. Each one of these nicknames is, as usual with Fibber, a bad pun. When someone told a man named Addison that McGee was a glib talker, McGee became known as "Ad Glib McGee." Or, when Fibber made expressions with his eyes, he was nicknamed "Eyes-a-muggin' McGee" (a play on the popular Andy Kirk swing tune "I'se A-muggin'"). From there Fibber jumps headfirst into a long, breathless and boastful description of his nickname, using an impressive amount of alliteration.

Mentioned for a time on the program was Otis Cadwallader, a schoolmate of Fibber and Molly in Peoria, Illinois, and Molly's boyfriend before McGee entered the picture. Fibber has a long-standing grudge against Otis, making him out to seem like a self-centered, overblown hack, despite seemingly everyone else seeing Cadwallader as a lovely, dashing man. Never mentioned are Otis's feelings toward Fibber, giving the impression that Fibber's grudge is one-sided. As revealed late in 1942, Fibber's anger is actually a front to keep Cadwallader away, as Fibber once borrowed money from Otis and never paid it back.

The Closet

None of the show's running gags was as memorable or enduring as The Closet---McGee's frequently opening and cacophonous closet, bric-a-brac clattering down and out and, often enough, over McGee's or Molly's heads. "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days" was the usual McGee observation once the racket subsided.

Like many such trademarks, the clattering closet began as a one-time stunt--with Molly the burial victim. But "the closet" was developed carefully, not being overused (it rarely appeared in more than two consecutive installments, though it never disappeared for the same length, either, at the height of its identification, and it rarely collapsed at exactly the same time from show to show), and it became the best-known running sound gag in American radio's classic period. Jack Benny's basement vault alarm ran a distant second. Both of these classic sound effects were performed by Ed Ludes and Virgil Rhymer, West Coast Hollywood based NBC staff sound effects creators.

Exactly what tumbled out of McGee's closet each time was never clear (except to the sound-effects man), but what signaled the end of the avalanche was always the same sound: a clear, tiny, household hand bell and McGee's inevitable postmortem. Naturally, "one of these days" never arrived. A good thing, too, in one famous instance: when a burglar (played by Bob Bruce) tied up McGee, McGee informed him cannily that the family's silver was "right through that door, bud... just yank it open, bud!" Naturally, the burglar took the bait and, naturally, he was buried in the inevitable avalanche, long enough for the police to cuff him and stuff him. On one or two episodes, including "Too Much Energy" (broadcast January 23, 1945), Fibber opened the door to the closet, only to be met with complete silence. As the audience members chuckled slightly and most likely held their breath in anticipation, Molly explained that she had cleaned the closet the day before! This was certainly not the end of the gag, though, as the closet soon became cluttered once again, leading to many more comedic disasters. In due course, "Fibber McGee's closet" entered the American vernacular as a catchphrase synonymous with household clutter.

Sponsors

Each episode also featured an appearance by announcer/pitchman Harlow Wilcox, whose job it was to weave the second ad for the sponsor into the plot without having to break the show for a real commercial. Wilcox's introductory pitch lines were usually met with groans or humorously sarcastic lines by Fibber. During the many years that the show was sponsored by Johnson Wax, Fibber nicknamed Wilcox "Waxy," due to Wilcox's constant praises of their various products. In fact, and in a style not unusual for the classic radio years, the show was typically introduced as, "The Johnson Wax Program, starring Fibber McGee and Molly." Johnson Wax sponsored the show through 1950; Pet Milk through 1952; and, until the show's final half-hour episode in mid-1953, Reynolds Aluminum. Fibber also frequently called Harlow "Harpo".

The show also used two musical numbers per episode to break the comedy routines into sections. For most of the show's run, there would be one vocal number by The King's Men (a vocal quartet: Ken Darby, Rad Robinson, Jon Dodson, and Bud Linn), and an instrumental by The Billy Mills Orchestra. For a short time in the early 1940s, Martha Tilton would sing what was formerly the instrumental.

Before and during America's involvement in World War II, references to about the war and the members of the Axis Powers were commonplace on the show. Just after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Jim Jordan, out of character, soberly ended the Fibber McGee show by inviting the studio audience to sing "America." Also commonplace were calls to action to buy defense bonds (both through announcements and subtle references written into the script), and condemnation of food and supply hoarding. Though understandably part of the backlash reaction toward the Pearl Harbor attack, some jokes about Japan certainly would be considered offensive on today's airwaves. For instance, in the episode "Fix-It McGee", aired three weeks after Pearl Harbor, Fibber tells Mayor LaTrivia his "great slogan" for the war bond campaign: "Every time you buy a bond, you slap a Jap across the pond." The term "Jap" was in common usage in virtually all American media during this period.

On the other hand, the Jordans gladly cooperated in turning the show over to a half-hour devoted entirely to patriotic music on the day of the D-Day invasion in 1944, with the couple speaking only at the opening and the closing of the broadcast. This show remains available to collectors amidst many a Fibber McGee and Molly packaging.

When the shows were broadcast overseas by the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS), all three commercials were eliminated from the program. Harlow Wilcox's middle ad was edited out, and the two advertisements at the beginning and end of the show were replaced by more musical numbers, so that the show on AFRS would have two numbers by Billy Mills and the Orchestra, and two by The King's Men.

The Jordans were experts at transforming the ethnic humor of vaudeville into more rounded comic characters, no doubt due in part to the affection felt for the famous supporting cast members who voiced these roles, including Bill Thompson (as the Old Timer and Wimple), Harold Peary (as Gildersleeve), Gale Gordon (as LaTrivia), Arthur Q. Bryan (as Dr. Gamble; Bryan also voiced Elmer Fudd for the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, which also borrowed lines from Fibber McGee and Molly from time to time), Isabel Randolph (as Mrs. Uppington), Marlin Hurt (as Beulah), and others. They were also expert at their own running gags and catch phrases, many of which entered the American vernacular: "That ain't the way I heeard it!"; "'T ain't funny, McGee!"; and "Heavenly days!" were the three best known.

Spin-offs

Fibber McGee and Molly spun two supporting characters off into their own shows. By far the most successful and popular was Harold Peary's Gildersleeve, spun into The Great Gildersleeve in 1941. This show introduced single parenthood of a sort to creative broadcasting: the pompous Gildersleeve now moved to Summerfield and raised his orphaned, spirited niece and nephew, while dividing his time between running his manufacturing business and (eventually) becoming the town water commissioner. In one episode, the McGees arrived in Summerfield for a visit with their old neighbor with hilarious results: McGee inadvertently learns Gildersleeve is engaged, and he practically needs to be chloroformed to perpetuate the secret a little longer.

Peary returned the favor in a memorable 1944 Fibber McGee & Molly episode in which neither of the title characters appeared: Jim Jordan was recovering from a bout of pneumonia (this would be written into the show the following week, when the Jordans returned), and the story line involved Gildersleeve and nephew Leroy hoping to surprise the McGees at home during a train layover in Wistful Vista, unaware the McGees had gone to meet him at the railroad station. (The Gildersleeve character was parodied in a Bugs Bunny cartoon called "Hare Conditioned", in which the rabbit distracts a menacing taxidermist by telling him that he sounds "just like that guy on the radio, the Great Gildersneeze!")

Marlin Hurt's Beulah was also spun off, leading to both a radio and television show that would eventually star Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters.

Jim and Marian Jordan themselves occasionally appeared on other programs, away from their Fibber and Molly characters. One memorable episode of Suspense ("Backseat Driver," 1951) cast the Jordans as victims of a car-jacking; Jim Jordan's tense, inner-thoughts readings were especially dramatic.

Films

The Jordans portrayed their characters in four movies. In the early years of the radio show, they were supporting characters in the 1937 Paramount film This Way, Please, starring Charles "Buddy" Rogers and Betty Grable. Once the show hit its stride, they had leading roles in the RKO Radio Pictures films Look Who's Laughing (1941), Here We Go Again (1942), and Heavenly Days (1944).

The first two RKO films are generally considered the best, as they co-star fellow radio stars Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Harold Peary also appears in both as Gildersleeve, with Arthur Q. Bryan, Bill Thompson, Harlow Wilcox, Gale Gordon, and Isabel Randolph appearing in both their show roles and as other characters. No motion picture in which Fibber McGee and Molly made an appearance has ever been released commercially on home video or DVD. "Look Who's Laughing" (1941) and "Here We Go Again" (1942) have been shown on Turner Classic Movies.

Television

An attempt at getting the McGees onto television came in 1959, on NBC, with younger actors Bob Sweeney and Cathy Lewis in the roles. The show also featured Harold Peary as Mayor LaTrivia, rather than as Gildersleeve. The show did not survive past the first season. But the Jordans themselves had resisted television far earlier. "They were trying to push us into TV and we were reluctant," Jim Jordan told an interviewer many years later. "Our friends advised us, 'Don't do it until you need to. You have this value in radio—milk it dry'."

Changes

Due in large part to Marian Jordan's periodic health problems, Fibber McGee and Molly became a 15-minute show in 1953, recorded in single sessions, the better to enable Marian Jordan to rest. The timing was sadly appropriate, as classic radio had all but entered its dying days, and such shows would become sweet memories rather than continuing hits. Still, the McGees remained a favorite presence on radio, even though reduced to short segments on the NBC radio show Monitor—under the rubric Just Molly and Me—from 1957 to 1959.

Radio historian Gerald S. Nachman has noted the Jordans were ready to renew with NBC for at least three more years when Marian's battle against cancer ended in her death in 1961. In the 1970s Jim Jordan briefly returned to acting. An episode of NBC's Chico and the Man featured a surprise appearance by Jordan, as a friendly neighborhood mechanic. Jordan also lent his voice to Disney's animated film The Rescuers (1977). He died in 1988—a year before Fibber McGee and Molly was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.

The show also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—right next to the building that once housed the NBC radio studios where the Jordans performed the show for so long. Thanks to the S.C. Johnson company's preservation of more than 700 recordings of the show they sponsored for 15 years, Fibber McGee and Molly remains as widely circulated as it is beloved even now.

Pop culture

On the NBC situation comedy NewsRadio, in the episode entitled Xmas Story, Jimmy James (played by Stephen Root) is said to own the rights to Fibber McGee and Molly, which he gives to Matthew Brock (played by Andy Dick) as a Christmas present. Given the popularity of the radio show at the time, such catchphrases as Molly's "T'ain't funny, McGee!" line appear frequently in Warner Bros. cartoon shorts from the 1930s and 1940s. In a scene from the 1973 film Paper Moon, set in the 1930s, the character of Addie is shown listening to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio. The show was frequently referenced during the "riffing" on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

References

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