Turner Classic Movies, at least in its United States feed, is spending a bunch of this week showing strings of movies. Many of them were adapted from or into old-time radio shows. Let me see if I can find them all.
Tuesday evening, the 1st of May, are a bunch of Blondie movies: Blondie (1938), Blondie Meets The Boss (1939), Blondie Takes A Vacation (1939), Blondie Brings Up Baby (1939; they really cranked them out when they realized they had something back then); Blondie On A Budget (1940), and Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940). I’ve never seen any of these that I remember. They do all star Penny Singleton, whom you’ll remember as the female voice actor who wasn’t June Foray on every cartoon, 1940 – 1965. (Yes, yes, Bea Benederet. It’s hyperbole.) After the first movie, based on you know exactly what, this got turned into a radio series. That starred Singleton and Arthur Lake, a man who sounds like he should have been Allan Young but wasn’t. This is nowhere near the whole Blondie movie series, which ran until 1950 and came out with an estimated four hundred million films. Previously unsuspected Blondie movies are still being unearthed to this day, at a rate of one film every 56 hours.
After that is a bunch of Mexican Spitfire films starring Lupe Vélez, but I don’t think that was ever made into a radio series. I know nothing past the existence of the series and that I remember some people talking about someone as “a Mexican Spitfire” when I was a kid. I’m sure there’s nothing uncomfortable to see in an early-40s Hollywood film series about a temperamental Mexican woman!
Wednesday the 2nd there’s a run of Masie movies, starring Ann Southern. That’s the original Masie (1939), then Congo Masie (1940), Gold Rush Masie (1940), Masie Was A Lady (1941), Ringside Masie (1941), Maisie Gets her Man (1942), Swing Shift Masie (1943), Masie Goes To Reno (1944), Up Goes Masie (1946), and Undercover Masie (1947). Ann Sothern and the character would go on to the radio series, The Adventures Of Masie. That, as the movies, are nominally about about Masie trying to break into show business. The movies I haven’t seen but the plots cover what seems like the normal spread of 40s comedy film series topics. You know. Helping a ranch foreman beat a murder rap. Getting stranded in the African jungle. Hanging around a boxing camp. Working at the war plant. Saving a beleaguered inventor. Exposing a phony psychic. The usual.
After that Wednesday comes some films I’ve seen. The first is Look Who’s Laughing (1941). This was 1941’s much-needed crossover between Fibber McGee and Molly and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. There’s a plot for some fool reason. Fibber McGee and Molly was a proto-sitcom. There’d be some theme for the week. Each regular character would come in and do some jokes about that with Jim Jordan and Marion Jordan and then leave. Here, I don’t know, they wanted to tell enough of a story that a boring couple could have a romance. It’s got Lucille Ball. More important, Edgar Bergen’s the only ventriloquist to ever appear in a movie or TV show and have his character not be the psychotic killer, so, enjoy. (Yes, yes, Paul Winchell in the Three Stooges clip show Stop! Look! And Laugh. Hush.) If you don’t already like either big, long-running radio show I’m not sure this would sell you on them. But if you want to know what the Fibber McGee and Molly cast looks like here’s a good chance. They don’t quite look exactly right. Well, Harold Peary does. Peary was The Great Gildersleeve on radio and in here. Later on, he’d portray Big Ben, the whale with the clock in his tail on some of the crazier Rankin/Bass Frosty-and-Rudolph specials. This is why his voice sounds familiar from somewhere. You’re welcome. He also did some wild Faygo commercials in the 70s, but who didn’t?
And after that comes Here We Go Again (1942), the title one of Molly McGee’s catchphrases. It’s the second Fibber McGee and Molly crossover with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. This time they’re at a resort hotel without a lot of the regular Fibber McGee and Molly supporting players. I think the plot had something to do with the Great Gildersleeve and a super-gasoline formula that might be important to the War Effort but, you know. Just, there’s some charming stars of radio doing their business here. Nobody cares about the plot.
That leads to a bunch of movies based on The Great Gildersleeve. The character started out as Fibber McGee’s best foil, and then spun off into his own show. And one of the first fully-fledged sitcoms. Gildersleeve became a bachelor father with a couple of vaguely related kids, trying to date and deal incompetently with work. TCM’s showing the movies The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943), Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), and Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944). I think that I’ve seen the last of these. It’s about Gildersleeve’s run for mayor and the assistance he gets from a couple of ghosts. You can’t imagine you saw something like that, right?
Now, what of all that do I plan on watching? Oh, I don’t know. I’m at the point where I’m kind of glad when my talk shows and The Price Is Right go into reruns so I don’t feel like I need to catch up on those. And this is a lot of old-time-radio-branded extruded movie product. I mean, the movies (that I’ve seen) are pleasant enough. I’m not sure any of them would show off why, like, Fibber McGee and Molly was such a pop culture catchphrase factory for about twelve years there.
My personal taste is to say that Fibber McGee and Molly‘s the best of the shows. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy is reliable fun, but with a smaller cast of good characters (Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, really). The Great Gildersleeve, Masie, and Blondie are second-tier interests to me. You can, with sympathy, see why people liked them. It’s that as pioneers of sitcom conventions, a lot of their best tricks were worn down by imitators. Or done better by sitcoms that could learn from their example and their imitators. If you like the characters, and it’s really easy to like Harold Peary, Penny Singleton, or Ann Sothern, that’ll carry you through. But I have to listen to them partly in the spirit of historical appreciation.
So I’d recommend, of this, Look Who’s Laughing and Here We Go Again. Then whatever of the other series sounds most appealing. I’m inclined toward the ones that put Masie in the Congo and the Great Gildersleeve teaming up with ghosts for the potential craziness of the scenarios. If you can’t judge, go with the first in the series. Or leave them on the TV while you’re going about your business. They’ll be easy enough to drift in to and out of. If this doesn’t bring the cartoonist for Gasoline Alley out of hiding nothing will.