Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Doorbell. Insult. Repeat.

More than a hall closet, was NBC’s “Fibber McGee and Molly.”

By the time the end of World War Two rolled around, the show had pretty much settled into the same routine every week. Fibber and Molly set up the story line at the start and it meandered along until its conclusion, interrupted by secondary characters who, sometimes, got into a routine that had absolutely nothing to do with the week’s plot.

Audiences didn’t mind. Don Quinn, Phil Leslie and the other writers came up with great repartee. And the characters were likeable. For a while at least. New characters came and old ones went to keep the show fresh. But by the end of the ‘40s and into the ‘50s, the new characters were more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny—Ole the Svedish janitor, the golly-gosh teenager played by Gil Stratton Jr., even Foggy the Weatherman wasn’t as strong as Gale Gordon’s earlier Mayor La Trivia. The show sputtered along during radio’s death watch, losing announcer Harlow Wilcox, Billy Mills’ Orchestra (except as recorded stock music bridges) and the studio audience.

The show was a number of hardy annuals that John Crosby reviewed for the Herald-Tribune syndicate. This was published on December 1, 1948. Crosby doesn’t do much more than describe the usual format, so those of you who haven’t heard the show will get an idea of how it went.

Radio in Review
The activities of Fibber and Molly McGee are reported for no special reason every year in this space. Periodic checkup. Heart, lungs, teeth, Hooperating. They’re not getting any younger and it’s wise to keep a stethescope [sic] on ‘em. This year. there’s a slight swelling of the metaphors (normal at this age but better be watched), blood pressure 150 (excellent), Hooperating 21.8 (And at their age!)
They’re an extremely rugged couple, Fibber and Molly, and, if they're a little set in their ways, it’s to be expected. Fibber is arguing with Molly boastfully but with superb figures of speech when the doorbell rings. Ding Dong! Doc Gamble, who is quite a lot like Fibber, walks in. They insult each other.
“I'm just cruising around talking to a few friends.”
“You’re getting fewer of ‘em every minute.”
Then, with Molly as mediator, they begin to boat and make cracks at each other about their finishing ability, their hunting ability, or anything else that happens to be under discussion. “I’ll be picking bass out of that lake like fleas off a hound dog, like a ward-heeler picking votes out of a saloon.
“Hah! When you get through beating the lake with that fly rod, you’ll whip up enough froth to shave the shoreline.”
“The fish you’ve caught in your life wouldn’t make enough chowder to wet a spoon.”
It’s a tribute to their incomparable art that Jim Jordan, who plays Fibber, Marian Jordan, who is Molly and Arthur Q. Bryan, who is Doc Gamble, can handle such without sounding like a tongue-tied sophomore in the Mount Vernon High School production of “Hamlet,” if you’ll forgive the metaphor. The language is as complicated as Winston Churchill’s, though of course it lacks the quality.
“You’re as welcome as four choruses of ‘A Tree in the Meadow’ to a cocker spaniel.”
“You dunk your crumpets with such vigor the waitresses have to wear ponchos.”
“He couldn’t hit a hamstrung heifer with a hatful of hay.”
“Them springs are tighter than a size forty girdle after a spaghetti dinner.”
“A flophouse bed gets made up oftener and better than McGee’s mind.”
“Good old Doc! I don’t know what the medical profession would do without him, but I bet they’d welcome tome suggestions.”
These outrageous metaphors are punctuated by that doorbell. After Doc Gamble gets out of sight, the Oldtimer walks in. He talks a brand of pure nonsense that can’t be reduced to print, nohow. There’s an interval of troubled domesticity between Fibber and Molly and then Billy Mills orchestra gives respite to the English language. The doorbell again. Sis, a little girl (played by Marian Jordan) of literate mind manages to get all the adults confused. You haven’t learned history until you hear Sis’s version of the pheasants storming the Bastille.
After Sis gets out of sight, the doorbell rings again and there's Mayor La Trivia. He and Fibber trade metaphors, though in general La Trivia’s figures of speech haven’t the emotional stability of Gamble’s or Fibber’s. The Mayor leaves. The King’s Men, a singing group and a good one, give the language another interval. Then Wimple, a New England type with a tyrant of a wife, strolls in. “How’s your wife.”
“Never seen her in better shape. She’s been in bed for a month.”
The Jordans have been going on in this manner since 1931 [sic] and their Hooper has never been much better.

Fibber and Molly survived, transcribed, with assistance by Arthur Q. Bryan and Bill Thompson (who would get out of show biz in 1957, only to return to voice some cartoons for Hanna-Barbera a few years later). When NBC finally gutted its radio programming schedule and created “Monitor” in 1955, Fibber and Molly found a new home. The show carried on until 1959, very much a shadow of its former self. But then, so was radio.

1 comment:

  1. Bill Thompson also returned to Disney to voice the new footage for "The Ranger of Brownstone".