Wednesday, 9 November 2016

John Crosby's First Radio Review

Radio and television of the 1940s and ‘50s needed someone to tell it the Golden Days weren’t always so golden. That someone, at least in the minds of many, was John Crosby.

Crosby was handed a radio column by the New York Herald Tribune, which did him the great favour of syndicating it across North America. Newspapers generally ran a “radio highlights” column and may have had PR chatter about some radio stars in gossip columns. Crosby was different. He had a standard that he thought radio should meet and when it didn’t, he didn’t mince words about it. Readers (many, at least) found him refreshing. Editors found him quotable and his quips would end up on the editorial pages. Crosby moved seamlessly into the TV age.

I admit I haven’t researched when Crosby’s column ceased; the Herald Tribune stopped publication in 1962 and had two other TV editors by the time it shut down. But I can tell you his first column appeared on May 6, 1946.

In it, Crosby talks about a show that’s forgotten today. Forever Ernest only ran from April 29 to July 22, 1946 as a summer replacement for Vox Pop. It was sponsored by Bromo-Seltzer. It sounded like the sponsor needed one after listening to an episode. It gave up on Jackie Coogan’s show and put its money behind Inner Sanctum instead. “Duke” mentioned in Crosby’s review was played by Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Elmer Fudd. The girl was Lurene Tuttle, one of radio’s most in-demand actresses.

The other sitcom he talks about starred one of Vancouver’s gifts to old-time radio: Alan Young. And considering how much he liked the character, it’s interesting Crosby doesn’t identify the actor who plays Hubert Updike on Young’s show. As radio fans likely know, it was Jim Backus, using the voice he later gave to Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. The show also benefitted from the talents of Kenny Delmar and Parker Fennelly. The sponsor hated their characters, a loud-mouthed politician and a farmer from New England, so they were kicked off the show. Fred Allen, knowing talent and comedy when he heard it, grabbed them and turned them into Senator Claghorn and Titus Moody. The rest is history. (The sponsor, incidentally, was Bristol Myers, makers of Sal Hepatica). Over the years, Young had a number of different shows on radio and TV, playing earnest young men inexplicably getting into uncomfortable or improbable situations. One of them involved a talking horse. You know the show.

[Mr. Crosby begins today a column of comment on radio programs which will appear Monday through Friday each week.]
In the Footsteps of Harold Lloyd
In the mid-1920s Harold Lloyd earned a respectable fortune with a screen characterization that became almost as standardized as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. Over and over again, to the delight of his millions of fans, Mr. Lloyd played the part of a wide-eyed, timid, awkward but lovable youth who blundered into preposterous situations that didn’t fit her personality. Therein lay the laughs. At the end, of course, Mr. Lloyd always landed somewhat precariously on his feet with the girl in his arms.
Radio, which, after all, is only half the age of the movies, has rediscovered this formula and plunged into it with the enthusiasm of a bobby-soxer hearing the “Liebestod” for the first time. Latest performer to work the old vein is Jackie Coogan, who was starring in pictures just about the time Mr. Lloyd was hanging from that clock in “Safety Last.”
* * *
In his new program entitled “Forever Ernest”, (WABC 8 p. m. Mondays) which started last week, Mr. Coogan plays a lovelorn soda jerk of such fragility that his girl knocks him cold with a single, accidental punch. For half an hour, he stumbles all over his own feet but at the end he has the gangsters covered when the police burst in.
“Stop biting my finger nails,” Mr. Coogan tells his smoothie friend Duke who gets him into all these difficulties.
“She’s really not a girl. She’s more of a blonde.”
Those two lines exemplify the comedy which was fairly sparse the night the program started. In its opening episode the writers have endeavored to mix comedy and melodrama and wound up with a hash which wasn’t either one or the other. Each of these episodes, I take it, will be complete in themselves, and if you’re interested you can tune in tonight.
* * *
However, my advice is to wait until Friday night and to listen to the Alan Young show (WJZ, 9 o’clock), where the Harold Lloyd pattern is utilized far more skillfully. Mr. Young is a twenty-eight-year-old Canadian-born comedian who won a name for himself in his native country before coming to the United States in 1944.
He plays Mr. Lloyd’s old role with a broad wink at the audience which, in this atomic age, it badly needs. The whole program, in fact, kids itself unmercilessly. Mr. Young engages in a running feud with a character named Hubert Updike, a rich boy with a Harvard accent and a Cadillac, who attempts to lure Alan’s girl away with his pretty promises and says “Gloat! Gloat! Gloat!” when he thinks he has succeeded. The show is considerably enriched by the presence of Jean Gillespie, a very clever comedienne indeed. When I listened she was going Hollywood with a feminine intensity that I found very amusing.
“I’ll throw myself into the reservoir,” says Alan, who disapproves of this Hollywood business.
“I don’t care.”
“Do you realize you have to drink that water?”
* * *
It’s that sort of comedy and much of it is pretty funny. As you’ll readily recognize, this ground has been spaded before, but Mr. Young’s writers have, as it were, refertilized it with great ingenuity. I have only two objections to the show I heard. One was a Jane Russell joke of questionable taste. The other was the fact that George Jessel, that tireless guest star, somehow got mixed up in the festivities and dampened them considerably.
I hope Mr. Young steers clear of Miss Russell in the future. As for Mr. Jessel, I don’t imagine he’ll be around again for some time, at least on the Young show. You can’t really avoid Mr. Jessel entirely unless you turn the radio off.
Later in the week, Crosby tackled windfall giveaways to people with pathetic stories, The Theatre Guild of the Air, Mr. District Attorney, and shows with breathless teenaged girls. He ended with a rave about Fred Allen’s “Mr. and Mrs. Morning Show” parody with Tallulah Bankhead, one of Allen’s all-time great sketches. We’ll try to transcribe that one.

I enjoy Crosby’s columns and agree with much of what he has to say. A number have been posted on the blog already. When I find time, I’ll put up a few more.

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