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Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?
That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.
Or, "Fibber and Gildy and How They Grew."
Or, "Fibber and Gildy and How They Grew."
The first OTR series I ever followed on a regular basis was "The Great Gildersleeve," as aired in Nostalgia Broadcasting Corporation reruns over my local Public Radio outlet, circa 1976. The first OTR tape I ever bought, in 1977, contained two episodes of "Fibber McGee and Molly." And I'll bet that these two programs have introduced many others to the world of Old Time Radio.
Two shows, springing from a common root -- and yet vastly different in their style. One cartoony, one realistic -- and both illustrate the two poles of radio situation comedy.
The origins of "Fibber McGee and Molly" have been well documented -- Marian and Jim Jordan were small-time midwestern vaudevillians who became established in Chicago radio in the mid-twenties, and appeared in a staggering variety of program formats thru the latter part of that decade, and on thru the early 1930s. They were highly popular with their regional audiences, but it took their collaboration with a writer by the name of Don Quinn to make them a national success -- and it is Quinn's unique comic sensibility that defined more than any other the eventual style of "Fibber."
"Fibber McGee and Molly" is often described by commentators as "vaudeville-like" in its approach to comedy, filled with fast-paced gags and exaggerated wordplay. But I'd suggest the style of the series really has less to do with vaudeville influences than those of another important entertainment medium of the era: the comic strip.
Don Quinn had been a cartoonist before moving into radio -- and it is clearly a cartoonist's sensibility which shines thru in his "Fibber" scripts. The characters themselves would have fit right in on the comic pages circa 1935 -- Fibber bears a very strong resemblance to such inept comic-strip husbands as George Bungle (of "The Bungle Family"), and his exaggerating, filibustering speech reminds one a bit of Andy Gump. More important, the construction of Quinn's scripts is very much that of a comic strip. Each episode is made up of a string of self-contained encounters with various comedy characters, all tied together by the thread of a common plot. The construction of these encounters is very much in the setup/punchline vein, and one could transcribe them to an actual comic strip form with nothing lost in the translation. Listening to "Fibber," it's very easy to visualize the program in terms of panel borders and speech balloons.
Even more evocative of the comic pages are the characters who surround Fibber and Molly. All of these supporting characters are exaggerated comic-strip "types" -- an Old Man, a Society Woman, a Henpecked Husband, a Con Man, a Grouchy Doctor, a Blustery Politician. The characters, while very amusing, seem not to exist outside the context of their weekly meeting with Fibber -- it's difficult to imagine, say, the Old Timer having a functional existence in the Real World.
In short, "Fibber McGee and Molly" is a two-dimensional series. This is *not* a criticism, nor is it a negative judgment on the quality of the program -- but it does provide an interesting vantage point from which to view its spin-off, "The Great Gildersleeve."
When the Gildersleeve character first turned up in Wistful Vista in 1938-39, he was another in Quinn's gallery of comic "types" -- a pompous windbag. He remained within the strictures of this "type" thruout his time on "Fibber," with only an occasional suggestion of inner vulnerability. But when the character left for his own series in the summer of 1941, something unusual happened. In leaving the two-dimensional borders of Wistful Vista, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve gained a third dimension. When Gildy stepped off the train in Summerfield, and took charge of realistic responsibilities like raising his niece and nephew, he stepped out of a cartoon reality, and into an existence very much like our own.
Contrasted with "Fibber's" cartoony approach, "Gildersleeve" was a show firmly grounded in the Real World. Its characters were far more textured than "Fibber's" supporting cast, and thus far more realistic. Where "Fibber" drew its laughs from setups and punchlines and absurdity, Gildersleeve's humor was much more subtle, playing off simple human foibles. And when John Whedon and Sam Moore took over the scripting of the series in 1942, the town of Summerfield itself began to come alive. The semi-serial format adopted by Whedon and Moore allowed for characters to be given remarkable depth. In listening to the "Gildersleeve" shows of the mid-forties, one gets the feeling of peeking in on short slices of reality -- and that when the show signs off for the week, it's easy to imagine the characters going on with their lives off-mike until you hear them again in the next episode. In many ways, "Gildersleeve" became the "One Man's Family" of situation comedy.
When Gildersleeve left Wistful Vista and gained that Third Dimension, it was a one way trip. The characters of Gildy and Fibber evolved along their separate paths and eventually it becomes hard to see the Wistful Vista Gildy and the Summerfield Gildy as the same person. Perhaps this evolution best explains why crossovers between the two shows were so rare: the style had become so different that it was impossible to bring the two together without compromising what made them both distinctive.
Different characters, different styles -- different worlds. But both, in their own ways, crowning achievements in the development of radio comedy.
Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org