[4 April 2014]
Husband-and-wife comedy team Jim and Marian Jordan starred in one of the most popular radio shows, Fibber McGee and Molly, for over 20 years. The characters starred in three RKO films, the first of which is Look Who’s Laughing (1941) in the Lucille Ball RKO Comedy Collection. Freshly available on demand from Warner Archive is a double-feature containing the last two films, Here We Go Again (1942) and Heavenly Days (1944), both movies named after Molly’s catch-phrases. To borrow another catch-phrase, “Tain’t funny, McGee”, but these movies sure are weird.
Here We Go Again opens with the McGees at their home, 79 Wistful Vista (Wistful Vista is also the name of the town), where Fibber doesn’t seem to have any visible means of support. This film and the next one take a stab at depicting the show’s famous “closet” gag, where everything tumbles out of the closet with a clatter, but the effect of seeing some items fall out is very different from the titanic radio effect, which is half extravagant sound work and half imagination.
The film co-stars another major radio comic, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, whom the McGees meet on vacation at Silver Tip Lodge after the movie has been flipping between their plotlines. Bergen is accompanied by his uppity dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and meets dimwitted Mortimer Snerd several times. Part of this movie’s bizarreness derives from the conceit that the dummies operate independently of Bergen. They are often physically separate from him, and several shots feature the dummies doubled by Jerry Maren (most famous as a Munchkin). This creates a wacky, even eerie surrealism, and a cartoonishly nihilistic ending underlines the peculiar, take-nothing-seriously sense of humor.
As strange as it is, the film is smoothly done in accordance with the mastery of producer-director Allan Dwan. The various supporting characters and their schticks—including Gale Gordon, Harold Peary (in radio character as the blowhard Gildersleeve), Bill Thompson (also in character as Droopy-voiced Wallace Wimple), singer Ginny Simms, and bandleader Ray Noble—are all coherently integrated into the story.
On the other hand, Heavenly Days, as directed and co-written by Howard Estabrook, feels as random as a Rorschach blot. A restless consciousness of WWII informs every scene. Fibber is visited by the spirit of the fife-playing figure (himself in a dual role) from the iconic Revolutionary War painting, who encourages him to visit Molly’s cousin in Washington DC. On the train, populated by soldiers, Fibber sings in a pretty tenor with the King’s Men. On a plane, the McGees meet Dr. Gallup (Don Douglas) of the Gallup Poll, who decides to search for “the Average Man” (guess who it will be). Gallup is prominently reading The Century of the Common Man by then Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who is impersonated by an actor in the Senate scene.
The plot includes a sentimental bit with international war orphans before Fibber interrupts the Senate with a meaningless speech, catching the attention of budding reporters (including Barbara Hale, years before her gig as Perry Mason’s secretary). There’s more, with a dream sequence in there somewhere, and the message they settle on is that the Average Man needs to get wise to himself and take responsibility for voting in a democracy. The main politicians in the story (Eugene Pallette, Raymond Walburn) are unpleasant blowhards who don’t seem any more promising than McGee, who gets hailed as a populist hero. This schizophrenic spectacle feels like an artifact of its time, and is more valuable as such (and to radio fans) than as a comedy.