Oh, Throckmorton! Counting Bad Days With "The Great Gildersleeve"

Michael Barrett

Gildy's continual laughs, hums, grumbles, yips, and sighs draw his voice from the silky and obsequious into annoyed growls in the new collection from Warner Video.

The Great Gildersleeve Movie Collection

Director: Gordon Douglas, Tim Whelan
Cast: Harold Peary
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1942-44
US Release Date: 2013-01-29

"This is one of my ba-a-ad days." This lament is frequently moaned by Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Harold Peary), a blowhard who gets into one scrape after another. First introduced as an obnoxious supporting character on radio's Fibber McGee and Molly, he soon bagged a long-running spin-off, The Great Gildersleeve. At one point, Gildy mania supported a series of B comedies from RKO Studios, here collected on a two-disc set from Warner Archive's on-demand service. Old-time radio nostalgics have surely been clamoring for it, if nobody else.

Gildersleeve lives in the bland town of Summerfield (having moved away from McGee's bland town of Wistful Vista), and takes care of his late brother's children. If he's got a job, the movies never mention it. (On radio, he was the water commissioner after a stint as businessman.) Gildy's continual vocalizations -- laughs, hums, grumbles, yips and sighs -- draw his voice from the silky and obsequious into annoyed growls. Beset by his scheming nephew, he often cries "Oh LEE-roy!" and mutters "I've got to do something about that kid." The movies use his rotund appearance for fatboy slapstick and pratfalls.

Bobby-soxer niece Marjorie is played by Nancy Gates in the first two films, then Margaret Landry, and finally Margie Stewart. Her little brother Leroy, a hep child fond of phrases like "Oh, brother" is played by an actual child, Freddie Mercer; on radio it was high-voiced Walter Tetley, best known today as Sherman in the Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoons. Reprising her radio role is Lillian Randolph as Birdie, the happy black maid who tosses off the odd malapropism as per stereotype. Also carried over from radio in the last three films is Richard LeGrand as Mr. Peavey, a druggist with a slow, whining voice whose catch-phrase is "Well now, I wouldn't say that."

It would be a pleasure to report the joys of vintage comedy, but Gildersleeve and his comrades aren't intrinsically funny, at least in these films produced by Herman Schlom and directed by Gordon Douglas. The wacky plots are mostly well-constructed and sometimes very cleverly conceived, but they're still working with basically dull or bothersome characters.

In The Great Gildersleeve (1942), Gildy dodges a plain if predatory spinster (Mary Field) whose brother is Judge Hooker (Charles Arnt), Gildy's nemesis. It features people falling off a roof and pranking the visiting governor (Thurston Hall). Jane Darwell, only a couple of years after picking up an Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath, co-stars in this trifle and the next as Aunt Emma. The script was written by Jack Townley and Julien Josephson, and while it's par for the former's career in B comedies, it seems a decline for the latter, who wrote important A-list projects in the '20s and '30s.

Townley's script for Gildersleeve's Bad Day (1943) gets wackier (and better) as Gildy is the lone hold-out on a jury, again under Judge Hooker, and mixes with a trio of robbers (Douglas Fowley, Frank Jenks, and Alan Carney). For increasingly complicated reasons, an explosion leaves Gildy running around town in his underwear. At one point, he sneaks into bed with one long-suffering newlywed (Grant Withers), whose honeymoon has been delayed endlessly by Gildy's antics.

These are only mildly risqué elements, but hey, there was a war on. References to the war effort pop up all over. Barbara Hale, who later played Perry Mason's secretary, is one of the local girls in a fundraising drive. Hale also appears in the next film, selling nylons in New York.

This installment could be considered a parody of 12 Angry Men, had that drama been written yet. It can still be perceived as satire, thanks to its multiple ironies. Everyone believes that the defendant is guilty except Gildersleeve, who's wrong. Yet his points about circumstantial evidence and the failure to prove guilt are correct, even though his logic happens to acquit a guilty man. Gildy behaves obstructively as if aware of the bad guys' offer to bribe him, yet he's acting without that knowledge, and ends up looking guilty while being innocent. Meanwhile, their belief that he's doing their bidding triggers a further robbery to pay him off. It's ingenious when you think about it.

Writer Robert E. Kent, entrusted with the final two entries, is responsible for both the best and the worst movies in the collection. The high point, Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943), makes the wise choice of getting Gildy out of Summerfield. On a trip to New York, he somehow juggles three women: a hometown fiancée (Ann Doran), a gold digger (Claire Carlton), and a breezily crazy heiress (Billie Burke in fine form) whose brother (Hobart Cavanaugh) likes to play William Tell.

This is the kind of nonsensical free-for-all where it's par to find Jack Norton, as his perennial tuxedoed drunk, stroll by on a window ledge. It even finds room for radio's Tetley, not as Leroy but a saucy bellboy, while accented and angular Leonid Kinskey is a window washer impressed by Gildy's prowess. A surprising running gag is the implication that Gildy and Peavey are an item, from taking the honeymoon suite and dancing together, to dressing Peavey in drag to masquerade as Gildy's wife! Somewhere up on its ledge or its penthouse suite, this one achieves dizzying heights of absurdity unequalled in the other entries.

All of which make Gildersleeve's Ghost (1944), a parody of old dark house spookery crossed with the excellent The Invisible Woman (1941), quite a comdown. The main attraction here is the very competent special effects by Vernon L. Walker and, according to online research, a gorilla suit used in The Monster and the Girl (1941) (and the same gorilla actor, the pioneering Charles Gemora).

The story opens with Peary playing the ghosts of two ancestors, who rise from their graves and take it into their see-through heads to help Gildy's campaign for police commissioner. Their plan is to free a gorilla from a creepy house where a mad scientist (Frank Reicher) has made a showgirl (Marion Martin) invisible, clothes and all. It's no more coherent in the viewing than in the description, particularly when decorated by the enervating scaredy-cat stylings of a stereotyped black servant (Nicodemus Stewart).

It also features more jokes about men sleeping together, not to mention with a gorilla. In fact, some seem to think the gorilla IS Gildersleeve, and the most off-the-wall dialogue has Peavey advising the dyspeptic commissioner (Emory Parnell) that if he hurts Gildy's feelings, Gildy won't want to sleep with the guy again. Despite such near-sublime absurdities, the plot is mostly tiresome running around, with nobody believing Gildy until they do -- not that it's possible to believe anything. Although the Film Daily called it a big improvement on its predecessors, we'll emit a queasy Gildersleevian "Oh, boy".

Gildersleeve also appeared in RKO's first two Fibber McGee movies; the first is available on Lucille Ball RKO Comedy Collection, Volume 1 and the second on Fibber McGee and Molly Double Feature. Finally, Gildersleeve has a supporting role as a lawyer in Seven Days' Leave (1942), a romantic musical comedy with Lucille Ball and Victor Mature.

Thrown in as a nice bonus on this set, Seven Days' Leave is one of a million movies in which 1. the hero's idea of romance is to behave as obnoxiously as possible until his intended is bludgeoned by his charms, and 2. misunderstandings accrue that would be avoided if everyone told the truth in the first place, but it's nothing that can't be forgotten in the last two minutes. Parallels are drawn between the soldier's steamroller tactics and "attacking the Japs", so maybe it's supposed to be an allegory.

It's also one of the era's radio-happy films, with broadcasts of Truth or Consequences, hosted by Ralph Edwards, and The Court of Missing Heirs. One oddity of such movies is that they show the studio audience being entertained by highly visual bits that wouldn't make any sense over the radio.

The movie's final message is that army life is one big song and dance, which isn't so bad when the songs are by Frank Loesser and Jimmy McHugh, and performed by the likes of Ginny Simms, Puerto Rican star Mapy Cortes, and the Les Brown and Freddy Martin bands. Arnold Stang, Marcy McGuire, Buddy Clark, and Peter Lind Hayes contribute, and the show is flat-out stolen by a hilarious dance trio billed as Lynn, Royce, and Vanya.

It took four writers to hammer this together: William Bowers, Ralph Spence, Curtis Kenyon, and Kenneth Earl. It's also an early editing credit for future director Robert Wise (in the same year he was ordered to butcher The Magnificent Ambersons, and did a good job actually). Tim Whelan produced and directed, but the most important credit is Broadway dance director Charles Walters, whose glittering Hollywood career kicked off here before he hopped straight to MGM. The sequence makes it clear why they wanted him.

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