Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Magnificent Montague - written, directed, created by Nat Hiken (1950)

Something that often astounds me is how some radio shows have managed to be lionized and repeated over the years, year after year, for no discernible reason. People that have an aversion to Old Time Radio comedy have no doubt been exposed to Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve or the worst the genre has to offer - The Aldrich Family. True, these were long running radio programs and that alone accounts, to a degree, for their prominence decades later. But it's a shame that their generally weak scripts are the mainstream example of audio sitcoms for the contemporary listener.

When Fibber McGee and Molly tickles an aural fancy today, it has little to do with the writing or the work of the straight man star couple Jim and Marian Jordan. 
No, when Fibber McGee and Molly produces laughs it is thanks to the great comedic performances of character actors like Arthur Q. Bryan and Bill Thompson who rise above the weak material. Likewise The Great Gildersleeve, arguably the first spin-off in sitcom history, suffered from a weekly onslaught of lame duck material. They have as their only saving grace a hysterical adult actor that most assumed to be a child. Walter Tetley was a man who went through adulthood sounding like a pre-pubescent thanks to a hormonal disfunction. Fortunately he was born in the age of radio and managed to use this curse to a great comedic advantage.

The Magnificent Montague may be the most overlooked radio comedy in the Old Time Radio lexicon. Why it isn't well known or at the very least rerun on the far end of the AM dial  is inexcusable. It's not as if episodes do not exist. To the contrary, the majority of the series is intact.

Several things make The Magnificent Montague special. Beyond its ingenious radio-show-within-a-radio show that allows for a skewering of insipid radio programs like the aforementioned Aldrich Family, the talent involved is immense. The program was created, written and directed by Nat Hiken. Hiken, as any self-respecting comedy fanboy knows, was the greatest comedy writer working in television in the 1950s. After having contributed to The Fred Allen Show and a couple of Milton Berle's failed radio programs, Hiken let his creative abilities flourish on The Magnificent Montague, laying the ground work for what would be his greatest triumph - The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko). Hiken later had great success with his other well-loved sitcom Car 54, Where Are You and the funniest of Don Knotts films, The Love God (which Hiken despised, but it holds up).

The Magnificent Montague stars Monty Woolley as a fading denizen of the theater. Formerly enjoying Shakespearean triumph he is reduced in a fit of desperation to accept an acting gig on a hackneyed daytime radio program. Pert Kelton plays the wisecracking maid eager to take the pompous Woolley down a peg . The program's resident announcer is Don Pardo. Regular guest stars include Jim Backus, Alan Reed, Arnold Stang and - dominating every scene - Art Carney. If only it would replace every late night rerun of The Aldrich Family. It is the shows like Aldrich that deserve to be a footnote in comedy history, not the magnificent Magnificent Montague.

A roster of episodes to see if you don't agree here.


Yowp said...

I suspect the show isn't well-known because a) it only ran a season and b) neither the show nor the star made it on television.

Fibber, Gildersleeve, Blondie, Ozzie and Harriet, Riley and so on were on season after season after season. People remembered them when the OTR industry started up and bought cassettes and LPs. They didn't remember Monty Woolley, whose show came in when television had started to eclipse radio.

Fibber was one of the best of the sitcoms. I like the byplay between the Jordans, the secondary players were distinctive and Quinn used the closet gimmick to a good advantage. Many radio sitcoms are mind-bogglingly trite and one-dimensional. I prefer variety shows; the stars seem to be laughing at how corny some of the comedy was. Give me Durante over 'My Friend Irma' any day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with "Yowp" as to why Magificent Montague, though well
written and acted, didn't make it
out of the gate while powerhouses
such as Fibber and Gildersleeve
ran for years.
Thanks anyway for sharing these episodes with us!

Sam Kujava