Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Magnificent Montague (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 late night AM reruns of 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's Glo-Coat Program tickles an aural fancy today, it has little to do with the writing or the work of the straight man 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 far 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. The interchangable episodes of the long running Gildersleeve 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. Fortunately he was born in the age of radio and managed to use the curse of his anti-puberty to a great, prolific 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 grainy, far end of the AM dial on a nightly basis somewhere out there is inexcusable. It's not as if episodes do not exist. To the contrary, the majority of the series is intact.

What makes The Magnificent Montague special? Everything. Beyond its ingenious radio-show-within-a-radio show motif that allows for a skewering of insipid radio programs like the aforementioned Aldrich Family, the talent involved with the program is immense. The program was created, written and directed by Nat Hiken. Hiken, as any self-respecting comedy fanboy will tell you, was the greatest comedy writer working in television in the nineteen fifties. After having contributed to radio's Fred Allen Show and a couple of Milton Berle's failed audio attempts, Hiken let his creative abilities flourish on The Magnificent Montague, laying the ground work for what would be his greatest triumph, his baby, 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 would be notable for Hiken's involvement alone, but the rest of the talent involved is very impressive. The Magnificent Montague stars Monty Woolley as a fading denizen of the theater; a life of Shakespearean triumph now, in a fit of desperation, traded in for a job acting on a hackneyed afternoon radio program. Pert Kelton plays the wisecracking maid eager to take the pompous Woolley down a peg in each scene. The program's resident announcer is Don Pardo and regular guest stars include Jim Backus, Art Carney, Alan Reed and Arnold Stang. What more could you want? What more we could want is for reruns of this program to replace every late night rerun of The Aldrich Family crackling away somewhere out there tonight. 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 - er, listen - 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