Friday, June 24, 2011

Our Friend Irma





While Gracie Allen may have invented the dumb blonde character in the 1930s, Marie Wilson perfected it the following decade playing the loveable-but-absolutely-scatter-brained Irma Peterson – first on radio, then in two movies and a relatively short-lived TV series.


Unlike Gracie, Marie was blessed with high cheekbones, an innocent face, and a killer figure.


She began working in films (often uncredited) around 1934, but managed to secure the role of Mary, Quite Contrary in Laurel & Hardy’s musical  Babes in Toyland in 1934. 

She was signed by Warner Brothers in 1935, and over the next four years appeared in many forgettable films.  The best of the lot was Boy Meets Girl (1938) with James Cagney.


Once she was let go by Warners, film work slowed. 


But Marie found  success on the stage during the war years of the 1940's, appearing in the Los Angeles stage show "Ken Murray's Blackouts"; an amalgam of young starlets, bawdy humor, and novelty acts that ran for 7 years.


I profiled Ken Murray in January of 2009 in Ken Murray: Hollywood Without Makeup.


Marie also managed to appear in a few films during this time, including Rookies on Parade (1941), She's in the Army (1942), The Fabulous Joe (1947).


But true success came when CBS radio decided to explore the idea of creating a radio series based on the popular stage play, and film, My Sister Eileen – about two sisters (one sensible, one a starry-eyed actress) trying to make it in New York City.


When attempts to reach a deal failed, CBS came up with their own show about two girls (one sensible, the other daffy) trying to make it in  . . . where else? 


New York City.


The result was My Friend Irma, which starred Marie Wilson as dim-bulb Irma Peterson and (Cathy Lewis, Diana Lynn) as solid and dependable Jane Stacy.


Supporting the two leads were John Brown as Irma’s deadbeat boyfriend Al, and the inimitable Hans Conried as the Russian Violinist Professor Kropotkin, along with Alan Reed and Leif Erickson.


Although more than 300 episodes were recorded during its 7 year run, only about 50 of them have survived. 


You can listen to them (or download them) off the Internet Archive.



My Friend Irma 51 Eps


The show proved immensely successful, and in 1949 Paramount Studios decided to make it into a movie – and used it to launch the film careers of an up-and-coming comedy duo – Martin & Lewis.


Two years later (1951), a sequel – again with Martin & Lewis – was released called My Friend Irma Goes West.


In both of these movies, Jane Stacy was played by the considerably more photogenic Diana Lynn, instead of Cathy Lewis.


And once again, these movies were very successful. 


The TV version, which ran from January, 1952 until June, 1954, was the first live show to be broadcast from the from the CBS Television City facility in Hollywood.


Cathy Lewis reprises her role as Jane in the first year, but moves on and is replaced by a new roommate – Kay – played by Mary Shipp in season 2.


We’ve only a couple of TV episodes available right now, but hopefully more will turn up.


You can find them on the Internet Archive at this link.





Sadly, life ended too soon for all three actresses associated with this show.


After the show ended, Marie Wilson’s star was eclipsed by the arrival of Marilyn Monroe. She took to the road and performed summer stock, and dinner theatre, in plays like as "Bus Stop,", "Born Yesterday”, and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes."


She died in 1972, at the age of 56, of cancer.

Cathy Lewis, who went on make numerous TV appearances until the mid-1960s (including as a semi-regular on Hazel), died in 1968 at the age of 51 - also of cancer.


And Diana Lynn, who appeared on TV shows during the 1960s, died of a stroke in 1970 at the age of 45.


A final postscript to the story.


Arthur Kurlan, the writer who brought My Sister Eileen to CBS in 1946 - only to see his project rejected, and a cloned My Friend Irma produced instead – sued the radio network and ultimately won compensation for himself and the original author, Ruth McKenney.


My Sister Eileen ran on Broadway for 864 performances, was made in two Hollywood movies (1942 & 1955), a 1953 Broadway Musical (Wonderful Town), and a brief 1960 TV series.


And the two-girls-in-the-big-city theme was carried forward again, in the 1970s, by the TV series Laverne & Shirley.


Proving, I guess, that some themes have universal appeal.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Get Smart (J. Scott, That Is)







To radio audiences of the late 1940s, J. Scott Smart – tipping the scales at 270 lbs – was the personification of his character, private detective Brad Runyon aka `The Fat Man’.


His deep bass voice easily conveyed girth in a medium devoid of visual clues, and his personable performances humanized his hard boiled character’s demeanor.


Based, at least loosely, on a Dashiel Hammett character (`The Man’, from Continental Op), Runyon broke ranks with traditional hard-boiled P.I.s  of the 1940s who were nearly always portrayed as lean, mean, and as often as not, as sporting a pencil thin mustache.


Although his radio show predated my arrival mid-way through the Baby Boom, I remember my parents talking about The Fat Man, and it’s famous introduction by the narrator, when I was growing up.



There he goes into that drugstore … he's stepping on the scale.

Weight? … two hundred thirty-seven pounds ... fortune - DANGER!

Whooooooo is it? The Fat Mannnnn ….



Although not exactly a big star (weight aside, of course), Jack Smart appeared on Broadway (A Bell of Adano, Separate Rooms) in the 1940s, in movies (albeit often uncredited or in small roles) most famously as The Fat Man. 

During the 1930s and 1940s he appeared in so many radio shows he was called `The Lon Chaney of Radio’, including as a regular on all of the incarnations of The Fred Allen Show (Mighty Allen Art Players and Allen's Alley), and documentary series The March of Time.


In 1951, after playing the detective role for five years on the radio, Smart was tagged to play Brad Runyon on the big screen, along with a cast of rising stars; Julie London, Jayne Meadows, and an impossibly young Rock Hudson.


This should have been the pinnacle of Smart’s success, and was hoped to launch a series of movies (ala The `Thin Man’ another Hammett creation), but it was not to be.


After the movie was in the can, but before it was released, Hammett (who in actuality did little but collect royalty checks off the radio show – he reportedly never even listened) was caught up in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation when he refused to give up names of other activists.


He was jailed briefly, but like so many others, ended up blacklisted in Hollywood.


Shows that were associated with him, like Sam Spade, and The Fat Man, despite their popularity - suddenly found sponsors unwilling to lend their names to his works.




Which probably explains why the only filmed version of The Fat Man has slipped into the Public Domain, and is available on The Internet Archive.

The Fat Man (1951)


Although obviously not a high-budget movie, this film is surprisingly enjoyable, made even doubly so by the early screen appearances of Hudson, Meadows, and London and a nice comic turn by Marvin Kaplan.


Episodes from the 6 year radio run of The Fat Man are, sadly, in short supply. There are but 7 episodes from the American Series available on the Internet Archive.


The Fat Man – Radio Episodes



J Scott Smart would play the role of `Top Guy’ on TV for one season in 1951, with Ross `Wild Wild West’ Martin as a costar.  He returned to the stage in an ill fated production of  Waiting For Godot in 1955, after which he retired from acting. 

J. Scott Smart spent his remaining years as a productive artist, producing well received paintings, collages and sculptures.


Smart died in 1960 of pancreatic cancer.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

"On, King! On, You Huskies!"






As a lad of perhaps 5 or 6 (circa 1958-1960) Saturday mornings were eagerly awaited because they meant two things:


A six hour block of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, etc)  and `juvenile adventure’ shows on TV like Rocky Jones – Space Ranger, Ramar of the Jungle, The BuccaneersRobin Hood, William Tell, Red Ryder and the north woods exploits of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.


I’d not seen Sgt. Preston in decades, but recently came across several episodes from the series, an archive of the original radio show, and even some Sergeant Preston of The Yukon Comic books available online.


Set in the Yukon Territory during the gold rush of the 1890s, this `Northern’ was vastly different from the ubiquitous westerns of the day.


The Lone Ranger, Annie Oakley, The Range Rider, and other `juvenile’ cowboy shows all had the same `back lot look’, with exterior scenes all pretty much shot in the Hollywood hills; sunny and dry weather, and flat or rolling land.


Sgt Preston, however, had exterior shots filmed around Big Bear Lake, California (it’s mile-high topography a decent substitute for the Canadian Rockies) and featured pine forests, craggy mountains, running streams, and often as not, snow.


Different also was the use of the narrator (effectively carried over from the radio series) who not only set up crucial plot points, he explained the nuances of tracking, or building shelter, or finding your way in the North woods.


Sergeant Preston was educational.


But the story of Sgt. Preston – originally called Challenge of the Yukon – began on radio nearly 20 years before I first laid eyes on the show.


During the golden age of radio (1930s & 1940s) - since all it took was good voice & sound effects talent, a decent script, and a recording study to make a radio show happen – local radio stations often created their own series.


If it proved popular, it could be transcribed (recorded on platters) and could be syndicated on one (or more) of the radio networks.


One of the most successful of these radio show factories was Detroit's station WXYZ, which during the 1930s created two iconic radio series that both transitioned to television and the movies, and are both well remembered today.


The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet.


In 1938 the station owner, George W. Trendle encouraged by the success of those two shows, asked for another adventure show, but with a dog as the hero.


The result was The Challenge of The Yukon, which chronicled the adventures of Sergeant William Preston of the Canadian Northwest Mounted Police, and his faithful dog King and his horse Rex.


For 9 years the show ran locally as a 15-minute serial, until in 1947 it acquired a sponsor (Quaker Oats) and went to 30 minutes, and to the ABC radio network until December of 1949. In 1950 the show switched to the Mutual Network.


The show is remembered for its effective use of sound effects, theme music (Emil von Reznicek's overture to Donna Diana), unusual locale, and exciting plots.


While King was arguably the star of the show (he often saved the day) Sgt. Preston was played by several radio actors over the years.  The role was originated by Jay Michael, followed in the mid-1940s by former movie actor Paul Sutton took over the role, and briefly by Brace `The Lone Ranger’ Beemer in the mid-1950s.


The OLD TIME RADIO RESEARCHER'S GROUP has put together an astounding collection of COTY (Challenge of the Yukon) episodes ranging from the 15 minute shows of the early 1940s up until the 1950s.   Literally hundreds of episodes.


Single episodes can be listened to, or downloaded from Challenge of the Yukon - Single Episodes   and the complete collection can be downloaded in 9 CD-sized ZIP file from Challenge of the Yukon  both available on the Internet Archive.


The Internet Archive also has a growing number of episodes from the TV show which ran on CBS for 3 years (1955-1958) and then for a decade in Saturday morning reruns.

Currently, the following episodes are available:

Last Mail From Last Chance

Relief Train

Scourge Of The Wilderness

Rebellion in the North

Incident at Gordon Landing

The White Hawk


When more episodes are available, you’ll find them at this link.


Sergeant Preston was so popular during the 1950s, there was even a long-running comic book featuring his exploits, and those of his companions King and Rex.  Many of those are also available on the archive.

Sergeant Preston Comic Four Color # 373

Sergeant Preston Comics # 01,02,03,04,05

Sergeant Preston Comics # 06, 07, 08, 09, 10

Sergeant Preston Comics # 25,26,27, 28, 29


Comic Books are usually archived in a .cbr or . cbz format, and require a special viewer. For windows, Linux, and MAC I can recommend the Comical program available at:

It’s open sourced and free.


Since these were `juvenile’ adventure shows the good guys were always obviously good, and the bad guys obviously bad.  Crime never pays and Sgt Preston is square-jawed, resolute, and always gets his man.

Usually because King saves his Canadian Bacon.

Corny perhaps by today’s standards.  But entertaining stuff, if you yearn to return to a simpler time and place, and perhaps memories of a childhood well spent in front of a glowing Cathode Ray tube.


I suppose there’s nothing left to say on the subject except:


"Well King, this case is closed."