Fibber McGee and Molly Double Feature (1942-1944) DVD Review: The Mediocre and the Stinky

Decades after the fact, the Warner Archive cleans out the McGee's hall closet. Sadly, this was all they found.
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In this day and age, the idea of a real-life couple appearing together in a motion picture, on the television, or even on the radio is enough to make one want to pick up one of those book things and take up an interest in reading. But it hasn't always been that way, kids. No, decades before the criminally uncomforting activities of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez or the monotonous snoozerific charms of those blank expressionless Twilight leads, there existed actual real-life couples with actual real-life talent, who were capable of captivating actual real-life audiences for generations. And these brave couples also succeeded in keeping their relationships to each other together to boot - which is not something most contemporary performers can boast.

Of course, such a list found in anyone's possession is usually limited to the comedic partnerships of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jill Kelly and Cal Jammer, and the Midwestern pairing of a duo best known to audiences as Jim and Marian Jordan, aka Fibber McGee and Molly. OK, that second combination, maybe not so much, but the focus here is on the latter union anyway.

Though well-written, well-timed banter kept the old time radio stars broadcasting for nearly a quarter of a decade - long after the television set became the next at-home form of entertainment (which has to say something in itself!) - Fibber McGee and Molly's transcendence to the screen were not as popular. A television series commissioned in 1959 (the same year the duo disappeared from radio for good) made the misfortune of casting different actors in the leads (!), and obviously did not work out very well for anyone.

Decades before that, Fibber McGee and Molly landed supporting roles in Paramount Pictures' Buddy Rogers/Betty Grable pairing, This Way Please - which they followed up with a three picture deal from RKO. The first of those, Look Who's Laughing (from 1941), starred the talents of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and featured a young Lucille Ball. A year later, RKO decided to reunite the radio personalities of man-and-dummy and man-and-wife in the aptly-titled Here We Go Again, which is the first of the last two movies Fibber McGee and Molly made - and which is also the first movie in the single-disc Fibber McGee and Molly Double Feature from the Warner Archive Collection.

Interestingly enough, I recalled seeing bits and pieces of Here We Go Again not too long ago when I was going through some old videocassettes of movies I recorded off of American Movie Classics back in the late '80s (or whereabouts), but it wasn't until I sat back and started watching that I truly remembered it through and through. No, actually, that's a lie - I didn't remember much of it. And, as I viewed on, I realized why: it's not the best classic comedy ever made. Enjoyable, yes. Memorable, no. And that's a bit of a shame when you consider the talent involved: not only are both amazing radio duos here, but Fibber's long-standing nemesis Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (brought to life as only Harold Peary could do) and Bergen's sap-for-brains third party, Mortimer Snerd, are also on-board. Not to mention singer/actress Ginny Simms and radio/voice actor Bill Thompson (who later became the [original] voice of Droopy).

The plot of this 1942 film find Fibber and Molly heading to a swank country lodge for their twentieth anniversary. If Fibber's lack of money wasn't bad enough to begin with, the arrival of the down-to-earth, honest, simple folk is made worse once Molly's former boyfriend Otis Cadwalader (Gale Gordon) appears - and who soon suckers Fibber into hitting up a visiting Edgar Bergen for a check as part of a get-rich scheme. Bergen, meanwhile, woos The Great Gildersleeve's beautiful sister (Simms), while the inimitable Charlie McCarthy goes from being his usual, delightful wise-cracking self to scaring the living bejesus out of you in certain shots, wherein the filmmakers - high on whatever narcotic was popular in Hollywood at the time - decided making a ventriloquist dummy mobile would be a good idea, to wit uncredited dwarf actor Jerry Maren parades about in a spooky wooden mask in several short - and highly horrifying - scenes.

Did I mention the film ends with just about every main character getting blown up in an explosion, save for a notable wise-cracking dummy? And here you thought that first season finale of Sledge Hammer was a bit kooky! Well, as we soon learn in the Fibber McGee and Molly Double Feature's following, final flick - 1944's Heavenly Days - at least our titular comedians survived their harrowing, near-death experience. Though, by the time you reach the conclusion of said film, you kinda have to wonder if that was a good thing or not. And, just in case you didn't quite translate that tiny bit of sarcasm correctly, kids: Heavenly Days is a pretty bad movie.

Here, having received an invitation from a distant relation, Fibber and Molly decide to head to Washington DC - but only after Fibber receives a visit of his own from the ghostly apparition of a Revolutionary War drawing's fife player (got that?) insisting he go to give the average man's views of democracy in a World War II-torn America. The film starts out well enough, with a couple of good one-liners delivered by its husband-and-wife leads, but quickly descends into second-rate, ostentatious, patriotic propaganda - with Fibber making a scene in the Senate, delivering a well-meaning (and still-relevant) speech. The pair also wind up custodians of a good dozen refugee children (no German or Japanese kids are present, naturally), and the talents of a co-starring Eugene Palette are sorely wasted.

Heavenly Days also frolics about with several musical numbers - two of which occur on a train ride with a group of soldiers, wherein a supporting player (Don Douglas, who died the following year at the ripe age of 40) can be seen reading the then-patriotic works of Henry Wallace (who, several years later, was labeled as a dirty rotten Commie sympathizer by a paranoid Cold War-era country). Gordon Oliver, who started out as an actor before becoming a television producer (and who served as executive producer on Peter Gunn), co-stars along with a young Barbara Hale (yes, that Barbara Hale) as the tale's "romantic" interests - and whose moments onscreen amount to even less interest on the audience's behalf than they would during the very worst Allan Jones number (and I happen to like Allan Jones, just so we're clear on that, folks).

The title, incidentally, hailed from one of Molly's well-known catchphrases from the radio series. Of course, they could have very well used her more popular sayings instead: "T'aint funny, McGee!" - and I'm sure studio representatives and producers alike felt the same way, as Heavenly Days' misguided plot was so far removed from its own title, that is wound up bombing at the box office - during a time when such patriotic movies were generally a hit.

Well, good or bad, it's nice to have these two titles on DVD either way. Completionists will no doubt enjoy adding these films to their libraries, and my hat's off to the Warner Archive for pairing the mediocre with the stinky in this single-disc release. Neither movie has been restored, and the picture quality is quite nice. Both titles are displayed in their original Academy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and are presented here with mono English audio tracks. No special features are included, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view.

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