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Erin Listens: The Great Gildersleeve, Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen September 23, 2015

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches.
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Latest adventure in old-timey radio comedy: The Great Gildersleeve. A judge names Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve the custodian of his orphaned niece and nephew, setting up a silly family sitcom.

The show premiered in August 1941, which means that partway into the first season, an episode is literally interrupted with the announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Scripts after that start getting shaped by the war in realtime, with the characters planting victory gardens, writing letters to soldiers, and saving their money for war bonds — all in tandem with standard shenanigans.

(There’s this one where a goat wanders into their yard, and Gildy calls City Hall trying to get someone to come pick it up…the way he gets bounced from department to department, with nobody quite grasping what he wants, is still 100% relevant. Meanwhile, the nephew is hoping they can keep it as a pet, and tries to hide it in his room overnight — and the judge, who’s still keeping tabs on Gildy to make sure he’s a responsible guardian, is not amused to find out they named the goat after him….)

Also, the sponsor is Kraft, and one of the first-season ads announces their brand-new innovative debut of mac-and-cheese-in-a-box. So, lots of historical interest here.

I’ll rec the show with one caveat: period-typical racism keeps cropping up. A slur against Japanese people here, an offensive impression there, and one of the main characters is black — the cook/housekeeper, Birdie — with an accent that definitely wouldn’t fly in a series produced today. To be fair, she doesn’t strike me as any sillier or less-developed than the white characters, and she’s established early on as having a life and interests outside her job. But YMMV. Brace yourself if necessary before listening.

Speaking of period-typical racism: Our Miss Brooks was doing so well, and then came this one episode that just whacks you over the head with awfulness every couple of lines. The title is “Bartering with Chief Thundercloud,” and if you are already wincing in anticipation of where that might be going, I assure you, it went there.

I love 99% of the series, but if you’ve picked it up on the strength of my reccing, do yourself a favor and skip that episode.

Still working through the Burns and Allen Show, too.

Gracie Allen is a national treasure. There was a whole sequence where she ran for President in the 1940 election — as the leading candidate of the Surprise Party.

That’s from early in the radio show, when the premise is “we did our vaudeville show, but recorded it.” Around 1941 they realize that just because the actors are standing on a stage, that doesn’t mean the characters have to be — so it turns into more of a sitcom, with storylines, different settings, characters who are more in the vein of “neighbors and friends” than “the guy who does the music and the guy who plays the door-closing sound effect.”

Later, the show made the leap from radio to television — there are 100+ episodes of the TV show on this Youtube channel, if you want to get a taste that way.

(In fact, it might be the best way to jump in. The radio show’s biggest drawback is that it features the most hit-you-in-the-face product placement imaginable. Same talking points, every single time, and integrated into the plot of the show, so you can’t just skip over hearing for the 100th time how Swan is a great wartime buy that breaks in two with a simple twist of the wrist etc etc etc.)

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