Today is the birthday of radio and screen comedian and voice-over artist Harold “Hal” Peary (1908-1985)
Peary is best known for creating the popular radio character Throckmorton Gildersleeve on the Fibber McGee and Molly Show in 1939. The big blowhard was so popular he got his own spin-off radio show from 1941 to 1957 (though Peary left in ’50) and he starred as Gildersleeve in several movies. You know Peary’s work whether you know his name or not — after the various incarnations of Gildersleeve went off the air he was a constant presence as a character actor on tv sit coms and a voice over actor for cartoons for decades. And I swear he was at least a partial inspiration for Don Messick’s characterization as Scooby Doo (that deep throated horse whinny type thing he does). At any rate, the fad for Gildersleeve movies was short. Here’s my take on the handful that got made.
The Great Gildersleeve (1942)
Peary’s breakout starring picture (though he’d been in a couple of Fibber McGee and Molly pictures). He was a huge star in radio with this character, but frankly it’s a bit strange and underwhelming to see him in movies. He looks appropriate with his ample girth, toothy smile, and vanity in groom and dress, but his voice is just so good and strange and over the top that the visuals still don’t come up the mark. He’s more of a voice than a full fledged character. Gildersleeve has traits…he’s pretentious and gets flustered…but he’s not a person.
Add to this the fact that, like so many movies of the period, the scripts are just disposably weak. Peary carries over all his signature catch phrases from radio (“You’re a harrrrrrd man”, and “Everything always happens to me”, etc as well as his friend Peavy the druggist’s”I wouldn’t say that”). By the time this film premiered , Fibber McGee and Molly mysteriously don’t exist. Gildersleeve is guardian of his nephew Leroy and his teenage niece Margie, with frequent visits from his Aunt Emma and the steadying presence of Amanda Randolph as the maid.
In this, the first of the series, a scrawny crone wants to marry Gildersleeve but he rejects her. Her brother the Judge (another regular character) is going to take away custody of the kids as revenge. The kids have a plan: they mount a huge popularity p.r. campaign. At the same time, the governor of their (unidentified) state is sick and ends up convalescing at Gildersleeve’s house. Gildersleeve becomes so popular in town the judge can’t very well take the kids away. Also the judge is humiliated when he plays practical jokes on the governor, thinking he is an imposter. All in all, this is a sit com episode stretched past its limits to fill the big screen.
Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943)
Maybe the weakest of the four Gildersleeve films. It stretches credibility to the breaking point. Gildersleeve is called for jury duty (along with all his other friends. This town is so small, why aren’t they always on jury duty?) Some crooks attempt to bribe Gildersleeve but he doesn’t receive their message. Then it turns out Gildersleeve is the lone holdout on the jury so it seems like a mistrial is expected anyway. (There is a lengthy segment, the most implausible part, where the judge makes Gildersleeve feed and house the jury at his own home while they deliberate). Meanwhile the kids keep trying to get a message to him. Then the crooks rob the judge in order to pay Gildersleeve for the seemingly faked verdict. Then Gildersleeve mistakes the cash for a donation to the “canteen” to raise money for the soldiers (this is the middle of WWII). Gildersleeve gives the money to the judge. Then the crooks steal it again. At the same time, Gildersleeve is trying to steal it himself so can return it to the judge. And then he is caught. The crooks kidnap him in a cop car, but he flips the two way radio on so the authorities can hear the truth about the crime. Zany? Wacky? Nah, sleepy.
Gildersleeve on Broadway (1943)
Well that was quick! The shark has already jumped after only two films. This one violates the sit-com’s situation by transplanting the entire cast to the night clubs and hotels of New York City. Gildersleeve follows Margie’s fiancé to NYC to keep tabs on him, because he thinks he’s playing around. So he follows Peavy to a druggists convention in the big city. Unfortunately he gets tangled up with women, incriminating himself (he has a fiancé of his own). One of the women Gildersleeve keeps running into is Billie Burke, the dotty (as always) present of a pharmaceutical supply company. Another is a gold digging woman who thinks he’s rich (because he’s pretending to be). Some mishigas happens with a fur coat, Then the kids and his fiancé show up, causing a brouhaha. And it turns out that the boyfriend wasn’t even screwing around. There is one funny bit with Gildersleeve encountering Jack Norton as a drunk on a window ledge.
Gildersleeve’s Ghost (1944)
This is the first one I saw in the series and it’s my favorite. Because it is a spook comedy and it has a gorilla. It’s kind of less boring than the other three. It starts out with Peary as two of Gildersleeve’s ghostly ancestors, who set up the story. Then they disappear and never come back, causing me to scratch my head about the title. It’s straight up formula stuff. Gildersleeve is running for water commissioner, making it important that he not appear insane. Unfortunately a gorilla comes into his kitchen one night….and he keeps seeing things no one else does. The trail leads him to a haunted house where mad scientists are experimenting on an invisibility drug. Their two subjects are the gorilla and a beautiful burlesque chick. There is also a beautiful French maid. Ooh la la, I hardly know which way to turn! Of course all the other cast members show up (including Nick Stewart as the obligatory terrified black chauffeur) and they all have to spend the night in the haunted house because because there is a bad thunderstorm. Eventually….the truth comes out so they don’t have to bring Gildersleeve to an insane asylum.
That was the end of the Gildersleeve films, but the character thrived for another 13 years on radio. Peary left the series in 1950. After that, it was the occasional TV guest appearance — folks my age may remember his as Mr. Goodbody on the “Amateur Night” episode of The Brady Bunch!
To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc