Clifford Goldsmith: What a Life

Here’s something I seldom stumble across. A MAJOR popular comedy franchise of stage, film, radio, comics, and television of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that even I knew nothing about. And about it’s author even less. In fact, the title of this post refers to the name of his show, not its author’s biography.

The gent in question is one Clifford Goldsmith (1899-1971). Goldsmith had attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and for a time toured the Chautauqua circuit giving dramatic recitations, before settling down to teach high school and write press releases for the National Dairy Council. But he really wanted to be a playwright, and with a name like Goldsmith, how could he not? (If you don’t know who Oliver Goldsmith is…at one time I might have flung an insult at you, but I’m trying to mend my ways, so in this case I’ll just recommend that you take up reading).

Goldsmith (Clifford, that is), struck it big as a playwright, but only once (else you’d probably have heard of him). In 1938, George Abbott brought his gentle family comedy What a Life to Broadway starring Ezra Stone as an adenoidal adolescent named Henry Aldrich. Stone, like Goldsmith, is almost exclusively identified with this one property, but some of better known members in the Broadway cast included Eddie Bracken as Henry’s friend Bill, and Butterfly McQueen as Mary, the maid. The show was popular enough to remain open on Broadway for over a year.

In 1939, as was common at the time, What a Life became both a radio and movie series. The radio series had actually had a “soft” opening, beginning as a series of sketches on the radio programs of Rudy Vallee and Kate Smith in 1939, finally launching as a stand-alone radio sit-com called The Aldrich Family in July 1939 and running through April 1953: nearly 14 years. The radio show contributed the franchise’s best known and remembered element, the sound of the mother calling “Hen-reeeeeee!” I know I’ve heard that quoted by comedians, and parodied in animated cartoons, and so forth.

The 1939 movie of What a Life starred Jackie Cooper as Henry, with a cast that included Lionel Stander, Fred Niblo, Hedda Hopper, Dorothy Stickney, Lucien Littlefield, and Andrew Tombes. This was followed by no fewer than ELEVEN subsequent Henry Aldrich films through 1944.

The TV series ran from 1949 through 1953. Nancy Carroll played the mom on the TV version, replacing Jean Muir, who’d been blacklisted for Communist associations.

The Dell comic book Henry Aldrich ran from 1950 through 1954.

As a playwright and as a Goldsmith, Clifford was no Oliver. After the Aldrich thing was mined for all it was worth, he became a jobbing TV writer, penning episodes of noticeably Aldrich-esque series like Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, The Donna Reed Show, and The Patty Duke Show. His last screen credit was a 1969 episode of The Flying Nun.

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For more on classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube