This month we pay tribute to the great programs and characters created on radio in the days before the abbreviations DJ, FM and TV. Today Rodney and Samantha examine Look Who's Laughing from 1941.
RODNEY: Look Who’s Laughing is a tour de force of radio stars meshed together in a plot that doesn’t make a ton of sense, and it also doesn’t really matter. The film opens with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy in what is presumed to be a radio broadcast, but, really, it’s a stage show with Lucille Ball in a supporting role as a nurse. It’s the last broadcast of the year, and Bergen is planning on going away for the summer to recuperate and think of new ideas for the coming radio season. Julie Patterson (Ball), Bergen’s secretary, also has her own plans as she is to marry his accountant Jerry (Lee Bonnell) the following day, presumably because Bergen hadn’t thought to ask her himself. In between his broadcasts and forgetting to get engaged to Julie, Edgar did find time to get his pilot’s license which he plans to utilize for his trip.
Edgar and Charlie aren’t much when it comes to airplane flying, and soon find themselves lost and make an emergency stop in Wistful Vista, where they encounter Fibber McGee and Molly and most of the rest of the cast of the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show. Before long, they all find themselves embroiled in a plot to have a new airport built in Wistful Vista. Along the way, Bergen realizes that he is in love with Julie and manages to stop her marriage to Jerry just in the nick of time.
SAMANTHA: Edgar Bergen is not for everyone. Ventriloquism has become synonymous with dusty kitsch, and most people who see him for the first time just don't get it; the guy is moving his lips! They also marvel that such an act could go over on radio where you couldn't even see the trick, but it works because Bergen's characters are so wonderful. He plays a refined straight-man, a father-type to the unruly Charlie McCarthy who says what he thinks, has an eye for pretty girls and who likes to raise a little hell now and then. Although Bergen is best known for Charlie, he also created Effie Clinker and my favorite, dopey Mortimer Snerd, neither of whom appear here. Bergen's radio show is a hoot and I highly recommend it. However, I'd like to know which writer decided to make him the heartthrob hero of this film; as such, he's more wooden than Charlie. Harold Peary laughs his distinctive laugh as Gildersleeve in this film, the third film he made playing that part. I only recently began listening to Fibber McGee and Molly and they're easy to like, both on radio and the screen. In this movie we get to see, rather than just hear, their famous dangerous hall closet. They seem to be the epitome of quaint domesticity, warts and all, but with a deep love between them that makes us connect with them more deeply than the average comedy team.
RB: I suspect that many viewers may be inclined to check this film out due to the presence of Lucille Ball in one of her earlier starring roles. Said viewers would likely be disappointed as she really isn’t given much to do here. Instead, she plays second fiddle to Bergen, McCarthy, Fibber and Molly, Throckmorton Gildersleeve (Harold Peary), Isobel Randolph (Mrs. Uppington) and a host of other radio favorites (some, including longtime McGee announcer Harlow Wilcox and reliable character actor Sterling Holloway appear uncredited). This was a winning combination at the time. Both the Bergen and McGee shows were wildly popular when the film was released (McGee was at its most popular during the 1942-1943 season but was extremely high in the ratings for 16 of the 18 seasons that it was a 30-minute program), and while the film premiered in September of 1941, it largely played neighborhood movie palaces during the first half of 1942, when we were reeling over our involvement in World War II and everything that came along with it. This type of light fare, featuring characters that we welcomed into our homes on a weekly basis was just what we were craving at the time.
SG: In her autobiography Love, Lucy, Ball relayed that her movie career was in a slump in the late 30s because a married producer asked her to marry him after he divorced his wife, and she declined. He retaliated by trying to tank her career, so she decided to try radio in case her movie career never recovered. "This turned out to be one of the smartest things I ever did... This gave me a name in the trade as a good feminine foil. I could flip a comedy line which a lot of actresses couldn't do." She developed good comic timing which served her well when she transitioned from B to A pictures and later when she dove into TV. Since RKO wasn't trying to promote her at this time, she doesn't get much to do, but her previous experience as a model shows and she looks gorgeous and poised.
RB: For my part, I grew up with these characters. They’ve been part of my life for (no exaggeration) almost as long as I can remember. With that in mind, I like this movie. Spending time with this cast is very much like spending time with old friends for me. I suspect that with the right audience this would really come to life. I’m so used to hearing the voices with the laughter of a studio audience that it seemed oddly quiet to me at times. For fans of old-time radio or those curious about pop culture in the war years, this is a recommended feature. Three and a half stars.
SG: I am less emotionally attached to the characters, although they're pleasant. The story is weak, so the only reason to check this one out is to see these radio characters on the screen. However, I'm glad they made films at all. Very few people know much about old time radio, and any exposure they can get to discover this rich and entertaining medium is good exposure. 2.5 stars.