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 Adam and Rodney examine Myrt and Marge from 1933.
ADAM: The stage production “My Lady’s Legs” is in big trouble. The leading lady (Myrtle Vail) is “on the toboggan and flipping fast” i.e., she’s in her 40s and aging out of center stage. The comedian (Jimmy Conlin) “couldn’t make a laughing hyena smile.” The stagehands are nitwits (Ted Healy, Howard, Fine & Howard, as they’re credited). Once the producers announce they’re insolvent, the whole gang decides gather their resources and proceed with the show with the injection of some youthful talent, namely Marge Minter (Donna Damerel), the daughter of the boardinghouse landlady.
RODNEY: Off the top of my head this is the first example I can come up with of the “Let’s put on a show!” plot device as a way to make some quick cash. I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of one offhand.
A: Myrt and Marge may be forgotten as a relic of early radio but the film’s writer/director, Al Boasberg, is owed some belated recognition. Ben Schwartz’s essay, “The Gag Man,” on the Buffalo-born “comedy doctor” in the book The Film Comedy Reader is worth tracking down to understand the influence Boasberg had in shaping the careers of Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, the Marx Brothers, and Bob Hope. A man reluctantly behind the curtains, Boasberg was cursed by a lack of name recognition from his earliest days of selling bits to vaudevillians. Schwartz’s essay relays the story of Boasberg’s mental implosion after his name was removed from A Day at the Races. This curse was well known among the stars—the writer held onto an autographed photo of the Marx Brothers with the dedication, “To our pal _______. Sorry, but we couldn’t get your name on this picture either.” When he did get front-and-center credit directing films, it was mostly relegated to two-reelers for second stringers such as Walter Catlett and Leon Errol. Comparing what I’ve listened to of the radio show Myrt and Marge to the film is to understand Boasberg’s spark; the show’s languid soapy plots are transformed into a titillating variety show punched upped with a steady stream of gags.
R: I thought long and hard about why exactly Myrt and Marge is SO forgotten today, certainly less well known than Amos & Andy, which was its main competition at the time during it’s primetime run from 1932-1937. The show was billed as “the world of the theater and the world of life, and the story of two women who sock fame in the one and contentment in the other.” The movie plays fast and loose with this plotline; really having little in common with the show, playing entirely on the novelty of people being able to see some of the top stars of the day in their homes. Even the most devoted old-time radio aficionados are not familiar with this show, probably because so little of the aural content circulates today. Only a pair of auditions exist from before 1937. Thereafter, just a sparce smattering until an ill-fated 1946-1947 syndicated series that exists in entirety. Still, at that point Donna Damerel had sadly passed away and was replaced by Helen Mack. Knowing just what made the show so successful is largely lost in the ether at this point. Early episodes were probably not even recorded.
A: Speaking of obscurity, Ray Hedge delivers one of the most impressive performances in this film. As Clarence Tiffingtuffer, the show’s costume designer, Hedge provides the tart twist of lemon in this ridiculous cocktail. He spews out such bon mots as, “If we could get the runs with this show that these dames get in their stockings, I’d be able to make the second payment on my kimono.” He tells a failing comedian to, “Go buy yourself a mirror and get your first laugh.” Hedge may have delivered these lines too well. In 1935, Radio Mirror published a profile on the actor entitled “Clarence Tiffingtuffer is really a HE-MAN.” The piece goes to extraordinary lengths to prove that Hedge, who had played this fey role since the radio show began four years prior, is a rugged, adventurous, mountain-climbing man’s man. And he’s got frost-bitten photos of himself in high altitudes to prove it. Most likely the work of a publicist frantically trying to break his client out of typecasting prison, the interview ends with Hedge saying, “So long, gotta broadcast. But don’t forget…TELL THEM I’M NOT A SISSY REALLY!” Got it! Whether or not Hedge wanted to pursue more film roles, either of the Tiffingtuffer-variety or otherwise, Myrt and Marge didn’t open any further doors in Hollywood. Just like the star Donna Damerel, this was his sole film credit.
R: It’s really a shame that Hedge didn’t get more roles because he was very funny in this film and provided most of the “pre-code” laughs. He didn’t appear to have much of a career in radio either. The only other credited role that I can find for him is a role as a floorwalker in a particularly amusing episode of The Adventures of Archie Andrews from 1947 (Vinton Hayworth who played Archie’s father also had a recurring role on Myrt and Marge). I would suspect that Hedge may have had some theater credits as well, due to the fact that the Archie show was based out of New York and often took advantage of theater actors for roles, but I digress.
A: As a musical, the film is no great shakes. Dance director Jack Haskell is most famous for the beatings he took. He first made headlines when Broadway producer Arthur Hammerstein socked the chorus master for having the audacity to fire two of his dancers in the 1930 production Luana—those unfortunate hoofers happened to be Sally Rand and her brother (who himself laid a haymaker on Haskell). This fracas was dragged out in the papers with Haskell threatening to divulge details of orgies in the producer’s office. Less than six months before Myrt and Marge premiered, Haskell again made headlines when he was beaten in his Manhattan hotel room and robbed of his jewelry, including a diamond-studded cigarette case. Can we blame the film’s shortcomings on his violent past? The musical numbers do appear to be choreographed by a punch-drunk Busby Berekely, so I’m using it as a working theory.
R: I’d argue that one of the downfalls of the whole film is that the musical numbers SHOULD be highlights and yet, they slow the entire film to a crawl. They really aren’t very good. As a theory, I have no issues following along with yours. It makes as much sense as anything else.
A: In O Brother, Where Art Thou? this is the movie being projected for a chain gang. Presumably, this has something to do with the Coen’s affection for The Stooges but the distinctly second-rate nature of the film does add to the bleak scene. But, hey, I like it! Clocking in at a brisk 64 minutes, Myrt and Marge glides by on Boasberg’s constant quips, the Stooges nonstop nonsense, Donna Damerel’s scantily clad sweetness, and M.K. Jerome and Joan Jasmyn’s spirited songs. The bounce of “What Is Sweeter Than the Sweetness of ‘I Love You’” and “Draggin’ My Heels Around” makes up for any deficiency in the production. In fact, the ragged edges of the film just add to its charm. I recommend this and hope that Universal wakes up and shares this film widely—a restored print did show at Cinecon in 2015. A solid three stars.
R: This is definitely one of those potpourri movies and you’d think that based on nothing else but The Stooges connection that Universal would’ve done more with a restored print by now than a single screening.I find that peculiar, especially in a movie that is likable and interesting, even with its quirks and flaws.I’d also go three stars for this and I kind of wish that we had more opportunity to spend time with Myrt and Marge than we have.