By Bob Stepno
Newspapers and journalism in radio comedy
While newspaper reporter or editor characters easily became stand-ins for detectives and adventure heroes, they also became leading characters in romantic comedies on radio, just as they did in Frank Capra’s Hollywood classics like “It Happened One Night” and “The Philadelphia Story.” (Many of those “screwball comedy” journalism movies were repeated as radio broadcasts, so you will find them under “Film adaptations.”)
Radio added another wrinkle — the daily serial or soap opera, most often combining romance, melodrama and suspense. However, episodic dramas also included classic radio comedies, such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Vic and Sade” and “Easy Aces.”
“Easy Aces” had a recurring reporter character, who stepped into the spotlight for a longer story arc while the usual stars were vacationing. I’m tempted to call it a unique case of the journalist as “serious-relief,” rather than the “comic-relief” reporters sometimes offered in adventure and crime dramas. (For a discussion of that reporter’s ethical or unethical behavior, see my separate essay on “Easy Aces.”)
Amos ‘n’ Andy
“Amos ‘n’ Andy,” in its early days as a hit radio serial, already had journalist characters — plotlines in which one character wrote a local gossip column mentioning another character’s wedding plans, and two characters tried to interest a third in starting a new Harlem newspaper. (At this writing, I’m not sure how often “newspaper” plots occurred in the 30 years and various formats of the program, which began in 1928.)
That third character, an abrasive entrepreneur named Frederick Montgomery Gwindell, said “no” to the newspaper scheme in the rare early recorded 1933 broadcast above, but in later stories became “a hard-charging newspaperman,” according to Wikipedia and other online sites about the series — which uniformly quote that phrase to describe the character.
The Gwindell character was well-known enough in 1935 for a Palm Springs, California, newspaper to run a column of “correspondence” with him, in which the Desert Sun asked the fictional Gwindell for advice, and Gwindell in return threatened to start a competing paper:
“Palm Springs Is to Have Another Newspaper.
Word was received from Editor Frederick Montgomery Gwindell. yesterday, that he is en route to Palm Springs, with the printing plant of the Gwindell Printing Company in the rumble seat of his flivver, and that he will start a new newspaper here. Editor Gwindell recently left Weber City, New York, when he found that the printing business could not succeed in that town.
“When the report came to The Desert Sun that Amos and Andy would arrive here from Weber City for a month’s visit, the editor of this newspaper sent a letter of welcome to Mr. Gwindell, welcoming the fellow editor in the name of the great fraternity of pencil pushers…”
Elsewhere, radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, author of a book and articles about “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” reported that thw character “Kingfish” secretly wrote a gossip column under the name “Leroy LeRoy.”
“Vic and Sade” and the newspaper on radio
Even radio series with no journalist characters gave powerful examples of the importance of the daily newspaper in American life. One of the most popular programs of the 1930s and ’40s, the brilliantly quirky and humorous “Vic and Sade,” is a case in point. As a series about everyday life, there were rare instances where the Gooks might find themselves in the newspaper, if only in a photo captioned Local Lodge Leader Takes First Dip or a news brief announcing that Sade had been named Grand Old Lady of the Drowsy Venus Chapter of Vic’s lodge, much to her chagrin. In the episode, Vick even attempts to hide the newspaper from her, but getting your name in the local newspaper is a powerful thing, and word of her celebrity gets back to Sade quickly.
To my knowledge, no reporters or editors appeared in the episodes, but the newspaper itself was there — in the hands of the main characters. Stories frequently began in the living room or on the porch with the title characters and their son, Rush, reading newspaper stories to each other, commenting on the day’s events, or just passing the time. Series creator Paul Rhymer had great fun finding humor in the mundane, including the “news” reports of a small-town newspaper.
For example, in the scene titled Piano Lessons, Vic improvises absurd details while reading the small-town paper’s social notes about a neighbor’s illness.
Vic: Your chum Beulah Witcher gets her name in the paper… “Beulah Witcher, 918 North Mason St., who has been ill the past few days, is up and around again. Yesterday noon she had so far recovered her health that she was able to eat a large sirloin steak, three fried eggs, cole slaw, lima beans, oatmeal… ladyfingers, corn on the cob, iced tea, cantaloupe and banana cake.”
Sade: It really says that?
In another, Vic says he’s considering writing articles for the paper about a two-week business trip. His wife and 14-year-old son are merciless in their critique of his news judgment, with a hint that Vic has been spending too much time at the office entertaining “one of the girls” (named Lolita DiRienzis) who gave him the idea. Vic feigns modesty at first and judiciously avoids identifying the “someone” who gave him the idea, but Sade and Rush egg him on to the point that he argues he might even write a book.
Sade: You think maybe you will write pieces for the newspaper about your trip?
Vic: What newspaper editor would be interested in any trash I’d turn out… Aw shucks… Probably the editor’d split his sides laughing if I submitted any such fantastic proposal…
Rush: Yes I imagine it would be awfully dull reading… You wouldn’t have anything to say about Wisconsin and Michigan that would thrill anybody… What would you call your book, “A trip through darkest Michigan”? “Blood-thirsty Adventures in Untamed Wisconsin?”
Vic takes umbrage, defends the idea, and recounts in detail one of his “side-splitting stories,” which isn’t. The humor is brilliant and subtle, and underneath is the reality that people really did take the newspaper seriously.
In an earlier episode, Vic had written-up a southern business trip as a six-page manuscript, sent to a local reporter, a lodge brother. The reporter’s response was a sarcastic message, delivered via Vic’s son Rush, “I’d have passed on your information about Ohio being north of Kentucky to the city editor only I was afraid he wouldn’t survive the shock of such a revelation.” In the end, the paper printed one line: “V.R. Gook of this city was absent on business last week.” (For more, and the episode itself, see Jimbo’s report on Vic’s Geographical Trip.)
“Vic and Sade” was an offbeat domestic comedy, far from the typical continuing-story “soap operas” and romantic serials; although it had no regular “journalist” characters, the daily newspaper was as much a part of its portrayal of daily life as the living room furniture.
Before the days of TV news and the Internet, the newspaper wasn’t just for news, either. Vic and Sade scholar Jimbo Mason points out that Sade was a fan of a daily fiction serial in the evening paper, as heard in broadcasts like Miss_Neagel_Tears_Up_Lee_Street, from December 1942. Vic wasn’t interested in that episode of the “Daily Little Love Story,” although he at least claimed to have read it over the years. (See a 1937 script reference at The Crazy World of Vic and Sade blog.)
Both Vic’s dramatic readings from the evening paper and Sade’s devotion to the serialized love story appear in an episode titled “Miss Keller’s Wedding Ring,” broadcast on Sept. 15, 1944. (Its script was published on the Web by the Generic Radio Workshop in August 2013.):
ED: Well sir, the evening meal has been over only a little while as our scene opens now and here in the living room of the small house halfway up on the next block we find Mr. & Mrs. Victor Gook. Our friends are seated on the davenport with sections of the newspaper and the master of the menage seems to have come upon an article of interest for he is reading aloud with briskness and enjoyment, listen.
VIC: Multiple co-efficients of modern business procedure. Mr. O’Slooner also touched on the variance in imponderables connected with the mercantile conduct in general. ‘Thinking men in this day and age,’ he said, ‘may be likened to the merchants of ancient times to whom miscellaneous tenants of humanitarianism and occult perceptive considerations were in direct relation…’
SADE: Oh ish Vic ….. Let me read my own trash here.
VIC: What trash is that?
SADE: A “Little Daily Love Story.”
VIC: You would prefer to occupy your mind with childish and trivial …
SADE: Yes, and anyway I heard the kitchen door open. Is that you, Russell?
RUSS: Hi Mom. (muffled) Somebody’s here.
VIC: Mr. Curtis O’Slooner says, whose words I was quotin’ — formerly taught mathematics in college.
SADE: Did he?
RUSS: We’re going to have company.
VIC: Seems to me as long as a man of his intellectual caliber is willing to surrender the fruit of his rich thoughts in a newspaper article, the least we can do…
As was standard practice, Vic and Sade’s conversation was interrupted repeatedly by the arrival of their son, Russ, and Uncle Fletcher, each with his own attempt to break into the conversation. But Vic was steadfast about his newspaper.
VIC: Curtis O’Slooner of course never says anything with nonsense. He’s just a poor half-wit. Poor old Curtis O’Slooner….
SADE: Oh ish, Vic. Where is Uncle Fletcher?
RUSS: He’ll be right along. He paused out in the alley a minute to speak to Mr. Razerscum.
SADE: Mr. Razerscum’s in Peoria.
RUSS: Oh, I mean Mr. Kneesoffer. …
VIC: Say, here’s something you can understand. ‘Human ingenuity,’ Mr. O’Slooner, went on to say, ‘is merely…’
SADE: I don’t want to understand that craziness. Vic, read it to yourself.
VIC: ‘Craziness’ she calls it.
SADE: What do I care about ‘human ingenuity’ and trash.
VIC: Trash. Trash she says.
SADE: Here we are.
FLETCH: In the living room, are we, Sadie?
SADE: Yes. Everybody.
SADE: You’re not going to hold that newspaper up in front of your face and read while we got company, I don’t suppose.
VIC: I have a paragraph to finish.
SADE: Put your newspaper down.
VIC: I’ll put this newspaper down after I have finished this paragraph.
SADE: Who was it who used the word childish a minute ago? What great big man said somebody was childish and made some…
Newspapers, whether for journalistic reporting or as entertainment, were part of American life — and radio dramatists showed them as such.
“Lum and Abner” in the news
Like “Vic and Sade,” another popular small-town comedy serial, “Lum and Abner” brought newspapers into the storyline now and then during its 23 years on the air (1931-1954).
In one episode, one of the two country storekeepers fakes a story about rescuing his partner from a kidnapping. Rather than be interviewed by a reporter, Lum decides to write up the story himself and send it to the paper. The result is, in effect, a “Kids, don’t do this at home!” journalism lecture — an example of how not to write a traditional news story, or a sample of a very bad public relations press release. At least Lum confesses to a friend that news writing is not easy:
“I wrote it and tore it up five or six times and I don’t know yet whether I’ve got it just sounding right or not. I don’t want to leave nothing out, of course… of course I had to tell the facts.”
So Lum’s “facts” may be fraudulent, but writing the story is still work, and the script writer must have had fun composing the news parody. Lum plans to offer the paper his article complete with two decks of headlines and a sensational lead about his own heroism, followed by his full biography and business details. After listening to a few paragraphs, his friend points out that Lum has managed to leave out the name of the supposed kidnap victim, Abner, along with most of the “rescue” details a newspaper really would want to know. (The unspoken problem is that Lum hasn’t made them up yet.) Here’s a facsimile of the opening of his story, as Lum might have imagined it appearing in print:
Lum Edwards Risks Life to Rescue Friend
Pine Ridge Justice of the Peace and President of the School Board Wins Battle with Kidnappers Single-Handed
Lum Edwards, prominent citizen of Pine Ridge, made a hero out of himself Tuesday, when he defied death and waded through shot and shell to rescue a friend from a dangerous band of kidnappers.
Mr. Edwards is a graduate of Cloverleaf School District No. 186 and is a leader in the social and civic affairs of the community…
Back in the 1930s, the radio program published its own Pine Ridge News newspaper as a promotion and fan newsletter, listing Lum as most of the staff and Abner in a few positions. It featured profiles of the program’s stars Chester Lauck and Norris Goff, news of their public appearances, and photos of the actors in costume as the country shopkeepers.
At other times, Lum & Abner’s frequent nemesis Squire Skimp turned up as a newspaper correspondent — as well as an oil swindler, lawyer and insurance salesman, or so I’m told. (I haven’t heard any of those episodes myself, but will add something here if I do.)
Mentioning newspapers during a comedy program also was a way to bring in something serious from the real world — especially hard to escape during World War II. For example, in a 1945 episode Lum was supposedly upset about a newspaper story misspelling his name. Searching for the story about his being trapped in a mine, he began by reading the day’s page one war news aloud — launching a discussion of how long it would take to defeat Japan once Germany had surrendered, with a patriotic aside encouraging Americans to keep buying War Bonds. (Was this an ad-lib patriotic gesture, or a “product placement” for War Bonds or the Office of War Information?)
For more about Lum & Abner, a quick search will find dozens of online sources, such as the National Lum and Abner Society, which also offers a contemporary comic strip featuring the classic characters.
Major Comedy Roles for Journalists
At least two evening radio series cast Hollywood stars as newspaper editors and reporters in comedic plots, while anthology series like Lux Radio Theater adapted dozens of Hollywood movies about journalists, including some with comedic elements — from the classic “The Front Page,” “His Girl Friday” and “The Philadelphia Story” to “Woman of the Year.”
Also, as mentioned above, “Easy Aces” brought a reporter character into the spotlight on several of its storylines. Here are links to JHeroes pages about series where journalists had major parts to play.
- Rogers of the Gazette, with Will Rogers Jr. as a homespun small-town editor with echoes of his father and a tone similar to the later Andy Griffith Show on television.
- Bright Star, billed as a romantic comedy adventure, with Irene Dunne and Fred MacMurray as editor/publisher and star reporter.
- Shorty Bell, with Mickey Rooney in a dramatic series with comedic elements.
- Easy Aces, which promoted its reporter character from secondary status to leading man for several weeks, while the stars were away on vacation.
- The Charlotte Greenwood Show, a sitcom with music interludes, broadcast from 1944 to 1946, featured the tall actress, singer and dancer working as a cub reporter for a local paper while awaiting a movie role. (She’s not a great journalistic role model; in an early episode she has trouble finding the letter K on the typewriter to spell “kat.”)
- Newspaper film adaptations, including famous comedies like “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “Front Page Woman,” “The Front Page,” “His Girl Friday,” “It Happened One Night,” “It Happened Tomorrow,” “Love Is News,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Nothing Sacred,” “The Philadelphia Story” and more.