Though she had firmly established herself in motion pictures as America’s favorite man-chaser, it could be argued that comedienne Joan Davis really achieved major fame in radio. From 1941 to 1943 she was a regular on Rudy Vallee’s popular Sealtest variety show and when Vallee went into the Coast Guard to “do his bit” for World War II, Davis inherited the program—the name was changed to Sealtest Village Store, with Jack Haley as her co-host. Joan’s comic talents were too ample to be strait-jacketed into a venue where she had to share the spotlight with Haley, however; she left Village Store after two seasons and starred in her own CBS series (known variously as Joanie’s Tea Room and Joan Davis Time) from 1945 to 1948. Her last radio series was Leave it to Joan, which ran for a single season beginning in the summer of 1949.
Like so many of her radio brethren and sistren, Joan was anxious to try out this new fad called “television,” appearing in a pilot entitled Let’s Join Joanie—which was essentially a continuation of her radio series. The pilot failed to find a sponsor (though it did make it to air on January 12, 1951), so Joan did some skulling with her ex-husband (and longtime writing collaborator) Si Wills to find a new format for her comedy. The two of them came up with I Married Joan, a domestic comedy with Joan portraying a happy housewife married to Bradley J. Stevens (played by TDOY idol Jim Backus). It was never adequately explained why a conservative judge (that was Brad’s profession) had tied the knot with a manic screwball like Joan; the implication was that Joanie was the sunshine in Brad’s life (“Giddy and gay, all day she keeps my heart laughin’” as the opening theme song went) but I’ve long suspected that Joan was in actuality an asylum escapee being looked after by Judge Brad until the men with the white coats arrived. Granted, these gentlemen took their sweet time in getting there; I Married Joan premiered over NBC on October 15, 1952, sponsored by General Electric, and enjoyed a healthy three-year run that spanned 98 episodes.
At the risk of being impolite, I Married Joan was essentially a carbon copy of I Love Lucy—which had managed to both transform and define television situation comedy in only its debut season (1951-52). Like Lucy, I Married Joan used a three-camera setup to capture Davis’ physical comedy antics (and there were a lot of them…with Davis not relying on a stunt woman) and the director of I Love Lucy’s inaugural year, Marc Daniels, even jumped ship after the first year to direct Joan’s first season. (Subsequent seasons were overseen by TV veteran John Rich and former Henry-Aldrich-on-radio Ezra Stone.) The title of Davis’ show alone would tip you off that the similarities between the two sitcoms were not a coincidence, with Joan’s character mimicking the same impulsive, childlike behavior as did Lucy Ricardo. I don’t mention this to slam I Married Joan, you understand; it was good at what it did and when it stayed in its wheelhouse it could be most enjoyable. But the series couldn’t duplicate the popularity of I Love Lucy (Joan’s broadcast history had it competing with Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on Wednesday nights…and in its last season, ABC’s phenomenally popular Disneyland) and I used to chuckle when I watched the show in syndication as the announcer beamed: “America’s favorite comedy show, starring America’s queen of comedy, Joan Davis…”
Syndication is where I first caught I Married Joan. In the 1980s, before it was engulfed by ABC Family (now Freeform), the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) ran a slew of TV sitcom reruns in the evening and early a.m. hours: Burns and Allen, My Little Margie, The Life of Riley, etc. I Married Joan was also in the lineup, and as the classic TV-obsessed individual that I am today, I stayed up all night to watch it and the other shows. I Married Joan has only recently resurfaced on the Decades sub-channel (they scheduled it weekdays mornings beginning in March of this year) and DVD-wise, there have been a smattering of public domain releases here and there (most of them from Alpha Video). VCI Entertainment has issued three volumes of the show in the past, with a fourth scheduled to hit the streets next Tuesday (October 9). Clint Weiler at MVD was gracious enough to send a screener my way.
I used to own previous VCI volumes (I believe the first two) but I eventually banished them to eBay to placate my mother; I was genuinely surprised, however, that the show holds up remarkably well. There are ten episodes on Volume 4—five from the first season, three from Season 2 and the remainder from I Married Joan’s valedictory year. They appear to be the syndication masters (each show runs about 22 minutes—they have most assuredly been edited) but they look snazzy and only in two instances are there some visual imperfections (VCI is always good about giving you a heads-up about these in a disclaimer before the presentation). Joan Davis had a team of writers—she affectionately referred to them as her “boys”—that included Arthur Stander and Phil Sharp (both wrote Joan’s pilot), Jesse Goldstein, Frank Tarloff, Howard Snyder and Hugh Wedlock, Jr., and the brothers Schwartz—Al and Sherwood. (It was on Joan that Sherwood became good friends with co-star Jim Backus, which would eventually lead to Jim’s being cast on Gilligan’s Island.) According to Facebook chum Ben Ohmart—author of Hold That Joan: The Life, Laughs and Films of Joan Davis—Abe Burrows and Neil Simon also contributed to the series. (As did Davis, who was a one-woman dynamo on the series as star, [unofficial] director, producer, etc. at a not-too-shabby salary of $7,500 a week.)
In his autobiography Forgive Us Our Digressions (written with his wife Henny, who occasionally appeared on I Married Joan as her girlfriend Harriet), Jim Backus memorably observed that “trying to be a friend of Joan Davis’ was like watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your brand-new Rolls.” While Backus had a great deal of professional respect for Joan, he never warmed to her socially and considered his stint on Joan an “ordeal” since the show couldn’t rely on cue cards or teleprompters due to the physical nature of the comedy. “This means,” he reminisced in Digressions, “that in three years I memorized approximately 6,545 pages of dialogue, which is equivalent to memorizing War and Peace and Gone with the Wind.” Davis didn’t experience the difficulty in memorization that her co-star did—Backus believed that Joan had a photographic memory. I’ve always considered it a shame that a great comic talent like Backus was underused on I Married Joan; I had someone on Facebook challenge me on this when I stated that Jim rarely got the opportunity to be all that funny, a particularly obnoxious sort convinced he was the end-all and be-all of comedy argued Backus was the straight man and wasn’t supposed to be. (George Burns got laughs as a straight man…but I digress.)
In two of the episodes on I Married Joan, Volume 4, however, Backus gets a few moments to shine (and both of these episodes feature, interestingly enough, dream sequences). In “The Stamp” (03/11/53), Joan accidentally mails a letter with a rare stamp that Brad has purchased (a “Mozambique purple” he bought for $350). He’s so angry at her that she has a nightmare in which she’s tried in court for this crime…with Brad as judge, bailiff, and both D.A. and attorney for the defense. (Backus does his Lionel Barrymore impression as the prosecuting attorney.) “Business Executive” (07/01/53) has another wild nighttime flight of fancy of Joan’s as she dreams that Brad’s decision to quit his job as judge and become president of a soup company has turned him into a fat, bald gazillionaire whose gout confines him to a wheelchair. (Backus gets to work in a little Mr. Magoo in this one.)
The episodes on Volume 4 reunite Joan Davis with a few of the talents with whom she worked on radio, notably Shirley Mitchell, Wally Brown (he had a recurring role as one of the Stevens’ best friends in the third season), Sandra Gould, and Mary Jane Croft (in peak Miss-Enright-bitch-mode). But you’ll also spot favorites like Elvia Allman (another recurring regular as Joan’s Aunt Vera), Hal Smith, Jerry Hausner, Bob Sweeney, Barney Phillips, Joe Besser (married to Shirley Mitchell in “Business Executive”), Frank Nelson, Marjorie Bennett, Don Beddoe, Bernard Gorcey (as Backus’ bailiff!), and William “Billy” Benedict. In the second season, Joan added daughter Beverly Wills to the cast as her sister Beverly (yes, sister) which attracted a younger demographic to the series. The final episode on Volume 4, “Lieutenant General,” even features Beverly’s real-life husband Lt. Alan Norton Grossman (the two wed in July of 1954) playing the fictional Bev’s husband. (I watched this one with a good deal of amusement, because throughout Grossman wears the facial expression of someone who can’t quite fathom how he wound up in this My Little Margie-like existence.)
Depending on which source you put your faith in, Joan Davis gave up doing I Married Joan after three seasons because she was simply tuckered out (she observed of all the physical comedy she did on the series: “I’m glad I took care of myself as a little girl”) or because of the stiff competition from Disneyland (Joan, on her cancellation: “Imagine that—killed by a mouse”). Joan shrewdly leased the syndication rights to NBC for $1.15 million, and the network made I Married Joan a daytime staple in 1956-57. Davis’ show never experienced the success of Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy (as Jim Backus wrote “Lucille Ball was to Joan Davis what Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes”) but it stands on its own as an entertaining entry in the history of TV situation comedy, and fans of the series will want to check out the latest volume from the good people at VCI.