Ever wonder about those funny catch phrases we always hear over and over in classic cartoons? This month I’m beginning a new feature for Cartoon Research, about how classic radio comedies, and the broadcast comedians of that era, influenced Golden Age cartoons. I’m calling it “Radio Round-Up” – and I’ll be creating a video each time to illustrate those classic lines… and indicate where they came from. (For any old-timer radio aficionados, feel free to add anything I may have overlooked in the comments below.)
In the 1930s and 1940s, radio was the driving force in popular culture. Radio broadcasts were as immense an industry as the film business. Families and other communities of people converged to hear their favorite programs, which spanned from serialized action/adventure, dramatic plays and comedy—the latter often paired with variety shows. In the latter category, audiences latched on to endearing entertainers such as Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Joe Penner, Bob Hope and Red Skelton. Many shows would have a featured actor, or secondary character, become recognizable to listeners with a catchphrase—for instance, “You wanna buy a duck?” uttered by Joe Penner.
Naturally, animators were fervent listeners of radio—fixated on popular culture, as many people who reference movies and television today—and they supplanted these expressions in their films. At the time of their cartoons’ release, audiences would have reacted favorably, given their familiarity with the character(s) associated with their signature quotes.
Today, the context of these jokes is lost, and appear as puzzling non-sequiturs to the uninitiated. These contemporary gags remind us how the studios and audiences regarded the lasting value of these cartoons—they had no intention to be shown again after their theatrical run. On the other hand, these dated references and jokes are reflective of American society many decades ago.
More devoted animation buffs are aware of the topical references borrowed from radio programs and inserted into these films, thanks to researchers and historians sharing information in print or online. However, many might not have heard a certain radio catchphrase, or routines of the character its animated equivalent is based on, from its direct source. This column will provide the right context on how influential radio was to animation, particularly its comedy and variety shows. With each catchphrase, advertising slogan or character, an excerpt from the radio program will be presented, with various clips from specific cartoons displayed after.
The first radio program profiled is the long-running situational comedy Fibber McGee and Molly, which debuted in 1935. Sponsored by Johnson’s Wax and Johnson’s Self-Polishing Glo-Coat (until 1950), the show featured married couple Jim and Marian Jordon. As a reflection of Depression-era America, audiences resonated with McGee performing mundane tasks, such as taking piano lessons, much to the consternation of annoyed neighbors by his awful playing. McGee could also be involved in a tight jam, like getting his feet stuck in fresh tar. Through it all, the patient Molly supported her husband’s shortcomings. In addition, a procession of eccentric secondary characters—such as Thockmorton Gildersleeve, Wallace Wimple, The Old Timer, Mayor La Trivia, the little girl Teeny, and Mrs. Abigail Uppington—would appear and comment on the situation at hand.
Many of the running catchphrases in Fibber McGee and Molly were borrowed by cartoons, especially in the Warner Bros. animation department. In some cases, its side characters were loosely portrayed in several films. Here are some examples:
Whenever Fibber told a bad joke with his wife present, Molly often responded, “Tain’t funny, McGee!” Tex Avery referenced Molly’s trademark putdown in a couple Warners cartoons (Daffy Duck and Egghead, Holiday Highlights), mostly as sign gags. In Avery’s MGM cartoon, The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), the Wolf uses a variation on the phrase towards Droopy (or “McGoo,” in this case). After a beat, he looks to the audience and states how corny his previous line sounded.
Marian Jordan also portrayed Sis—later changed to Teeny—an annoying little girl who often visited the McGee’s house to agitate and outwit Fibber, ending her sentences with “I betcha.” Many of the Warners cartoons often used this line for smaller characters, with one exception being Porky at the Crocadero (1938), when a bumpkin telegram messenger ends every sentence in a similar fashion.Bill Thompson provided the voices for many of the show’s secondary characters, one of which was The Old Timer, an elderly, partially deaf man, who often referred to Fibber as “Johnny” and Molly as “Daughter.” Whenever Fibber would respond to him, often with a joke, The Old Timer would respond by distorting his own antiquated gags with, “That’s pretty good, Johnny, but that ain’t the way I heard it!” Thompson recreated his “Old Timer” voice for Baby Face Mouse’s grandfather in Walter Lantz’s Arabs with Dirty Fezzes (1939), his first role for animated cartoons, before his prolific vocal career for such studios as Disney and MGM.
Another running gag of Fibber McGee and Molly involves a character that isn’t heard on-screen. Whenever Fibber needed to make a telephone call, he tells the operator the extension and stops in mid-sentence as he realizes, “Oh, is that you, Myrt? How’s every little thing?” The conversation between Fibber and Myrt would only be heard through Fibber’s side of the conversation and would relay every detail to Molly. This gag was swiped for such films as The Wabbit Who Came to Supper (WB/1942), Blitz Wolf (MGM/1942) and Daffy the Commando (WB/1943.) Myrt wasn’t always omnipresent behind the receiver, as she did have a brief speaking part in a 1943 broadcast.
For the safety of running this post a bit too long, I’ll split the Fibber McGee and Molly references for next week’s “Radio Round-Up”. Other characters from the show will be profiled including Bill Thompson’s other performances as Wallace Wimple and Horatio K. Boomer, as well as the McGees’ maid Beulah and The Great Gildersleeve…
Here’s my first Radio Roundup video, which presents both the radio excerpts and the accompanying clips. This might not contain every cartoon that references a specific radio catchphrase or character, but the general idea is there, regardless. Due to the age of these recorded broadcasts, the audio portions vary in quality. Be sure to tune in next week!
“T’aint funny, McGee!” — clips used: A Sunbonnet Blue (WB/1937), Daffy Duck and Egghead (WB/1938), Holiday Highlights (WB/1940), and The Shooting of Dan McGoo (MGM/1945)
“That ain’t the way I heard it!” and other Old Timer references—clips used:
Pied Piper Porky (WB/1939), The Hardship of Miles Standish (WB/1940), The Ducktators (WB/1942), The Screwdriver (Lantz/1941), Tortoise Wins by a Hare (WB/1943), and Hysterical High Spots in American History (Lantz/1941)
“I betcha…” — clips used: Porky at the Crocadero (WB/1938), Porky’s Hotel (WB/1939), The Sneezing Weasel (WB/1938), Sioux Me (WB/1939) and Shop, Look and Listen (WB/1940; Bill Thompson voices the W. C. Fields mouse, patterned after his Horatio K. Boomer character from Fibber McGee and Molly).
“Is that you, Myrt?” — clips used: The Wabbit Who Came to Supper (WB/1942), Blitz Wolf (MGM/1942) and Daffy—the Commando (WB/1943)
(Thanks to Keith Scott and Yowp for their help.)