Still I’ve been wanting to get back in harness and putting something together on “forgotten” TV shows on a weekly basis – well an approximately weekly basis – seems like a direction to take. After all my blogging buddy Bill Crider features postings about “Forgotten Films” or “Forgotten Books” on an almost daily basis in his blog Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine, and frequent commenter her and elsewhere Todd Mason regularly collects links about overlooked film and other A/V material in his blog Sweet Freedom, so I figured I might as well join the trend. After all, if you`re going to steal an idea, steal a good one. And since my blogging buddy Ivan G. Shreve Jr. is just ending a contest to give away a box set of Radio Spirits’ Life Of Riley CDs (the program guide for which was coincidentally(?) written by that distinguished radio historian Ivan G. Shreve Jr.) at HIS blog Thrilling Days Of Yesterday, well the choice for the first show to profiled is pretty obvious.
Title: The Life Of Riley
Dates: October 4, 1949 to March 28, 1950 (26 episodes)
Starring: Jackie Gleason, Rosemary DeCamp, Lanny Rees, Gloria Winters, Sidney Tomack, John Brown.
Surprising Fact: The show won an Emmy in 1950 as “Best Film Made for and Viewed on Television in 1949,” the first situation comedy to win an Emmy (it beat out The Lone Ranger and Silver Theater).
Why Forgotten?: Several reasons: First the star: Jackie Gleason (in his first TV series) instead of William Bendix who played the part on radio and in a movie that debuted the same year that the TV series did. Second, the show lasted less than a full season.Third, it was 1949. Fourth, both the show and the star went on to better things.
Now let’s go into the situation in depth. The Life Of Riley began as a radio show in January 1944 on the NBC Blue Network which was in the process of becoming ABC. It shifted to NBC in September 1945. The radio show starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley, Paula Winslowe as his wife Peg, and John Brown as both Riley’s best friend Jim Gillis and most famously as Digby “Digger” O’Dell “the friendly undertaker” (he also played a third character named Waldo Binny) The told the story of Riley, a Brooklyn born riveter at a California aircraft plant, his wife two kids and their friends. Riley is a sentimental guy whose attempts at taking a tough line or do something he thinks is right – usually on advice from Gillis – he ends up getting into trouble. With some good advice from Digger and a lot of help from the level-headed Peg he manages to survive the situations he finds himself in. As an interesting side note, one of the developers of the radio series was theatrical Milton Marx – known to Marx Brothers fans as Gummo, the brother who never appeared in the movies.
In 1949 a Life of Riley movie was made starring Bendix, Rosemary DeCamp as Peg, Meg Randall and Lanny Rees as Riley’s kids, Babs and Junior, Brown as “Digger” O’Dell and James Gleason as Gillis. With TV beginning to gain ground and the movie further building awareness of the visual possibilities of the show, It seemed like a great idea to put The Life of Riley on TV, with Bendix recreating his radio role. The problem was that Bendix was under contract to RKO Radio Pictures as a movie actor, and like a lot of movie stars his contract prevented him from doing TV. So, the role of Riley had to be recast. Sometime movie actor and nightclub comedian Jackie Gleason was tapped for the role. Rosemary Decamp and Lanny Rees came over from the movie as did Brown. Gloria Winters – who is much more famous for her later role on Sky King as his niece – played Babs. Gillis, who was played by John Brown on the radio show, was played by Sid Tomack. The problem was of course that the radio show was still on the air and would stay on the air until 1951. There were obvious comparisons between the TV Riley and the radio version – who had also been seen in the movie – and Gleason, with his popping eyes didn’t fit people’s vision of Riley. Plus, Gleason was 33 when he got the role as Riley, a man with a teenaged daughter and a son who either was a teenager or was about to become one.
And yet, it does not appear that the show was cancelled for poor ratings. The show ran for 26 episodes which today seems like a full season or even more than a full season at a time when the typical series runs between 22 and 24 episodes. However in 1949-50 the typical season was 39 episodes. So what happened? Apparently the show’s producer Irving Brecher, got into a dispute with the show’s sponsor Pabst Brewing over extending the show to a full 39 episode season. In those days shows were effectively controlled by sponsors and their advertising agencies, with the networks having far less power.
Another reason why the show is largely forgotten today is that it was being made in 1949. There were only about 125 TV stations in the entire country. Many TV shows, and most comedies were shot and broadcast live from New York for much of the country. Stations in the Pacific and Mountain time zones were provided with kinescopes; the episodes were filmed off of the TV monitor which were then flown to California to air on NBC regional network based there. Kinescopes were inevitably poorer quality than would be seen either when the shows aired live or once the three camera set-up became the standard for producing TV series. The net result is that while a considerable amount of Gleason’s version of The Life Of Riley apparently survives, not many people saw it at the time, and the whole idea of syndicating reruns wouldn’t really be thought of until I Love Lucy came on the scene a few years later.
Maybe the biggest reason why the show qualifies as “forgotten” is that both the show and its star went on to bigger and better things. Gleason would get his own variety show, The Cavalcade of Stars, on the Dumont Network in 1951. The show was a hit for Dumont, and so was promptly poached by CBS which could promise the advertisers a much bigger audience than Dumont could deliver. The show then became The Jackie Gleason Show which spawned a number of character driven sketches including The Honeymooners, which ran as a stand-alone series in the 1955-56 season. Gleason himself would continue to work with CBS on a number of series until 1970. The Gleason show for much of he 1960s – initially known as American Scene Magazine and later as The Jackie Gleason Show would feature Honeymooner episodes, many in colour.
As for The Life of Riley, in January 1953 William Bendix – apparently freed from the restrictions of his RKO contract – appeared in a revival of The Life of Riley. Marjorie Reynolds played Peg, Wesley Morgan was Junior, Lugene Sanders played Babs and Tom d’Andrea was Jim Gillis. Joan Blondell’s sister Gloria Blondell appeared as Gillis’s wife Honeybee for most of the show’s six seasons, and Groucho Marx had a writer’s credit for “story”. The show ran until 1958 with various neighbours coming and going. Even the Riley kids eventually left the show; Babs got married and Junior went off to college. They would however make frequent appearances on the show. One character who did not make the transition from the radio version – and the first TV version – of the show was Digger O’Dell. John Brown, who played Digger was blacklisted as a result of accusations made in the pamphlet Red Channels. Although Brown lived until 1957, dying a few weeks after his 53rd birthday, he career ended in 1952. For whatever reason however it was decided not to try to find someone else to play the O’Dell character. The show did fine without him, spending four of its six seasons in the top 30 in the ratings and entering syndication after production on the 217 episodes was completed.
The 1949 version of The Life Of Riley is apparently in public domain. Several releases of the Gleason version of the show are available. Depending on the version these can be expensive. Some episodes are also on YouTube. What follows is the complete second episode of the show. Note that there is no laughter, and that the theme is whistled. The former is because the show was filmed and before the three camera system was developed that meant that there wasn't a studio audience to react to the jokes. The latter is because the musicians union was on strike when the show was being made.