Saturday, October 31, 2015

Radio Greats: Halloween Party (Our Miss Brooks)

Our Miss Brooks was one of the most successful radio comedies of the Golden Age of Radio. It was broadcast on CBS from 1948 to 1957. It was brought to television from 1952 to 1956, where its adaptation of radio situation comedy to the television medium made it one of the shows that made clear just how much television could do with the sitcom genre. It even got its own 1956 movie, although that seems to have done only so-so.

One of the things that makes the series is Eve Arden as the terribly underpaid, dry-witted, and indefatigable teacher Connie Brooks. One of the things the show is usually credited for is being the first comedy with a female lead who was not a ditz or klutz or playing straight off a husband who was a ditz or klutz. She commonly finds herself in conflict with the fussy, manipulative principal of Madison High School, Osgood Conklin, and pines for the often clueless, usually cheapskate, and always a-little-too-shy biology teacher, Philip Boynton. Other common characters are Harriet Conklin, the sweet and honest daughter of Principal Conklin, and Walter Denton, the awkward, cracked-voice teenage boy who is Miss Brooks most loyal supporter and, to the horror of Principal Conklin, who cannot stand him, Harriet's love interest. Eve Arden's performances are often near-perfect; it is difficult to imagine a better fit to this kind of character. Which actually is ironic, since she seems to have been the third choice for the part, after Shirley Booth (who turned out to take the role too seriously) and Lucille Ball (who wasn't interested).

The jokes are not usually what we would call rolling-on-the-floor funny, but they are always fun. And the series ends up being funnier than the jokes -- this is a series that is massively funnier if you hear it than if you just read it. Our Miss Brooks predates laugh tracks; one of the reasons for the success of the series is Arden's ability to bring the live audience in on the joke, meaning that with even a minor joke told very drily, she often has them in stitches. A great deal of fun also arises from the interactions among the characters, each of whom is very different in personality and style, and each of whom is played excellently. Several of the actors went on to even more famous roles. Gale Gordon, who plays Osgood Conklin, went on to play Theodore J. Mooney on The Lucy Show; Richard Crenna, who plays Walter Denton, went on to play Luke McCoy in The Real McCoys and Colonel Sam Trautman in the Rambo movies, and received both an Emmy (for his role in The Rape of Richard Beck) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Halloween is a good holiday if you like old time radio, because a major surge in the popularity of the holiday, and the transformation of trick-or-treating from scattered local customs to a national custom, occurred during the Golden Age of Radio itself. And Our Miss Brooks is a particularly good series for finding holiday episodes because it's a story set by a school, and school years, of course, are primarily structured by holidays. So that brings us to "Halloween Party", the episode I've chosen for this major comedy series.

You can listen to "Halloween Party" at the Internet Archive (number 56).

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