Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came To Dinner the role that would frame the remainder of his career
Anacin shared the sponsorship of The Magnificent Montague
Chesterfield was one of the co-sponsors of The Magnificent Montague
The 1951 Ford was a co-op sponsor for The Magnificent Montague
RCA portable radios with the 'golden throat' helped pick up the tab for The Magnificent Montague
NBC Staff Organist Jack Ward provided the underscore for The Magnificent Monague
As Radio neared the 1950s it was already feeling the pinch of Television nipping at its heels. Already long a status symbol among the wealthy for some eleven years, by 1950, the post-World War II years were marked by the growth of the Middle Class in America, and the beginning of an unprecedented period of 'keeping up with The Joneses.' G.I.'s able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill of Education, saw an almost immediate increase in their disposable income once they'd acquired their sheepskins. Disposable income is precisely what the exponentially growing Television industry hoped for. With the increase in demand, Television manufacturers were having a heyday. Television ownership almost tripled within ten years of V-J Day.
These facts were not lost on the Radio industry. The late 1940s and early 1950s found both networks and independent programming syndicators like Frederic Ziv and Louis G. Cowan casting around for name talent upon which to build a Radio program. Big name talent was the key. Television was coaxing all the name talent it could afford into Television programming. But conversely, the Radio networks and sponsors alike were attempting to pare down their expenses in an effort to support both their Radio and Television programming efforts.
The $5,000 to $10,000 per episode budgets for half-hour shows were quickly becoming the rare exception rather than the rule. Indeed the target cost for a half-hour was rapidly approaching a standard of no more than $2,500 per program. By way of paring down costs, networks, sponsors, syndicators and name talent alike were attempting all manner of alternatives to the compensation tiers and structures of the past in Radio. Some name stars opted for participation deals to gamble on their own success. Some sponsors--and networks--bracketed their options by launching Radio and Television versions of their programming simultaneously to better hedge their bets. But far and away the most successful gambits of the era were the networks' respective 'time-sharing' or time-blocking schemes for both network sponsors and down-line sponsors.
The networks, each with their own schemes, would block out a prime time block of two to three hours for five or six nights every week. Those blocks of time would be broken down to the quarter hour, and sold either ala carte or in larger blocks to sponsors large and small. Thus, guaranteed prime time exposure for their various products, sponsors and broadcast outlets alike could both specifically target an audience segment, while at the same time, not having to foot the bill for an entire production.
For the greater majority of the newly introduced programming of the era, the system worked quite successfully well into the end of the 1950s and beyond. During a period of a waning talent pool for Radio, the various co-op sponsorship and participation schemes kept Radio attractive to big name performers of the era--performers who could almost certainly attract a new audience for at least a year's worth of programming.
NBC coaxes Film star Monty Woolley into a lead role in Radio
Monte Woolley had been no stranger to Radio. Indeed throughout the Golden Age of Radio Monty Woolley appeared with regularity as either himself or in character roles in the hundreds of Film, Stage and magazine-adapted Radio dramas of the era. But he'd yet to star as the lead in his own program. Indeed, several big name stars and major character actors of the era had made their debut over Radio in leading roles between 1943 and 1954:
The list is by no means all-inclusive, but the common denominator in all of the above programs from that ten-year period is that they all starred major Hollywood names that hadn't ever appeared as the leads in their own dramatic Radio vehicles. All of them made numerous appearances as either guest stars in single episodes over Radio, or numerous appearances as themselves in the hundreds of variety programs of the era. But the above programs were their only leading vehicles over Radio. Also common to almost all of them, their starring vehicles lasted only a season or two.
In November 1950 The Magnificent Montague became Monty Woolley's 'one-off' lead in a recurring, dramatic Radio program. Both the concept and the role were tailor-made for Woolley's widely perceived Film personae. The premise found Edwin Montague, ex-Shakespearean actor, founding member of the Proscenium Club of Shakespearean thespians, and supremely enamored of his own great Stage talent casting about for work. But discerning to the nth degree, Montague regularly refused any script, concept, or offer of acting work that failed to meet his--by then--unattainable standards.
Edwin Montague (Woolley) is married to the former Stage actress Lily Boheme (Anne Seymour) and they're both holding on--barely--to their housekeeper of 25 years, Agnes (Pert Kelton). As the Montagues' financial situation continues to deteriorate, the apparent final straw comes when their housekeeper and cook, Agnes, can no longer supply the imported kippers that Montague demands with his breakfast on a daily basis. She attempts to make due with domestic kippers and Montague becomes outraged.
Lily determines to take matters into her own hands and finds Edwin a job on a local soap opera as 'Uncle Goodheart', on the face of it, the antithesis of Edwin Montague's persona. But presented with the prospect of domestic kippers or none at all, Montague deigns to give the soap opera a try, but only after securing a vow of silence from the household regarding "The Magnificent Montague's" condescension to appear over Radio. After all, if the members of the prestigious Proscenium Club should ever get wind of how far the Magnificent Montague had fallen, he'd be forced to resign in shame.
Montague storms into the Radio studio determined to let them all know what's what when it comes to serious drama only to find that Drama over Radio is simply not performed as it is on The Stage. Be that as it may, Montague determines to fashion 'Uncle Goodheart' into a character more like himself. The studio crew and cast are obviously aghast at Montague's performance and after the broadcast, Montague retires home, supremely confident that he'll never be asked to work in Radio again. But . . .
Here's noted Radio and Television critic, John Crosby's take on the first episode of The Magnificent Montague from the December 19, 1940 edition of the Oakland Tribune:
Public Expects Him to Be Constantly Insulting
By JOHN CROSBY
NEW YORK, Dec. 19--The personality and general characteristics of Monty Woolley have now attained what is known in the trade as audience acceptance. That means the mass public will not only accept but even demand from Woolley certain eccentricities they wouldn't take from anyone else.
If you have Charles Boyer on a radio program, all the female members of the cast start acting like 16-year-old fillies. The fact that Boyer is well advanced in years now, that the girls don't really feel that way about Boyer, and that it's all a terribly tired joke doesn't alter circumstances. Boyer has to be treated in certain ways in deference to tradition; the babes will continue to swoon over him if he lives to be 96.
From Woolley you expect--in fact, demand--something different. Insults. Woolley's waspish temper originated in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" and has since been embaldem in countless movies, magazine articles and radio programs. Sooner or later it was bound to be fixed permanently in a radio program of his own and it has been. "The Magnificent Montague" (NBC 6 p.m., PST Fridays).
"The Magnificent Montague" is composed almost exclusively of insults, padded here and there only with enough plot to move Woolley from scene to scene. In radio where sweetness and light reign so uninterruptedly, a little barbed wire sounds refreshingly candid. Just the same, somewhere in the establishment of the Woolley personality in the magazines, the movies, the stage, there has been a diminution of values, a cheapening of standards and a general lowering of tone.
In "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a nurse had the temerity to tell the invalided Woolley that he mustn't eat candy. "My dear woman," rasped Mr. W., "my great Aunt Sarah ate candy every day of her life and she lived to be 102 and two days after she died she looked better than you do now. " Then there was the movie wherein Woolley, dressed as Santa Claus, uttered a monstrous belch. A woman gave him an indignant glare. Said Woolley: "What did you expect, Madam? Chimes?"
Nothing in "The Great Montague" quite approaches the candlepower of these particularly bright inspirations. On his radio program, quantity is substituted for quality. Here is Woolley on the subject of his breakfast. "Gad, was a messy sight; Just because the eggs were laid by a Plymouth Rock, must they look like a Pilgrim just pulled his foot out of it...I don't mind strong coffee but I do not like it when it comes out of the cup swinging."
All those remarks have beads of sweat on them as if the writer (Nat Hiken) were not temperamentally suited to the art of insult, as if he were a gentle soul who loves children, dogs, and other people's grandmothers. If this is true, they had better dig up someone more suitable--the type of man who steals pennies out of a blind man's cup.
To get down to some more specific details, Woolley plays the part of an ex-Shakespearean actor who has fallen in the social scale to the point where he is playing Uncle Goodheart on an afternoon radio program. This gives him an opportunity to insult his maid, his director, writer, and producer, radio in general and an occasional dog. He does all this with such great exuberance and genuine feeling that even the most mechanical of his lines ring with a certain amount of conviction. It's really a pretty funny show, especially when Woolley lights into radio, which he loathes.
Radio, incidentally, has taken to insulting itself with surprising vehemence. The other day on the "The Big Show," Clifton Webb and Tallulah Bankhead were having at each other on the subject of Noel Coward.
"Did you tell dear Noel I was on the radio?" inquired Tallulah.
"Certainly not," said Webb. "I'm a friend of yours. I shouldn't dream of telling him you'd fallen so low. I said you were on relief."
One more item about Woolley's program. On the opening two shows, the laughter was actually dubbed in from other shows, a final refinement of the studio audience idea. Since then, real live studio audiences contribute real live laughter. However, the real live laughter doesn't sound any more genuine--in fact, it sounds a little phonier--than the mechanical laughter. For a long time, it has seemed to me that the laughter of studio audiences has sounded increasingly brassy and contrived. Real people, I'm forced to conclude, have outlived their usefulness as studio audiences. I'll bet RCA's laboratories could produce a sound machine that would produce far merrier and far more real laughter than people, in these days, seem able to summon up themselves.
Copyright, 1950, for The Tribune
We'd rush to remind anyone reading Crosby's review that he was one of the more caustic--albeit honest to a fault--reviewers of the era. But John Crosby was also a contemporary reviewer who wrote daily columns on all manner of Radio and Television programs, personalities and industry developments. As emersed as he'd been, he had every right to demand higher standards.
Those of us who've become fans of this national treasure forty to eighty years hence tend to view each new Radio find as a novelty and in the case of The Magnificent Montague, we have the perspective of history to inform us that this was Monty Woolley's only lead role in a recurring Radio drama. Most of us also view these wonderful mid-2oth century programs through the prism of the ensuing decline in Film, Radio and Television entertainment during the intervening years. Most of what passes for contemporary Television and Cable entertainment can't hold a candle to even the mediocre productions from The Golden Age of Radio.
Viewed through that prism, The Magnificent Montague remains a fascinating and somewhat offbeat treat. Monty Woolley is everything one might have expected him to be as Edwin Montague. If one is a fan of his performance in The Man Who Came to Dinner, then The Magnificent Montague is a delightful, 52-installment extension of that characterization. But added to the mix are both Anne Seymour and Pert Kelton's contributions as Lily Boheme and Agnes, respectively. Both great actresses acquit themselves well throughout the series and this was also their own major outing in Radio as co-stars in a recurring dramatic, prime time program.
Series creator and writer, Nat Hiken, gets something of a bad rap from Crosby in his review. The writing does improve a great deal as both Woolley and his writer 'grow into' The Magnificent Montague character. Anne Seymour and Pert Kelton also find their roles expanding over the run of the series and by the series' end, even Monty Woolley seems a far more sympathetic character than the one Crosby reviewed in the show's premiere.
With great stage talent in such abundance, Monty Woolley must certainly have felt at home with The Magnificent Montague ensemble. Even more entertaining were the several intentionally overacted radioplays within radioplays heard in many of the Montague broadcasts. With the radically transformed Uncle Goodheart commanding greater and greater compensation, The Magnificent Montague finds himself ever-reluctantly tripping and stumbling into greater and greater fame over Radio--and Film--simply by being his curmudgeonly, egotistical self.
Pert Kelton and Anne Seymour were almost co-equal standouts in the series. It was also one of Art Carney's first, most identifiable appearances over Radio in a recurring role. And in another facinating irony, Pert Kelton had already begun to appear as the first Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners skits as part of the Cavalcade of Stars (1949). And, of course, Art Carney was already appearing with her--for better or worse--as Ed Norton.
All in all, The Magnificent Montague remains one of those comparatively overlooked series' that remain historical on several levels. It's certainly a must-listen for any situation comedy fan and, of course, anyone who can't get enough of Monty Woolley portraying Monty Woolley.
|RadioGOLDINdex, Hickerson Guide.
Notes on Provenances:
The most helpful provenances were the log of the radioGOLDINdex and newspaper listings.
As with any number of commercial OTR collections, the race to the bottom continues with all manner of mischief. The Magnificent Montague has not escaped the mischief of OTR dealers great and small. There were at least three The Magnificent Montague scripts that were 'recycled' for later episodes in the run. An unfortunate number of collectors, groups and dealers, in their zeal to say they possess something they do not, take the earlier, similarly scripted episodes and simply slap the revised or rebroadcast date on them. Thus they manufacture a missing episode from previous similar or identical scripts and pronounce them later broadcasts. There are at least three such similar scripts in The Magnificent Montague canon:
- Episode No. 6 from December 15, 1950 finds The Proscenium Club falling behind in their Christmas Fund. The similar script, Episode No. 39 from August 4, 1951 finds The Proscenium Club falling behind in their Summer Fund.
- Episode No. 18 from March 9, 1951 opens with Lily and Agnes reading a Walter Winchell column. The similar script, Episode No. 43 from September 1, 1951 opens in a similar manner. The performers differ and they bear different titles.
- Montague undertakes a diet in Episode No. 19 from March 16, 1951. He undertakes another diet in Episode No. 41 from August 18, 1951.
There may well be a couple of others, but with only two-thirds of the canon in circulation we can't determine them as yet. In most instances the mischief is immediately discernable by the file sizes, but with the OTRR and other large trading groups creating all manner of both stereo and mono encodes from the source recordings that distinction may not be immediately noticeable. Solution? Actually listen to what you collect. That advice should be self evident, but the overwhelming majority of 'OTR' collectors never actually listen to what they acquire. They simply continue to acquire more.
On the positive side, there's sufficient continuity in this series to piece together a chronological timeline for most of the circulating episodes. The South Pacific play arc, in particular, continues over several episodes, as do the initial seven episodes and the two-episode Wrestling arc. In addition, the series adhered chronologically to holidays and seasons within the scripts.
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