Stop me if you've seen this one before:



. . . but you probably haven't. Do you recognize these two?



I'm not exactly unfamiliar with the popular culture of the 1940s, and I couldn't recognize them. But here's the twist: I'll bet millions of Americans from the era wouldn't know them on sight either - even though they were the most popular radio characters of the day. (They beat Benny.) If you spotted me an ampersand and put a gat to my head, I'd probably stammer out "Mibber McGee and Folly," spoonerizing the names because I was nervous. Guns have that effect.

Fibber McGee and Molly appear on the satellite radio OTR channel from time to time, and I usually punch up something else. I never cottened to the show; Fibber seemed a tiresome fellow, something of a loser; Molly was grounded and sweet with a ready supply of barbs and sideways retorts, but the plots never engaged, the supporting characters came and went so quickly I couldn't get the sense of an ongoing arc, and the commercial interruptions of stalwart pitchman Harlow Wilcox, woven right into the plot, made them seem silly. I never got it.

So I was prepared to just sit through this one as a lesson. Steeled myself for the obvious gag when Fibber did this:



Did what? He opened the closet. I knew about Fibber McGee's closet before I knew about the show, or for that matter about the riches of old radio: it was one of those pop-culture references that was dying as I was growing up, and I caught the last few reflected photons. "Fibber McGee's closet" was an overstuffed messy assemblage that made a calamitous noise when the door was opened, and it all fell out. It was one of radio's most enduring audio gags. An exhaustive study of the show indicates that it was used 88 times.

Here's the thing: when Fibber opened the closet and got something out, nothing fell down. The audience was waiting for it. The audience knew it had to happen. This was the way of the world, at least in Wistful Vista. But he got what he wanted and shut the door without incident. It was shave and a haircut without two bits. Masterful.

At the end of the scene, of course, everything fell out. You have to give 'em tbe two bits or no one will sit still for the rest of the picture. As I said, I was never enjoyed the radio shows very much, but there was something about the introductory bit that made me like the characters much more than I ever had. They seemed real, for the first time - and the chemistry of the two, married since 1918, was rich and natural. All of a sudden, I got it.

The movie concerns Fibber & Mollie's 20th wedding anniversary vacation, and it's interspersed with the adventures of two other characters:



Charlie McCarthy, undead talking Wood Boy, and Candice Bergen's father, Edgar.They're camping up in the same part of the world as Fibber and Mollie. Labored comedy routines ensue. Meanwhile, Fibber and Mollie ditch their crummy digs for the swank resort across the lake, and who do they meet?




This is the reason I watched this movie in the first place.



Harold Peary, the Great Gildersleeve.

I came to this character backwards. I got to know him through his own series, but Gildy was spun off from Fibber & Mollie - the first spin-off in radio history, I believe. He was the George Jefferson of his era. Peary's writers remade the character into something other than a blustery foil for Fibber, and turned him into a sympathetic character without soft--pedaling any of his foibles. Neat work. But he's all old-school Gildy here, fighting with Fibber, challenging him and his manhood at every step, bristling at the fat jokes; the audience was waiting for the inevitable catch-phrase: "You're a haaaaard man, McGee."

This scene made me smile, since you never saw Peary do anyything physical on the show. Twice in this film he does this huffed-up belly jig. Then Fibber calls him a name when ordering him to reset the pool table . . . or so I thought.



Sigh. Jeebus. Rastus.

The action switches back to Edgar Bergen, and introduces the other puppet, Mortimer Snerd, the inbred two-toothed yokel:



Girl Scouts are added for cheesecake factor:




We're supposed to believe that A) all the girls know who Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are, and B) they find Charlie cute and possibly a worthy object of sexual flirtation. It's creepy as hell.

Here's another picture that means nothing to anyone today:



Bergen and Ray Noble, who will show up later to conduct some songs in a dance number. Noble was the band leader on Bergen's show, and he also worked with British super-crooner Al Bowlly, among others, and if you're thinking . . . .who? Okay. Well. You've seen the Shining? The man on the left above is the bandleader of the song played at the end.




At some point Gildy and Fibber and Edgar run into each other, and it's old-home week, because they're all friends:



But why? How? Because they're all on the radio? There's no reason Edgar shoud know any of them; he's a star, a media figure, a national personality. Fibber and Gildy are just people who live in a small town. This makes no sense - unless there was some sort of crossover or plot arc that brought Edgar Bergen into the Fibberverse.

Just to remind you how things change; look at that picture. Those are three of the most popular characters of their era. Who could name them today? Add this: the audience knew them from their voices, so this was was extra-special added value. Like we'd feel about a video star doing an audio-only podcast, perhaps.

Oh, you say, who cares? So it's always been. Actors and stories have their vogue, they rise and fall and pass; so what?

Okay. See this guy?



The character is Wallace Wimple. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the word "wimp" is derived from this fellow; he certainly popularized it. Wallace was smart, weak, meek, utterly dominated by his wife - "Sweetie Pie," who sounds like a bruiser along the lines of Mousy's "Gussie" in Lum & Abner.

But if you'd like to get a spark that connects a face to a time to another character to another medium . . . click on this.



I'll leave it up to you to wrack your brains and figure out where you've heard Bill Thompson before.




There's a big musical number at the end, requiring more young women to be enthralled by the wooden dead-talker Charlie. I've no idea if this was the first time they tried this; I wonder if some people in the audience felt a stir of unease in their guts.



He can do this? That ain't right.