Monday, 29 June 2009

RIP MY LITTLE MARGIE: IN MEMORIAM, GALE STORM

The death of Gale Storm brings back another of those half-forgotten bonds with my childhood. My Little Margie ran for only four years, after beginning life as a summer replacement for I Love Lucy, which was appropriate because it basically copied the format slavishly. But even though I never really warmed to Lucy, in any of her TV incarnations (even then I thought Gracie Allen was subtler), through the miracle of syndication Gale Storm as Margie was a presence throughout my early childhood. Just now, watching the opening theme, with its undertone of pizzicato violins, played over the photos of Margie and father Vern (each episode would end with them repeating those poses) reminded me of how much fun it was.

Cartoon fun, in the best sense of the word. And watching the early 30s Storm playing the supposedly 21 year old Margie as an 11 year old makes it easy to see the appeal of the show to kids who hadn't yet seen double-figures. Margie's expressions are right out of Looney Tunes, as is the famous gurgle whenever she's backed herself or Vern into a corner. It certainly wasn't a crush--even at that age I thought Vern's girlfriend, played by Hilary Brooke (who was also the highlight of Abbott and Costello for me) was hotter than Margie. Though Gale Storm was not to be sneezed at.

I never liked Oh Susanna! (aka The Gale Storm Show) her follow-up comedy, set on a cruise ship and probably the model for Love Boat. Either I'd grown too sophisticated by 9, or Storm's brand of screwball and slapstick wasn't as effective in the setting.

Margie worked because of the ensemble cast. Charles Farrell, as Vern, has an even emptier handsomeness than Ricky Ricardo, and even less masculinity. Ricky's position vis a vis his audience was always somewhat unsure; as a Cuban, a musician, a Latin lover. But Vern was a widowed American man rendered helpless by his daughter. Farrell was a silent movie star whose nasal voice and accent worked against the talkies, but as the nebbishy Vern he's perfect. Even better is Clarence Kolb, who plays his boss, George 'Mr.' Honeywell, looking like Mr Moneybags from the Monopoly board and emoting somewhere between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. Much the way he played the mayor in His Girl Friday. The other real star was Gertrude Hoffman as Mrs. Odetts (maybe a clever reference that went way over my little head in those days?) who played the Ethel Mertz neighbour role, and played it well. The setting was also important; it was exotic; Vern and Margie lived in a luxurious high-rise apartment; Vern wore sharp suits to work, and no one I knew lived or worked like that.

Gale Storm herself lived a storybook life. She was born Josephine Cottle in Texas and won a talent contest that saw RKO rename her Gale Storm and feature her in some really bad movies, though I won't pass judgement on Revenge Of The Zombies or Where Are Your Children? until I've actually seen them. The man who won the same contest, to be reborn as Terry Belmont (not as catchy as Gale Storm) was Lee Bonnell: Cottle and Bonnel; fell in love, married in 1941, had four kids and were still married when he died in 1986.

Doing a little research in case I got assigned the obit (but everyone had it in stock, which is a tribute to her in itself) I also discovered that My Little Margie began on CBS, was picked up by NBC after its first season, but continued as a separate radio show on CBS for the length of its run, which probably makes it unique.

When I think of Margie I also think of Topper, The Great Gildersleeve, Amos n Andy, Life Of Riley and other 'adult' shows that we kids watched on Saturday mornings or early evenings in syndication. The ones I remember best share those talented ensemble casts, of actors trained in the films of previous three decades, if not in stage and vaudeville, and writers who followed a similar path. They can be simple, by today's tastes, but unlike modern programming made specially for kids, they don't condescend, at least not to kids (they may be condescending to their adult audiences, but that's another story). We weren't watching some adult's idea of what children 'ought' to see, were told they wanted to see, and could be cajoled into buying the toys from. Though in fairness, that may have begun with Hopalong Cassidy and then Davy Crockett. I think of Gale Storm and I remember how adult I felt watching the show, as if she were projecting my presence into that adult world, and having even more trouble with it than I did. I'll miss her as much as I miss those days.

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