Everybody’s Friend, Marie Wilson

This month our blog series is “They Call Me Wilson,” and we will be looking at actors with the last name of Wilson.  Today we begin our series with Marie Wilson, a familiar face in television in the 1950s.

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Photo: e.n. wikipedia.org

Marie was born Katherine Elizabeth Wilson in August of 1916 in California. Her nickname in high school was “Maybelle.” After her father died, the family moved to Hollywood. She graduated from high school in 1933, and by 1934, she had received her first movie credit. One source mentioned that her parents divorced when she was only seven months old and her father, Wally Wilson, passed away when she was five. She received an $11,000 trust which helped her take time to pursue a career in acting. Her stepfather, Frank White, raised her.

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Her first role was as a passenger in Down to Their Last Yacht, but she would go on to appear in more than fifty films. The plot of this movie was that a family loses everything in the Depression except their yacht. Several men who feel bad for their daughter decide to host a Monte Carlo night.  The group rigs the roulette wheel so that the house is the winner although she knows nothing about it.

From 1947 to 1953 she also accepted a role on radio as the scatterbrained Irma on My Friend Irma. The show was very popular with well-written scripts and accomplished acting.

Wilson with Cathy Lewis–Photo: oldtimeradiodownloads.com

During this time, she also starred in a couple of films about Irma in My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West. A duo by the name of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis starred in the movie version of My Friend Irma.

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Not content with Irma occupying space in two big medias, My Friend Irma aired on television from 1952-1954. Irma was a secretary living with roommate and friend Jane Stacy (Cathy Lewis) in a run-down apartment owned by Mrs. O’Reilly (Gloria Gordon). Neighbor Professor Kropotkin (Sig Arno) got involved in the girls’ lives as well as Jane’s boyfriend, millionaire Richard Rhinelander III (Brooks West) whose mother was played by the amazing Margaret Dumont. After Jane moves to Panama at the end of season one, Kay Foster (Mary Shipp) became Irma’s new roommate. Her boyfriend was Joe Vance (Hal March). The new neighbor was Mr. Corday (John Carradine), an actor and just for some new plots, Irma’s seven-year-old nephew Bobby (Richard Eyer) moves into the apartment.

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During her time on radio, she married actor Allan Nixon. Apparently, he struggled because he was a bit player while her career flourished.  He was arrested numerous times for drunk and disorderly conduct, and they divorced in 1950. Another big disappointment occurred in 1950 when she lost the role of Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday to Judy Holliday.

The following year she married Robert Fallon, another fellow actor, and they remained together until her death in 1972.

Marie’s appearances on television waned in the sixties.  She appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 and on Comedy Spot in 1962. Comedy Spot had a different premise.  As a summer replacement for Red Skelton, it featured unsold pilots for comedy series and reruns from comedic anthology shows.

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In 1963 she would appear on two episodes of Burke’s Law and in one episode of Empire.

In 1970 she returned to a weekly animation series on Where’s Huddles? She had the role of football wife Penny McCoy. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after only ten episodes. This show was about the lives of football families on and off the field and featured a lot of talent including Paul Lynde, Jean Vander Pyl, Allan Reed, and Mel Blanc.

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Her last appearance was on Love American Style as Margaret Cooperman in 1972 in “Love and the Girlish Groom.”

Wilson was recognized for each of her Irma media hits with a Walk of Fame star for radio at 6301 Hollywood Boulevard, for television at 6765 Hollywood Boulevard, and for movies at 6601 Hollywood Boulevard.

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Not many actresses can claim their leg is a famous sculpture but Wilson’s left leg was used to cast a 35-foot sculpture located outside the Theme Hosiery plant in Los Angeles. The leg was wearing nylons to promote them to the public in 1949.

Marie had a long and successful career but was typecast early in life and unable to shake that image.  It may have contributed her loss of the part in Born Yesterday which might have changed her career dramatically. Discussing her life in entertainment, Wilson said “Show business has been very good to me and I’m not complaining, but some day I just wish someone would offer me a different kind of role. My closest friends admit that whenever they tell someone they know me, they have to convince them that I’m really not dumb. To tell you the truth, I think people are disappointed that I’m not.”

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As we’ve seen so often in this blog, it’s hard not to be grateful for a lucrative career in entertainment, but it’s tough to be locked into one type of role and never given a chance to show your depths as an actor. Thanks for being our friend, Marie.


The Teacher We All Wished We’d Had: Our Miss Brooks

We kicked off the month looking at the successful transition of Burns and Allen from radio to television.  There were many shows that couldn’t make the leap to the small screen, and several that did very well like The Jack Benny Show and I Love Lucy. Our Miss Brooks not only had a successful radio show, but when their television show debuted, the radio show kept going. Many of the cast members starred in both mediums. In addition, they made it to the big screen with a movie and a comic book.

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So, what enabled Our Miss Brooks to do what many shows could not?  Let’s look a little closer at the series and the behind-the-scenes work that kept the show on the air for four seasons, producing 130 episodes.

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Connie Brooks (Eve Arden) is an English teacher at Madison High. She and her principal, Mr. Conklin (Gale Gordon), do not always see eye to eye, but she is close to his daughter Harriet and Harriet’s boyfriend Walter (Richard Crenna) who gives Miss Brooks a ride to school. She wants to be close to Mr. Boynton (Robert Rockwell), the science teacher, but he is oblivious to her charms. She rents a room from Mrs. Davis (Jane Morgan) where she lives with Mrs. Davis’s cat, Minerva.

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We also get to know Fabian “Stretch” Snodgrass (Leonard Smith), basically a “dumb jock” who is Walter’s best friend and Daisy Enright (Mary Jane Croft), another English teacher who is Connie’s love rival for Mr. Boynton.

The show debuted July 19, 1948 on the radio. The show program was sponsored by Colgate-Palmolive-Peet for its entire run which ended in 1957. The first choice for Miss Brooks was Shirley Booth, and the show was titled “Our Miss Booth.” In Gerald Nachman’s book Raised on Radio, he states Booth concentrated too much on the disadvantages of being a school teacher to be funny. There is an audition with her from April of 1948 and while she sounds pleasant, she doesn’t have the sarcastic wit of Arden. The television show began in 1953 and was sponsored by General Foods.

 

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Our Miss Brooks was a ground-breaking show featuring a single woman (teachers were usually single, and marriage might have ended her career). She was not a scatterbrained female like Lucy or Joan in I Married Joan, and she was not a housewife like June Cleaver or Donna Reed. She was a bright, attractive working woman. Eve remembered her third-grade teacher fondly and tried to give Miss Brooks some of her qualities. Eve was known for her sassy movie roles; one of the things she appreciated about the character of Connie Brooks was that it allowed her to be a warm, fun-loving person who had a self-deprecating side.

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The show was a Desilu Production, so they shared equipment and crews with I Love Lucy, as well as a director (William Asher) at times, to save money.

The show was funny because it is based on believable characters. Connie Brooks has a great sense of humor. Many of the plots involve misunderstandings or her trying to keep Walter out of trouble with Mr. Conklin. Here are a few episode summaries.

Miss Davis unknowingly uses school funds to buy Connie a new dress. Now Connie must sell the dress to return the money. Mr. Boynton even models the dress for the kids.

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Mr. Boynton asks Connie to play the role of Mrs. Boynton. She is thrilled,  imagining what it could lead to, until she realizes he meant his mother, not his wife.

Walter is listening to his home-made radio. Storm warnings come over the air for Bombay. Miss Brooks mistakenly thinks it is for their area and takes precautions to evacuate the school and prepare for a hurricane.

Mr. Conklin is furious when his bike is taken at the grocery store, and he wants the thief punished. Miss Brooks finds out that a poor boy borrowed it for his birthday and then returned it to the store. She goes to great lengths to protect the youngster.

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Radio Mirror magazine nominated Eve Arden as the top-ranking comedienne two years in a row for her characterization of Miss Brooks. The National Education Association recognized her for her sympathetic portrayal of teachers.

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Eve Arden was nominated for an Emmy for Best Actress Starring in a Regular Series in 1954, 1955, and 1956—winning in 1954. Gale Gordon was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in 1955, and the show was nominated Best Situation Comedy in 1954 and 1955.

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Eve Arden had to fight the same battle many celebrities do when they have a hit show. She handled her fame of being known as Miss Brooks with grace and practicality. As she explained it: “I originally loved the theater. I still do. And I had always wanted to have a hit on Broadway that was created by me. You know, kind of like Judy Holliday and Born Yesterday. I griped about it a little, and someone said to me, ‘Do you realize that if you had a hit on Broadway, probably 100 or 200,000 people might have seen you in it, if you’d stayed in it long enough. And this way, you’ve been in Miss Brooks, everybody loves you, and you’ve been seen by millions.’ So, I figured I’d better shut up while I was ahead.”

 

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While the TV series never resolved the Boynton-Brooks romance, the 1956 film did. It was directed by Al Lewis, who directed many of the television episodes. In the movie, Miss Brooks is unaware that Mr. Boynton is saving money, so he can ask her to marry him. He is hoping to get a promotion to head of the department. In a subplot, Connie is having issues with a student who is failing her class. He has no friends because he is very arrogant. When she meets his wealthy father, she understands why he has no friends and she tries to help him.  Also, Mr. Conklin is running for Coordinator of Education, primarily to stop the other nominee, Superintendent Stone, who has threatened to fire Conklin. Miss Brooks decides to be Conklin’s campaign manager despite her butting heads with him most of the time. If Conklin wins, Mr. Boynton might be promoted to principal. In the end, Boynton finally proposes, only to have a chimpanzee steal away the ring.

 

Our Miss Brooks comic. (1956)

The movie was a box-office failure. After the movie, Dell Comics released a comic book titled “Our Miss Brooks.” In past decades, it sold for hundreds of dollars in mint condition. Today it can be found on ebay for under $50.

A fun fact I learned was that Eve Arden was born Eunice Quedens. When she was encouraged to take a different stage name, she looked over her cosmetic jar labels. She picked “Eve” from “Evening in Paris” and “Arden” from “Elizabeth Arden.”

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While many of the plots for Our Miss Brooks are predictable and not overly creative, it was a innovative sitcom. The scripts were well written, and the humor still works today. I could not find any channels currently broadcasting Our Miss Brooks, but it does appear on Me TV from time to time. The radio shows can be heard on Sirius Radio, channel 148. Of course, there are a variety of DVDs featuring the show. Add it to your list to understand why Eve Arden was so popular with women in the 1950s.

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