Judge George Hatch traveled 50 years back in time to call your attention to a highly underrated comedienne. He guarantees you'll have a ball, and it ain't named Lucy.
"I married Joan
Between 1935 and 1952, Joan Davis starred in almost 50 low-budget comedies and was one of the most sought-after actresses in Hollywood. Most people remember her hilarious performance as Camille Brewster, the professional radio screamer in Hold That Ghost (1941) in which she co-starred with Abbott and Costello. The scene in which the horrified Camille and Ferdie watch a moving candle is one of the funniest ever filmed, and Davis is a perfect foil for Costello, matching him shtick for shtick.
Joan Davis started her career as a child star in vaudeville, where she perfected her comic timing and physical routines. Her first film role was in a musical/comedy/western short for Mack Sennett titled Way Up Thar, and she was immediately offered a contract by RKO. But she was disappointed with the bit parts she was assigned and the equally low billing in the credits. In 1937, she moved to 20th Century Fox and was rewarded with co-starring roles alongside big box-office names like Dick Powell, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Shirley Temple, and Ginger Rogers.
In the 1940s, she tackled radio and became a regular on The Rudy Vallee Show, then went on to star in a radio show of her own. When television began to capture the public's attention, she started her own production company and developed the sitcom I Married Joan, in which played Joan Stevens, the scatterbrained wife of Judge Bradley Stevens (Jim Backus, Rebel Without a Cause, Gilligan's Island).
Sure, Davis was following Lucille Ball's lead. Ball had started her own company, Desilu, a year earlier and produced the long-running hit I Love Lucy, a series that is rumored to be playing in syndication 24/7 somewhere on the planet Earth. Sadly, Joan Davis is often referred to as "The poor man's Lucy." But the 12 episodes included VCI Home Video's I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection No. 2 should disavow any claims that the underrated and gifted Davis was the lesser comedienne.
The plots may seem stale by today's standards only because they became sitcom staples during the 1960s and many of them are still being used today. Watch any episode of I Married Joan, and you're guaranteed to conjure up similar situations in shows from Laverne and Shirley to Two and a Half Men. And that's only on the major networks.
The 12 episodes included in I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection No. 2 are as follows.
• "Home of the Week"
While the show varied in quality, often suffering from downright bad writing and cheesy-looking sets, I Married Joan will still make you laugh. Slapstick and outrageously improbable imbroglios ruled in the early 1950s. Actors walk into walls, and are not above wearing lampshades on their heads for an expected, albeit cheap, chuckle. Hackneyed jokes pop up on a regular basis. "That Mabel told me my stockings were wrinkled, and I wasn't even wearing any!" I remember stand-up comedian, Henny Youngman, using that as a one-liner on the old Ed Sullivan Show at least a half-dozen times. And, if I'm not mistaken, Groucho may have said it in one of the Marx Brothers classics of the 1930s.
Joan Davis's physical expertise is most evident in "Acrobats," where she gets caught in the titular act. Davis ends up sitting on the feet of one of the tumblers and is spun is circles, then tossed across stage to a companion who does the same. There was no stand-in used; this was Davis at her most dexterous, willing to do anything to captivate her audience.
Jim Backus is also excellent as Joan's husband, the dignified and put-upon Judge Bradley Stevens. He's perfect as the frustrated straight man and the exasperated butt of Joan's zany antics. Beverly Wills, Davis's real-life daughter, plays her sister in many episodes, and Sheila Bromley and Geraldine Carr make regular appearances as Joan's neighbors, Janet and Mabel.
Although they claim the episodes have been digitally remastered, I found VCI Home Video's transfers a bit on the weak side, especially when compared to their release of another 1950s classic TV show, My Little Margie. There's a lot of speckling, and a few black vertical lines appear in almost every episode. Actually the best transfers of old shows I've seen from the same period are from Shanachie's The Abbott and Costello Show. These episodes were transferred from original 35mm masters and look like they were shot just last week.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, however, sounds excellent. The only Extras are short biographies of both Davis and Backus, and some promos for VCI's other classic TV shows, including My Little Margie. Hint, hint.
In October, Bearmanor Media is publishing a long-awaited biography, Hold That Joan—The Life, Laughs and Films of Joan Davis by Ben Ohmart. I've provided a link under Accomplices. It looks to be a must for fans of this brilliant and genuinely funny actress.
Joan Davis was forced to live in the shadow of Lucille Ball in the early days of television's Golden Age. I think her sardonic humor and homages to classic vaudeville and burlesque routines gave her an edge over Lucy. In spite of the technical flaws, VCI's I Married Joan: Classic TV Collection No. 2 is an excellent introduction to an actress and TV show that, unfortunately, has been relegated to near-obscurity.
Not guilty! Keep the laughs comin', Joanie!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
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