Last summer, an associate and I had to drive from Colorado to Ohio for a conference and then back again. We found that we both enjoyed listening to old-time radio shows and so, for much of the trip, the satellite radio was tuned to the old-time radio station. The program that seemed to be on the most was The Great Gildersleeve starring Harold Peary. The show was one of the earliest examples of a spin-off in broadcast history…the title character was originally a supporting character on the Fibber McGee and Molly show. The Gildersleeve program ran from 1941 to 1957…and in 1942, Peary brought the character to the big screen in the first of four films for RKO, “The Great Gildersleeve.”
Throckmorton P Gildersleeve (Peary) is a loveable rotund man, but also somewhat of a pompous windbag, who lives in the town of Summerfield. He shares his home with his orphaned niece and nephew, teenage Margie (Nancy Gates) and younger Leroy (Freddie Mercer), as well as live in housekeeper Birdie (Lillian Randolph). He also is in charge of overseeing Margie and Leroy’s considerable fortune, though under the watchful eye of Judge Hooker (Charles Arnt).
The judge’s spinster sister Amelia (Mary Field) happens to have her mind set on making Gildersleeve her husband. One day, she cautions Gildy that without a woman in the house, the judge may decide he isn’t fit to care for the children. She hopes this will move him to propose, but what he actually does is contact his Aunt Emma (Jane Darwell) to come and help out. Still, Amelia starts planting rumors around town that she will soon be Mrs.Gildersleeve. Things get worse when some of the local busy bodies spot Gildersleeve at the local jewelry shop. He’s actually buying a new watch for Aunt Emma, but they assume he is picking out the engagement ring.
When all this gets back to Gildy, he is quick to inform Amelia and the Judge that he has no intention of marrying her. This enrages Judge Hooker, who is anxious to get his sister out of his house, and he decides that Gildersleeve has 10 days to find a wife or the children will be removed from his home. With this news, Margie and Leroy launch into action. They decide that they need to improve their uncle’s image around town. They figure if he is the most respected man in town, there is no way the judge would dare work against him. They print campaign-like flyers, and even get a marching band to parade around town declaring how great the Great Gildersleeve is.
Another opportunity to thwart the judge comes when Leroy discovers that Gildersleeve is quite skilled at running backwards…due to an out-of-control treadmill. This leads to Gildy challenging the judge to a race, with himself running backwards. Further hijinks ensue when the governor of the state (Thurston Hall) comes through town and ends up at Gildersleeve’s house to get a home remedy for his cold from Aunt Emma. A chance meeting between the Governor and Leroy gets this plot moving. Gildy takes the opportunity to try and impress the judge with the Governor’s presence in his home.
“The Great Gildersleeve” is certainly episodic in its structure. Not surprising considering they were taking a half hour radio program and turning it into a feature film. But the film certainly does not rely on the format of a radio show. Many scenes of physical comedy are included, which never would’ve worked on a radio program, and Harold Peary does prove himself to be quite adept in that department.
The entire cast is actually quite skilled comedically. Lillian Randolph is especially a treat, delivering several fun moments. Young Freddie Mercer is also a lot of fun, making a great foil for Peary…leading to several refrains of the Gildersleeve catchphrase, “Oh Leeeeeeroy!” Ultimately, though, it’s the wonderful comedy skills of Harold Peary that really makes this film work. He manages to perfectly balance pompous and playful in this character. There are plenty of reasons not to root for Gildersleeve, but when he lets loose that goofy laugh (another trademark of the character) you can’t help being on his side.
There’s nothing spectacular or flashy about “The Great Gildersleeve,” it’s just good-natured fun. I’m sure that in 1942 it was a real treat for audiences to see this beloved radio character on the screen. I think even those who have no knowledge of the character today will get some enjoyment from his first big screen adventure.