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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Life of Riley, The

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The Life of Riley, with William Bendix in the title role, was a popular American radio situation comedy series of the 1940s that was adapted into a 1949 feature film and continued as a long-running television series during the 1950s, originally with Jackie Gleason playing Bendix's role.

The show began as a proposed Groucho Marx radio series, The Flotsam Family, but the sponsor balked at what would have been essentially a straight head-of-household role for the comedian. Then producer Irving Brecher saw Bendix as taxicab company owner Tim McGuerin in Hal Roach's film, The McGuerins from Brooklyn (1942). The Flotsam Family was reworked with Bendix cast as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation became one of the most famous catch phrases of the 1940s: "What a revoltin' development this is!" The radio series also benefited from the immense popularity of a supporting character, Digby "Digger" O'Dell (John Brown), "the friendly undertaker."

The expression, "Living the life of Riley" suggests an ideal life of prosperity and contentment, possibly living on someone else's money, time or work. Rather than a negative freeloading or golddigging aspect, it instead implies that someone is kept or advantaged. The expression was popular in the 1880s, a time when James Whitcomb Riley's poems depicted the comforts of a prosperous home life, but it could have an Irish origin: After the Reilly clan consolidated its hold on County Cavan, they minted their own money, accepted as legal tender even in England. These coins, called “O'Reillys” and “Reilly's,” became synonymous with a monied person, and a gentleman freely spending was “living on his Reillys.” Thus, the radio-TV title has an ironic edge.

The first Life of Riley radio
show was a summer replacement show heard on CBS from April 12, 1941 to September 6, 1941. The CBS program starred Lionel Stander as J. Riley Farnsworth and had no real connection with the more famous series that followed a few years later.

The radio program starring William Bendix initially aired on the Blue Network, later known as ABC, from January 16, 1944 to June 8, 1945. Then it moved to NBC, where it was broadcast from September 8, 1945 to June 29, 1951. The supporting cast featured John Brown, who portrayed not only undertaker Digger O'Dell but also Riley's co-worker Jim Gillis. Whereas Gillis gave Riley bad information that got him into trouble, Digger gave him good information that "helped him out of a hole," as he might have put it. Brown's lines as the undertaker were often repetitive, including puns based on his profession; but, thanks to Brown's delivery, the audience loved him. The series was co-developed by the non-performing Marx Brother, Gummo.

The American Meat Institute (1944-45), Procter & Gamble (Teel dentifrice and Prell shampoo) (1945-49), and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer (1949-51) took turns as the radio program's sponsor.

Beginning October 4, 1949, the show was also adapted for television on NBC by the producer of the radio series, Irving Brecher. Originally, William Bendix was to have appeared on both radio and television, but Bendix's RKO movie contract prevented him from appearing on TV. Instead, Jackie Gleason starred, along with Rosemary DeCamp as wife Peg, Gloria Winters as daughter Barbara (Babs), Lanny Rees as son Chester Jr. (Junior), and Sid Tomack as Jim Gillis, Riley's manipulative best buddy and next-door neighbor. John Brown returned as the morbid counseling undertaker Digby (Digger) O'Dell ("Cheerio, I'd better be... shoveling off"; "Business is a little dead tonight"). Television's first Life of Riley won television's first Emmy (for "Best Film Made For and Shown on Television"). However, it came to an end on March 28, 1950 after 26 episodes, but not because of "low ratings" or a desire by Gleason to leave the series, as previously assumed; the real reason was that Irving Brecher and sponsor Pabst Brewing Company reached an impasse on extending the series for a full 39-week season. Groucho Marx received a credit for "story."

The second TV series, produced by Tom McKnight for NBC, brought back William Bendix, beginning January 2, 1953 on NBC. He was supported by Marjorie Reynolds as wife Peg, Tom D'Andrea as schemer buddy Gillis, Gloria Blondell as Gillis' wife, Honeybee, Lugene Sanders as daughter Babs, and Wesley Morgan as son Junior. This Life of Riley series with Bendix lasted 217 episodes and remained an NBC fixture until August 22, 1958. It then went into syndicated reruns.


3 comments:

  1. keep getting "not a valid archive" file through winzip. please post again??

    ReplyDelete
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  3. Good Tip but Object Fix didn't work at all for CD 1 and only recovered and repaired 11 files on CD 2. Hope these zip files can be repaired and posted again.

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