CLASSIC VIDEO SHOWPLACE: I Married Joan

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In honor of Women’s History Month, the Showplace will feature prominent female-driven classic programs and films…and women who “changed the game” and made a lasting impact in the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond.

 This week, we take a look at the incredibly underrated performance of television’s Joan Davis.

When I Love Lucy burst onto the scene in 1951, it became the nation’s hottest television sensation of the decade.

The premise for most episodes?

A wife caught in outlandish situations bringing about zany comedic bits and sometimes quite extreme physical slapstick routines while the loving husband looks on and all becomes right with the world in the end.

This plotline was the hallmark of the early years of the Lucy program and, like most crazes, imitators we’re quick to jump on and exploit this winning formula.

Even with only three channels available, an abundance of similar shows popped up throughout the broadcast week – some faring better than others.

But one of the best of the rest, and one show that could clearly stand on its own merits that emerged from the early 1950s was I Married Joan, starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus.

The similarities were clear.

Davis would quickly get herself involved in a predicament which descended into a spiraling mess of craziness, which would culminate in an over-the-top physical event before each episode’s resolution. 

The husband’s role was largely that of a straight man who’s expressions at Davis’s antics would help build the final comedic climax. Both shows’ leading ladies were housewives who longed for more while their husbands (to somewhat different degrees) tried to deflate those notions and disapproved of their wives doing much more than suppressing them to stay home.  Still, it was clear who were the stars of both shows.  Both programs also had very little character development beyond the main wife and, to a lesser extent, her husband’s lives, with a supporting cast acting mostly as props.  (Desi Arnaz would frequently admit this about his own series many times in the years that followed.)

Heck, both I Love Lucy and I Married Joan were even piloted by the same director, Marc Daniels for each series’ entire run.

However, “Joan” did have two aspects that set it apart from the other imitators.

While some specific gags were similar to the Lucille Ball sitcom, Davis’s series would usually attempt fresh challenges and completely original ideas for harebrained schemes.

Probably the funniest example of this was the episode in which the family buys a new TV and Joan is left on the roof trying to install it herself. Ironically, this identical plotline was actually “borrowed” for one of Ball’s later series in the 1960s.

Backus, as Davis’s foil, portrayed a respected judge and exhibited a much more laid-back brand of humor than Desi Arnaz’s Ricky Ricardo character.  Instead of explosive reactions normally played to hilarity by Arnaz, Backus’s Bradley Stevens character was more subtle with his humor, yet had impeccable timing that played well off of Davis’s eccentric physical comedy.

Backus, of course, would go on to play more prominent roles on television and is best known as the Millionaire Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island and was the original voice of the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo. (More on Jim’s tremendous career in a future Showplace blog entry.)

Davis also did not have the benefit to play off her comedy with the expert acting tandem of the extremely talented William Frawley and Vivian Vance as neighbors as Fred and Ethel.

Among the recurring role-players who did interact with Davis from time to time included Hal Smith, who would later play Otis, the town drunk on the 1960s classic, The Andy Griffith Show.

Despite being matched up against the incredibly popular Arthur Godfrey and Friends program on Wednesday nights for the show’s entire run, I Married Joan’s ratings or solid and actually improved in the second and third seasons.

There’s contradictory evidence as to why the show was cancelled. Some sources cite a decline in ratings during the program’s final few months, indicating a trend that the program was starting to lose momentum. Others say the physical strain on Davis became too much for the actress to handle.

Yet, viewing the final episodes reveals that the story lines were still fresh for it’s time, the comedic bits were still funny and Davis was handling the physical comedy just as well for the latter episodes as she did when the show first premiered in 1952–almost one year to the day after I Love Lucy debuted.

While Joan’s efforts have become largely overshadowed by the enormous success of Lucille Ball, one would be remiss without checking out Davis’s own brand of antics and unique style… and, in retrospect, certainly deserves a second look.

You can find this out for yourself as

I Married Joan is featured prominently over the next two weeks on RCN TV’s current broadcasting line-up, airing on Sundays at 12 noon, Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 10 a.m.

To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.

 

Chris Michael About Chris Michael

Chris handles play-by-play for RCN sports events, including baseball, football & basketball games and produces/hosts the station’s 60-minute live call-in show. Among Chris’s other responsibilities include reporting on local news & sports stories, conducting “Take 5” interviews with community and political leaders, producing commercials, voiceovers and promos; and generating blog entries and videos on the internet. Click here to listen to the weekly Sports Talk podcast.

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