News of their impending assault on the screen capital had just broken when I called on Jim and Marian Jordan, who are Fibber McGee and Molly as well as sundry other quaint characters on a weekly radio program.
I found them at a modest but quite fetching home in Peterson Woods, an attractive, spic-and-span district of Chicago's North Side, neither exclusive nor ritzy. It is the Wistful Vista of the McGee radio script.
No fashionable showplace, this. If the Jordans abhor anything more than a sustaining program it's a showoff. Just a two-story dwelling of mustard colored brick exterior and severely practical design, set on a 30- by 25-foot lot. Pretty, homelike, inviting. Something any well-paid working man might aspire to own.
With the ink scarcely dry on a lucrative movie contract, it seemed reasonable to expect a jubilee spirit at the Jordan menage. Instead, there was a hangdog look in the keen brown eyes of the short-sleeved little gent who stood in the front yard.
I tried hard to keep it in my noggin that these genial, bluff, commonplace folk were famous funmakers, beloved of millions, bound for Hollywood and new glory. Yet something was wrong. Some intangible shadow. The bluebird must be around somewhere, but I didn't hear him warbling.
"About that movie contract now," I ventured at last as we sat in the streaming sunlight of the Jordan solarium. "I suspect that's an answer to an oft-spoken prayer. Jim and Marian, you're riding high!"
Jim didn't hear it at all.
But Marian had heard. She sighed.
"Yes," she said dully, "that movie contract. It's thrilling, of course. It's fine to be appreciated. Pretty soon now," and she seemed on the verge of tears, "we'll be off for the coast."
"Say, what is this?" I blurted suddenly. "Is it a victory celebration or a wake? You'd think a movie contract was a mortgage foreclosure, the way you both take on."
"Might as well take our home on a foreclosure as take us away from the home," Jim broke in darkly. For the first time I got an inkling of where the trouble lay. Marian nodded. She turned to me.
"It's this way," she explained. "Ever since we were married down by the Schnapps factory in Peoria, Jim and I have longed for a home, pictured and planned it in our minds. This is it."
"But your success has brought you the home. And aren't you happy about a new chance in a new field? Don't you get a kick out of the figures on that contract? Why, you'll be able to build an even better home."
Jim answered quickly: "It isn't that we aren't appreciative. Marian doesn't mean that. Sure, success built this home. Incidentally, we don't want a better one. We're happy in this home -- when we're here, which isn't often enough or long enough. Certainly we're glad to enter the movies. But it means going away from Wistful Vista. If we could just take time out, now, to enjoy our dream home! But we can't. Gotta keep going. It's part of the game."
This was a new Jim, this philosopher. I wanted him to continue. But Marian interjected another doleful note.
"There are the children, too. Don't forget the children, Jim. They were part of our dreams."
It developed that the Jordans, during the several weeks' work in the studio (they talked like it would be years, eons) were leaving behind 16-year-old Kathryn, comely high school junior, and 13-year-old Jimmy, eighth grader, who sings like Bing Crosby (says Jim).
"Let me show you the house," Marian cried impulsively. "Then maybe you'll understand what we're talking about."
She did, and I did.
The Vanastorbilts wouldn't go for this home, but any middle-class family would dote on it. There are three large rooms downstairs, besides the solarium. Three inviting bedrooms upstairs. In the basement, a huge playroom for the younger generation.
Appointments are beyond reproach, though Marian, a self-disparaging sort of person, sometimes referred to her "interior decorator's nightmare."
"No frills or freaks," the First Lady of the House of Jordan cheerfully admitted. "But every inch is utilized. We built this hose to live in -- if they'll let us.
"Jim inspected and gave his personal blessing to every timber and brick and nail. He slunk around the place day and night, til the neighbors began to think that the joint was haunted."
Jim probably knew what he was doing, at that. He's been not only a carpenter and a student of architecture, but also a timekeeper, machinist, day laborer, soldier, insurance agent and problem child around Peoria.
Jim and Marian adroitly parried questions about the money involved in radio and movie contracts. Jim observed:
"We're getting a lot of dough, but we're in no position to do any plunging. We're going slowly, paying on annuities, looking to the future. In the movies, we're untried. In radio, nobody can say what's going to happen tomorrow."
About their home, they both are garrulous old gossips, pulling no punches.
"In the original contract it was supposed to cost $10,000," Jim recalled. "As it stands now, including furnishings, carpets, drapes and everything, I figure it's worth a good $15,000."
Here in their own home, at least, you couldn't doubt that the Jordans knew happiness.
Like millions of others, you see, home life and comfort and security are all that Jim and Marian Jordan care deeply about. Luxury formed no part of the earlier career of either, and now their success has caught them up, neither feels the need for extravagant things.
Nothing ever came easily for the Jordans, and what they have now they cherish. Even their romance was stormy. Jim was 17, Marian, 16, when they decided to marry.
Peoria frowned on youthful marriages. "Puppy love," sniffed the citizens, and asked, "How can that stripling Jordan support a wife?"
Jim wondered about that himself, but Marian didn't hesitate. Neither has ever been sorry; but the going, in spots, was painfully rough.
When the war came along, Jim volunteered In St. Nazaire he fell ill. Thereafter he fought the battle of pink pulls and pale liquids in a base hospital.
Meanwhile Marian taught violin, voice and piano to Young America, or to that part of Young Peoria she could interest. Reunited after the firing had ceased, they picked up four musicians who played 15 instruments and began hitting the tank towns.
The Jordans then saw vaudeville, but vaudeville didn't see them very clearly. In 1924 the doughty duo turned to radio, never suspecting they had grasped the magic key to success and the things they most wanted -- home life, comfort, security.
For 10 long years it looked like a sour idea, with the hard-working Jordans slotted for mediocrity. Marian and Jim toiled diligently and quite steadily around Chicago studios, never quite producing that extra spark that would mean stardom. They became the O'Henry Twins, the Smith Family, the Smackouts. They frolicked at the Saturday Jamboree, whooped it up with the Kaltenmeyer Kindergarten.
They were still in the dime-a-dozen class less than three years ago when, overnight, the Fibber McGee and Molly program was born. Smash hit -- meteoric rise -- fat contract -- permanent stardom.
For a while now, you're hearing the McGee radio broadcast as it originates in a Hollywood studio. Between times the beloved comics are toiling industriously to score a four-star knockout in their first cinemadventure. With the calm confidence and optimism of battle-scarred troupers, they are not losing sleep over the outcome of this epic in celluloid.
They will give their best and leave the verdict in the lap of the gods, hoping for a favorable payoff. And that'll be that.
Of deeper concern to Jim and Marian Jordan, if you could peep into their hearts, is the matter of their personal happiness. Call it a bluebird if you will. For the Jordans he's not in Hollywood at all, but in the solarium of the dream home that is Wistful Vista.
Elgar Brown in Radio Guide, June 12, 1937
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