Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Benita Hume, Colman’s Mustard

Fair weather convinced me to spend the afternoon in the garden, where I busied myself with saw and secateurs. All that vigorous communing with nature felt like a tonic, especially after last night’s screening of Humoresque, an acrid Joan Crawford melodrama co-starring John Garfield and Oscar Levant, all of whom (but particularly Levant) rather overdid the acerbic one-liners with which the screenplay is riddled. Just about everything is wrong with this overwrought picture, from the drearily predictable and uninvolving plot to Crawford’s atrocious eyewear, the exceptions being J. Carroll Naish as Garfield’s father and the to me intriguing Peg La Centra as an underappreciated nightclub singer.

La Centra was a seasoned radio performer, as, of course, was Levant, whose quips enlivened Information, Please, the celebrity quiz program on which he was a regular. Further wireless connections can be established by pointing out that Tallulah Bankhead (one of the leading ladies featured in the current broadcastellan quiz) took on Crawford’s part in the 19 April 1951 Screen Directors Playhouse production, which offers listeners a somewhat altered ending—and some of Levant’s lines to Bankhead.

Enough of the bilious Humoresque, though. Continuing my “Wireless Women” series, I shall pay tribute instead to one of Crawford’s co-stars in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937), an actress generally billed as Mrs. Ronald Colman.

Having given up her rather undistinguished film career in the late 1930s, when she became Mrs. Ronald Colman, Benita Hume began to perform alongside her husband on the radio. Together, the Colmans were heard on the Lux Radio Theatre and The Doctor Fights (scripted by playwright Arthur Miller). In the mid-to-late 1940s, the couple made frequent and memorable guest appearances on the Jack Benny Program.

In January 1950, Hume assumed the role of Victoria Hall, exuberant and forgiving spouse of absent-minded college president William Todhunter Hall in The Halls of Ivy (1950-52), an urbane if sentimental situation comedy conceived and co-written by Fibber McGee and Molly creator Don Quinn.

Now, I have been nothing more than a contributing writer of a public access college soap opera, and my only stage play has never been produced; but if ever I were to conceive a situation comedy, I would very much like it to be as charming, witty, and uplifting as Ivy. Not that I believe there is much of a market today for such romance-infused cleverness.

Originally considered and auditioning for the role of Victoria was stage veteran Edna Best, wife of the show’s producer; but, as you will notice when comparing the auditions, Hume brought a warmth and gaiety to the role that was wanting in Best’s reading. The part stands apart from the ditzy or meddling housewife types you’ll encounter in the domestic comedies of Hollywood’s late-Truman/Eisenhower era.

On this day, 17 February, in 1950, the Halls faced a case of racial bias. A brilliant Chinese student, unable to cope with the rejection by her peers, decided to quit college. It is Mrs. Hall who intervenes by reaching out to the young woman and relating the matter to her clueless but quick-to-act husband.

More than a devoted companion, Victoria Hall is a translator and cultural interpreter to her intellectual, world-removed spouse, a man so highbrow he refers to one of radio’s great comedians as “Jack Bunny.” Victoria once was a comedy star on the English stage. Not the classics, mind you. We’re talking musicals like Lulu’s Mad Moment, youthful follies that are not just fond memories to the former actress, but a font of common sense and practical advice.

Whenever Dr. Hall gets lost in reveries, recalling his first encounter with the lovely Vickie and the early days of their romance, his wife yanks him back to the present. She may be British—but she sure is with it.

Whether or not you are opening a can of Schlitz, you might find yourself repeating the sponsor’s catchy slogan, which suits the vintage comedy far better than the beer it was meant to promote: “I was curious. I tasted it. Now I know why. . . .” Much of this is owing to Hume. The Halls of Ivy was her only slightly “mad” Lulu of a moment . . .

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