Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Joan Davis, Vallee Girl

I was inclined to put the “wireless women” on hold for today. I have been feeling rather poorly as a result of an exposure to noxious fumes emanating from a fresh coat of paint in our conservatory. My evening with Claudette Colbert, starred in the rarely screened melodrama The Man from Yesterday (1932) was utterly spoiled. I also missed the BAFTAs, the new Marple (controversially, not a mystery in which the old sleuth was placed by her creator), and found little enjoyment in Crack Up (1946), a noirish thriller directed by radio dramatist Irving Reis, which aired on BBC Two early last Saturday. Dizziness, mood swings, fatigue and nausea are my mental and bodily responses to a thankfully small number of chemical solutions including household cleaners, varnishes, and insecticides.

Having spent some time in the crisp winter air this afternoon, I am ready to carry on about those fabulous radio ladies. I was thrilled to hear from a relative of Ms. Minerva Pious, one of the “wireless women” I have been commemorating here over the past few weeks. Her rags-to-riches-to-rags story sure seems worth exploring, particularly by someone who has ready access to personal correspondences and can draw on childhood memories.

The series will come to an end this Friday, when the (to the best of my knowledge) correct answer to the quiz will be disclosed in a tribute to radio playwright Lucille Fletcher. The “microphonic men” will be honored in the fullness of time (meaning, the emptiness of my schedule).

Earlier today, after a few exchanges via email, I was pleased to send off excerpts from my doctoral study to one of those old-time radio greats: none other than poet-journalist Norman Corwin, who will be very much a man of the hour come Oscar night, considering that a documentary about his work is up for an award. Now, on to the current column.

Judging from above picture, I seem to have quite a bit in common with ditzy dame Joan Davis. I am lousy at housework (particularly after taking a whiff of those detergents), tend to break things around the house (even when not intoxicated), and am inclined to sweep many of my mishaps under the proverbial carpet. Of course, Davis merely “enacts a housecleaning drama for Tune In,” a 1940s broadcasting magazine. According to that periodical (an issue of which I picked up years ago at a Chicago memorabilia store), Davis’s career was a “New Example of Rudy [Vallee]’s ability to Pick and Make Stars.”

No “clueless men” here, so far (except for me, of course). Certainly not Vallee, whose oleaginous radio persona I never found particularly prepossessing (give me John D. Hackensacker III anytime). He was a poor reader of lines, and his singing, too, had an air of carelessness about it. I gather he relied rather too much on the superstardom to which he became accustomed and used it to propel others instead of making any further efforts to push himself. Among those who came out of Vallee’s star factory were Carmen Miranda, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen and Beatrice Lillie, the article claims.

Joan Davis, anno 1943, was hailed as Vallee’s “newest discovery,” notwithstanding the fact that she had already appeared on the screen in comedies like Sally, Irene, and Mary (1938) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). “To many who have seen her in films,” the article continues, “Miss Davis may not seem a new discovery. But it was Vallee who lifted her out of a medium in which she was but little known, a minor success, and built her into the radio’s outstanding find of the season.”

When Vallee left his show to join the Coast Guard in the summer of 1943, he chose Joan to mind the Store. Here you can tune in to Joan’s remodelled Sealtest Village Store. It becomes clear just who took care of business, even though clueless executives thought for a while they needed to throw in Jack Haley for support. Davis, in fact, slightly improved on Vallee’s Hooper ratings, outscreeching competitors like Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, Fred Allen, and Jimmy Durante. Obviously, his time was her time—and America made time for it.

2 Replies to “Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Joan Davis, Vallee Girl”

  1. Fred Allen was also in Sally, Irene and Mary, to which he usually referred to as \”Sally, Irene and Lousy.\”I wish there were more of Joanie\’s radio shows available–sadly, her work over the airwaves has disappeared due to the ravages of time and I think, of the ones I have listened to, they\’re clearly better than her TV sitcom success, I Married Joan. I have somewhere in the dusty TDOY archives a broadcast from 1950 of her Leave it to Joan sitcom (that features Al Jolson as a guest) that\’s particularly rib-tickling.

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  2. Well, being in a Fred Allen movie was never a particularly smart career move. I enjoyed Davis\’s later appearances on The Big Show and was rather surprised that she didn\’t even get a mention in Arthur Wertheim\’s Radio Comedy. Apparently, there is plenty of room under that proverbial carpet.

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