The Guardsman Takes a Coffee Break

”I am sure that Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne will never forgive me for what I did to this play,” Arthur Miller commented on his radio adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman. During rehearsals, the celebrated acting twosome stopped reading the to them familiar dialogue and stared at his script “as though a louse had crawled over it. A new series of lines! A whole new scene!” Such is the business of writing for radio, which also involves watching your language and having the curtains lowered for you by those who demanded a prominent spot to push their wares.

On this day, 9 May, in 1937, Molnar’s comedy was being served in the time an ulcers sufferer takes to have a coffee break. Make that a Chase and Sanborn coffee break, considering that the makers of said brew sponsored those weekly visits with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, host Don Ameche, and their sundry guests. Stopping by “to say hello” that evening were screen actress Ann Harding and W. C. Fields—one of them on the way out, the other by way of reintroduction.

Ann Harding, then starring with Basil Rathbone in the Agatha Christie-inspired thriller Love from a Stranger (1937) was to play the role of Marie in the Chase and Sanborn Hour’s instant version of The Guardsman. “[I]t was impossible not to recognize it,” Harding remarks; her character, of course, was not referring to the play itself, but to her thespian husband’s attempt at disguising himself so as to act the part of her lover. Considering that the connubial con-man was played by the less than subtle Don Ameche, there wasn’t much chance of catching anyone off guard.

Listeners did not know that Harding would not get—or seize—the opportunity to play anyone’s lover for years to come. Love from a Stranger would be Harding’s last picture for half a decade, and the man responsible for her prolonged absence from the big screen was right there with her in the broadcasting studio: Werner Janssen, a soon-to-be Academy Award nominated composer. Harding and Janssen were married that year.

Of course, it was not Janssen who upstaged Harding during that Chase and Sanborn broadcast. It was his former colleague . . . W. C. Fields. “Mr. Fields, I’m sure you feel at home because here’s your old follies piano player, Werner Janssen,” whose name the grumpy comic did not trouble himself to recall. Fields was making what Ameche announced as “his appearance since his serious illness” that had “kept him off the stage and out of pictures for over a year.” Fields entered into sparkling banter with aforementioned puppet Charlie McCarthy, an act that would translate into You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

Fields was invited back the following week; but Ann Harding (pictured above in a scene from Double Harness) was passing The Guardsman on her way to the altar she eventually refused to “recognize” as a signpost for the end of a career. It is one thing to recognize a partner by his kiss (as Molnar’s Marie does); but to accept that contact as the kiss of death is quite another. Before fellow guests Lorenz and Hart sent listeners off on a “honeymoon express” bound for Buffalo, Niagara Falls and “All Points West” (including Ossining, or “Sing Sing”), Fields gave her an idea her what it meant to spend her days as a half-remembered better half. When introduced to her, he declared: “I know Miss Harding very well. How’s your partner, Mr. Laurel?”

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