I Married Joan: Joan Davis Rivals Lucille Ball

Madonna Josephine Davis (June 29, 1907 – May 22, 1961) was a widely popular comedienne “whose career spanned vaudeville, film, radio, and television”. She appeared in vaudeville with her husband Sil Wills and had a successful career in B-movies. She was in one of my favorite Abbott and Costello comedies, Hold That Ghost (unfortunately not in the Public Domain). Joan Davis also had a successful career in radio, appearing on five different radio series in the 1940s.
On October 15, 1951, CBS debuted a new comedy series called I Love Lucy. The show starred comedienne Lucille Ball and her real-life husband Desi Arnaz as house wife Lucy Ricardo and her singer / band leader husband Ricky Ricardo. I Love Lucy immediately became a hit show. It was “the most watched show in the United States in four of its six seasons”. Rival network NBC was quick to look for an I Love Lucy show of its own. On October 15, 1952, NBC premiered I Married Joan.
I Married Joan starred comedienne Joan Davis and Jim Backus as housewife Joan Stevens and her husband Judge Bradley Stevens. I Married Joan was aimed straight at the television viewers who watched I Love Lucy. Both shows “even employed the same director in each show’s first season, namely Marc Daniels”. Slapstick and physical comedy was at the core of both shows. “It was not uncommon to find whole chunks of Lucy plots lifted and re-purposed” for I Married Joan. Virtually every episode of I Married Joan had a plot which provided star Joan Davis with a “setup for at least one scene of over-the-top physical comedy”. Often those scenes of physical comedy were originally performed by Lucille Ball on her top rated show and were re-enacted by Joan Davis on her show. Joan Davis is even often lumped in with Lucille Ball, Carole Lombard, and Carol Burnett as one of comedy’s great female clowns.
I Love Lucy went on to enjoy six award studded seasons. Unfortunately, I Married Joan withered in its third season when it was forced to compete with ABC’s new top-rated powerhouse series: Disneyland. I Married Joan was canceled in March 1955.                                                          

I Married Joan actually enjoyed increased popularity and higher ratings during its original syndicated run but then Joan Davis died of a heart attack at age 53 on May 22, 1961. Many television stations removed I Married Joan from their line-ups. They considered that it was not in good taste to laugh at someone who had just died. Joan Davis’ family suffered additional tragedy just two years after her death. On October 24, 1963, in Palm Springs, California, a horrible house fire claimed the lives of Davis’ mother, her daughter (and occasional co-star), and her two grandchildren.
I Married Joan was a NBC television program but CBS Paramount Television eventually became the primary owners of the show’s copyright. The copyrights for some, but not all, of the I Married Joan episodes ultimately lapsed without being renewed. Those lapsed episodes have entered the Public Domain and are now available at the Internet Archive. At my last count, there were six episodes from Season 1 in the Public Domain, as well as six episodes from Season 2 and eight episodes from Season 3. All are available FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.
I’m reviewing three episodes from Season 1 for this article. WARNING! There WILL be spoilers!
First up is Season 1 Episode 11: “Dreams”. 
This episode premiered on December 24, 1952.
This was a common plot on shows of the time and just so happens to be one of the plots that I hate the most. The episode opens with Joan singing in a silly bit a rapture about her joy in being married to such a prominent judge as her husband:
  • “Thank you! Thank you for marrying me! You wonderful hunk of judge you!”

As if she was a nameless nobody because she was a woman and her life had no worth at all until her “sweet, darling, wonderful” husband deigned to marry her.

*Bah* Ptooey*
I hate this plot. I never noticed this insidious brainwashing when I was a kid and watched shows like I Married Joan but I can see it now and it drives me nuts. Of course this was all par for the course at the time. Women were to be housewives and men were to be the breadwinners. There’s too much of this nonsense still today but it was worse back in the 1950s.
The “Dreams” episode features three of Joan’s old friends. There is a fun repeating sequence when the friends greet each other repeatedly with:
  • “Let me take a look at you. You haven’t changed a bit!”

Gloria is a star female athlete. She is the first person ever to swim across the Bay of Biscayne as well as a tennis champion. Minnie is the creator and sole owner of the “Lady Minyette” cosmetics line. Dr. Marsha is the star of the US State Department and confers constantly with the President of the USA. Poor Joan. What is her great career accomplishment:

  • “I make great meat balls.”

Joan is now upset that she got married. She thinks she could have been “somebody” if she had stayed single. So she daydreams about her alternative life.

First she is Lady Joan of the “biggest single business in the entire world”: Lady Joan Cosmetics. The President of the USA calls to ask for financial help for the country:
  • “Oh, hiya, Pres. What? US Treasury is a little low and you’re worried about the budget? Two billion be enough? Glad to do it, glad to. Oh, uh, by the way, one little formality, uh, what are you putting up for collateral? Oh, I see, you’ll put up Texas. Well, I’m sorry. I’m already holding Texas for what the last boy borrowed.”

Then Joan daydreams she is Babe Joan. She’s been swimming for four days. She drinks hot soup through a long tube. Finally, Joan daydreams she is Dr. Joan helping the President of France handle an international situation. All of her daydreams are interrupted by a dream Brad who appears and whines because of the starch in his shirt or the salad dressing or his dinner. Poor helpless baby that he is.

Joan decides to invite the three girlfriends to her house so she can announce that she is “turning in my apron”. But the girls are surprising unhappy with the “drudgery” of their careers and lives. Joan wants to know why they are so unhappy:
  • Joan asks, “What is it that you girls really want?” The girls all chime in with, “A man to take care of me!!!”

Hooray for Joan! She is once again happy with her life:

  • “What am I crying about? I’ve got a man!”


*Bah* Ptooey*

There is very little physical comedy in this episode. Most of the funniness centers around Joan’s ridiculous and exaggerated daydreams. I found it interesting to notice that there is a tinny echo during all of the dreams as if the cast and crew had moved into some huge, glaringly empty soundstage for the dream sequences. As far as visual quality, this is also the blurriest of the three episodes.
The next episode is Season 1 Episode 13: “Bad Boy”. 
This is another common plot that regularly appeared on shows back in the day. Judge Bradley Stevens has just sent a criminal up the river. Now he’s faced with sending the man’s ten-year-old son, Tommy, to a “reform school”. Judge Stevens finally agrees to give the boy a chance by taking him home and taking care of him until the man’s sister arrives to take the boy.

Joan, of course, is pleased to have young Tommy. But Tommy is not pleased with his new temporary home. He doesn’t want to go to bed early and he definitely does not want a bedtime story:

  • “But nobody hits the hay this early! You’re squares!”

Joan reworks a familiar bedtime story into a vernacular that Tommy will understand:

  • “Once upon a time there was a beautiful doll by the name of Goldilocks and three bookies – Mannie, Moe, and Sam.”

But no matter what Joan does, or how nice she is, Tommy is an unrepentant delinquent:

  • While playing a game, Tommy and two friends tie Joan up then run off, steal a basket of tomatoes from the vegetable guy, climb up to the roof, and pelt passer’s by with tomatoes.
  • While waiting in line for a movie, Tommy steals another boy’s candy and money and even punches him but Joan gets all the blame.

Finally Joan decides to fight fire with fire. She convinces Tommy she is a half crazed murderer who is “sick of this kind of living” and plans to kill Brad off and collect his insurance and other property and money. Joan cackles crazily and pretends to poison Brad’s milk and Brad takes his own sweet time to die. But Tommy is surprisingly unhappy and starts to cry.

Viola! Brad sits up and Joan admits they were just teaching Tommy a lesson and Tommy is now happily reformed. 
This storyline is very similar to the storyline in the episode of the Ann Sothern television series Private Secretary that I reviewed a few months ago:

Ann Sothern as Susie reforms her little delinquent with snarky caring. Joan Davis as Joan Stevens reforms her delinquent by play acting and showing him he doesn’t really want a criminal life.

There’s more physical comedy in this episode, especially when Joan is tied up and gagged. “Bad Boy” also has better visual quality than “Dreams”.
Our final episode is Season 1 Episode 35: “Neighbors”. 
This is another episode with a plot I’ve seen in various other forms in various other sitcoms. Brad and Joan have suffered through six years with loud, partying neighbors. Brad and Joan are desperate for sleep but finally give up and have their own party by dancing sleepily around their bedroom:
  • “Here’s to our love. It would be inspired if we weren’t so tired.”

But the noisy neighbors are moving because they claim the neighborhood is too noisy. Poor Joan is desperate to find much quieter new neighbors and she recruits some friends to help. They discuss possibilities and there is a cute repeating sequence where Joan desperately repeats:

  • “Is he quiet? Is she quiet? Are they quiet?”

And the people are quiet – but they have dogs that bark all night every night. Joan and Brad are once again kept awake all night. Joan tries to nicely ask the neighbor lady to keep her dogs quiet but the woman huffily dismisses Joan’s request:

  • “These are show dogs with the finest breeding and bloodlines that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Do you expect me to deny sensitive animals the right to self expression?”

Brad is exhausted the next day:

  • “I was so sleepy and groggy in court today I signed the wrong paper and sentenced myself to jail for six months.”

The police do nothing even when Joan tries holding the phone out the window so they can hear the dogs (of course the dogs won’t bark then). Finally, she asks a veterinarian for advice. Joan ends up literally crawling into the doghouse to sleep with the dogs so they will not be so nervous and keep barking. Of course, the next day, after Brad has enjoyed a nice, quiet night, he informs her that a police officer had spent the night outside their house, waiting to hear the dogs bark. But they never barked thanks to Joan and now the police will never believe them about the barking dogs.

There are several sequences of fun physical comedy involving Joan crawling around in bushes and the doghouse after the dogs. Also a funny bit when she pretends to be one of the dogs. Again, the visual quality of “Neighbors” is better than the earlier “Dreams”.
Of course the best thing about these I Married Joan episodes is that they, and many other episodes are FREE in the Public Domain at the Internet Archive.
To watch I Married Joan Season 1 Episode 11: “Dreams” please click this link.
To watch I Married Joan Season 1 Episode 13: “Bad Boy” please click this link. (Even though the URL says Episode 34, if you are counting the episodes “Bad Boy” is actually number 13)
To watch I Married Joan Season 1 Episode 35: “Neighbors” please click this link. (Even though the URL says Episode 79, if you are counting episodes “Neighbors” is actually number 35) 

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