Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re paying tribute to Nat Hiken’s only sitcom prior to The Phil Silvers Show: The Magnificent Montague, a radio comedy that was broadcast by NBC from November 1950 to November 1951. It starred Monty Woolley (you probably remember him best from The Man Who Came To Dinner) as the eponymous Montague, a Shakespearean stage actor now forced to swallow his pride and accept a job as the title character on a sappy afternoon serial, “Uncle Goodheart.” Anne Seymour played his wife, a former thespian herself, and Pert Kelton was their acidic maid Agnes, with whom Montague often bantered. (Art Carney also leant various recurring support during the run — right before he and Kelton would be forever linked by Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners.)
The Magnificent Montague only lasted a year, and again, it was Hiken’s only experience writing sustained characters within the half-hour sitcom format prior to doing so with Bilko and his crew. But it remained one of the scribe’s most favorite shows, for after his runs on both Phil Silvers in 1957 and Car 54, Where Are You? in 1963, he set about crafting Montague TV adaptations. The first iteration starred Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Vivienne Segal, with then-blacklisted Kelton, and it was actually greenlit; several episodes were produced for the 1958-’59 season before CBS pulled the plug. The second version never made it past pilot form, but it starred Dennis King and Myrna Loy (with Kelton), and was shown on CBS in August 1964.
About 40 of the 52-ish radio episodes circulate, and I’ve listened to most of them. Although I enjoy the cast — Woolley has a Frasier Crane quality that’s fun — and appreciate that the show is hinged around a unique persona within an inherently funny and conflict-laden situation (making it closer to the character-driven school of comedy than the idea-based fare exemplified by Phil Silvers), I don’t think the regulars have the depth needed to propel story beyond a single year. Indeed, while Montague himself is a mass of rich contradictions whose persona defines the style of the show, it’s a lot like Phil Silvers in that nobody else is as well-defined, with Agnes, his sparring partner, holding particularly scant dimension. So, ultimately, I think “on paper” The Magnificent Montage looks like a winner, but as far as Hiken’s best work, his two TV sitcoms showcase his talents better — they’re move evolved, more multi-faceted.
However, I want to share a few of the better Magnificent Montague episodes with you. Remember, I don’t have access to them all, but of the ones I’ve heard, I think the “Montague Goes Hollywood” arc is the sharpest, as the show moves to Los Angeles when the title character stars in a screen test for a film adaptation of Macbeth. (And Jim Backus guests!) Here’s a chance for you to hear Hiken, before Bilko, exercise his love of spoofing Hollywood…
January 12, 1951: Will Montague make a movie of Macbeth?
January 19, 1951: Montague is in Hollywood to make a movie of Macbeth.
January 26, 1951: Empire Pictures wants Montague to make a screen test.
February 02, 1951: Montague continues to grow even more sour of Hollywood.
Come back next week for two new Sitcom Tuesday lists!