My fascination with the American home front during World War II did not stop with publishing The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy, and I continue to come across very interesting material. The war was an all-consuming affair, affecting people on a daily basis, and involving everything from scrap drives and rationing to picking milkweed pods for Mae West life jackets. References to these daily reminders appeared in books, magazines, commercials, movies and radio programs, almost without thought, at least as the war progressed. In December 1941, however, America was very conscious of Pearl Harbor and the country’s entry into the war. All of which brings me to Fibber McGee and Molly.
It can be argued that this show was more popular than any other in the history of radio, running in one form or another from 1935-1959 and starring the real life husband and wife team of Jim and Marion Jordan, also known as Fibber McGee and Molly. The premise of the show is that Fibber, good-natured and loving husband that he was, was often involved in some scheme to get ahead. Molly, with her easy laugh and Irish accent managed to keep Fibber grounded, episode after episode as a cast of characters appeared at their door each week. Written by Don Quinn, the show was at the top of its game during the 1940s and was the highlight of every Tuesday night for many Americans.
Which means that Fibber McGee and Molly went on the air Tuesday, December 9th, two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked. That particular episode, titled “40 Percent Off” opens with a series of war bulletins followed by an announcement from Johnson’s Wax—the show’s sponsor—that it was important to keep up morale at home, essentially by continuing our American way of life. Laughter was an important part of that way of life, and so, the episode went on as scheduled. The story begins with Fibber receiving a notice from a new store that as a “special customer,” he will be granted 40% off on every purchase. The show’s usual cast of characters stops by, and it just so happens that each is headed out to purchase one item or another. Fibber ever desirous of being perceived as a big shot, assures each one that he can make these purchases at 40% off.
As he did most weeks, Mayor LaTrivia stops by and mentions that he would like a globe for his office. Of course, Fibber tells him that he can get it at a discount because he “knows people.” Then, Molly asks, “You want a globe with Japan on it, Mr. Mayor?”
“Well, then you better get one quick,” answers Molly.
A couple seconds of laughter is followed by strenuous applause. Uplifting applause. Applause that said, “Doesn’t matter if our fleet is shattered and bodies are still being fished from Pearl Harbor’s oily waters. We’ll do what it takes.” It’s hard to imagine that 10 seconds of applause can say all that, but it does. In fact, it still says that, and frankly, it gives me chills.
And then, the show went on.
Don’t take my word for this, however. Listen to the dialogue between Molly and the Mayor, which begins at 16:35 of the episode. Better yet, listen to the entire episode which may be found here.
We remember Bob Hope and his USO shows; we still watch movies such as The Sands of Iwo Jima; we remember that Rosie the Riveter went to work and Glenn Miller lifted our spirits. It is no surprise that “40 Percent Off” did not enter our collective memory, but on the night of December 9, 1941, millions of Americans at home were applauding in front of their radios along with the studio audience, and it was one of many, many important moments that contributed in its own small way to America defeating totalitarianism around the world.