Thursday, February 17, 2011

One of the Best: The Life of Riley

William Bendix, who had made a ton of movies, agreed to work on radio (and eventually TV) as Chester A. Riley, a husband, father and riveter.  The original radio series (with a different name) was actually designed for Groucho Marx of all people but the sponsor didn't like the way things were going and canned Groucho.  Groucho's brother Gummo was one of the early backers of the show.  (I can't imagine Groucho as a Chester Riley-character but that's for another day...)

Riley worked hard for his family but he wasn't the smartest guy on radio - as matter of fact, he was one of the dumbest.  He was easily led astray by quick-money schemes, often heralded by next-door neighbor friend and co-worker Jim Gillis (John Brown.)  In so many ways, Riley and Gillis were the forerunner to TV's Honeymooners' Ralph and Norton and you could also compare them to The Flintstones, an adult cartoon series done in the 1960's.

Riley tried hard - but it seems no matter what, he would fall for a tempting scheme that was deigned to make someone else money - not him.  Even Gillis was behind some of these, himself.  If it wasn't that, he would foul things up by his own sheer buffoonery.   Every show had an implied moral that was always same - never trust Chester with anything.

Still, Riley had a heart of gold - and this karma was almost always good to him as things would always work out well in the end.

Riley's wife, Peg (radio veteran Paula Winslowe) was good to Riley but put her foot down when it came to him wasting money.  She wore the financial pants in the family and would often bust Riley down.

William Bendix
Riley's daughter was Babs, who somehow thought she should be a society girl, even though it was obvious (but never said) that the Riley's lived on the wrong side of the tracks.  Babs was in her late-teens.

Babs had a variety of young men in her life - and you wondered why she would date nerdy Simon, a show fixture early on.  Riley did not like Simon and this often ruffled Babs (and Peg's) feathers.

Junior, Riley's capable son, was a level-headed, hard-working, decently-intelligent 14-15 year old teen.  I often wondered where he picked up all of those traits.

There were other notable characters, especially Digby O'Dell, the undertaker (also played by John Brown) who was on every show, often offering advice to Riley.  Digby, (Riley called him, "Digger") was all about his work at the cemetary and all of his talk and jokes cenetered around burial.  The audience loved Digby and they were always excited when he showed up.  The fans could almost mouth his every word - but that didn't seem to matter.

Other not-so-important (or funny) characters were often heard, including Egbert Gillis, a kid who couldn't ever seem to reach puberty but was pretty smart; Waldo Binny (Dink Trout) who always complained of an aching back and Uncle Baxter (radio/TV vet Hans Conried), who was just always there and never paid for anything in the Riley household.

The show was funny at times.  It's pretty predictable (some moments are word-for-word predictable; "Oh, my aching back!", "What a revoltin' devolpment this is!", "I better be shoveling off!" but as long as you never take the show serious and treat it like a big cartoon, then you can have some fun.

Most of the episodes in the series have very good sound - with only a few being a problem.

I'd rate it 3 stars just because there are a whole lot of them and silliness can grow on you - and this show does that.


  1. Good review. I find it hard to assign the number of stars for any of the shows. I usually break it down to either I like it or not. This one I like. Many OTR shows are predicable, especially the comedies. You know where they are headed, but you stay with it because it is funny.

  2. Some shows you really look forward to - those are 4 stars or more (to me.) Some shows come on and you just go, "Hmmm oh." That would be like Riley. I enjoy it. But I'm not waiting for the day Riley comes on.

    I am waiting for Friday when Dragnet comes on. And Sunday for The Six Shooter and Monday for Information Please...


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