In other words, think of him as the Frasier of the 1940s.
As first glimpsed by us in 1942’s The Great Gildersleeve, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve is an “overstuffed walrus” with a scary laugh and a deep, singsongy voice. He also serves as guardian to his orphaned niece and nephew (Nancy Gates and Freddie Mercer), but that custodial role will come to an end if he can’t find a wife within 10 days. Too bad the only women who want him are as bland as day-old oatmeal. That’s the extent of plot as Gildersleeve moves from one sequence of physical comedy to another, most notably with a treadmill and subsequent foot race.
From 1943, Gildersleeve’s Bad Day is like a comical precursor to 12 Angry Men, as our protagonist lands on a jury and completely fails to notice a threatening bribery letter he’s been sent urging him to cast a vote of “not guilty.” A sequestering problem also causes several fellow members to bunk up together — not just in terms of one room, but one bed.
If that sounds like homophobic humor could rear its head, wait until you see that same year’s Gildersleeve on Broadway, in which the first days of spring have everyone head over heels in love. The outrageous plot sends him to New York City to help out a pal, prompting more misunderstandings and mistaken identities than a season’s worth of Three’s Company.
The film franchise closed shop in 1944 with Gildersleeve’s Ghost, perhaps the most enjoyable one of the bunch (although all are fun) because of its supernatural silliness. While Gildersleeve runs for police commissioner against the favored 12-year incumbent, two of his ancestors (both played by Peary) rise from the grave to help him win the election. If only they can set up an “unusual crime” for him to solve, perhaps he’ll have more than “a ghost of a chance.” It involves a scientist, his invisible woman and — bonus! — a gorilla.
Aside from the aforementioned gender bits (which will sail over the heads of young ones) and an unfortunate stereotype (is there any other kind?) that exists in Gildersleeve’s maid — and later, her boyfriend — this quartet of comedies makes for an inoffensive marathon of good, clean, old-fashioned funny business. While Peary’s no Buster Keaton, he carries a great deal of personality, and I never tired of his shtick. Of course, it helps that none of these films ticked far beyond the one-hour mark.
Warner Archive’s two-disc set contains a bonus fifth feature, 1942’s Seven Days’ Leave, in which Peary’s Gildersleeve appears once more. However, he’s second banana to Victor Mature and Lucille Ball, but after having seen him front four films, I wasn’t ready to accept him relegated to the sidelines. (Plus, I’m allergic to Lucy. That secret doesn’t leave this room.) —Rod Lott