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DVD Review: America’s Sweetheart – Gale Storm

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There was a time in television history when the audience was so well behaved and so intelligent that when situation comedy writers delivered a script, it was funny. No morality play, no political or sociological attack, and no lesson for the viewer at the end. The worst thing a character would do is tell a white lie, usually to hilarious consequences. Choices had the gravity of “should I tell her that hat looks silly?” and there were no heavy conflicts. Those were the days of I Love Lucy and My Little Margie. What the writers did was put their characters in the middle of a comedic situation; get it?

In my mind, Gale Storm will always be My Little Margie. The new DVD collection, America’s Sweetheart: Gale Storm comprises three dual-layered disks which include eight films in which Gale Storm appeared (all made between 1940 and 1942), three episodes of My Little Margie and two episodes of The Gale Storm Show (retitled Oh! Susanna in syndication). Gale Storm appeared in scores of films, had two successful television series, was a popular recording artist, and most importantly, was my babysitter. On long summer mornings, I would park my little self and my little bowl of cereal in front of the television and watch My Little Margie, I Love Lucy, and Our Miss Brooks until noon when I was allowed outside to play. Having three strong, female role models explains a lot about who I am today.

Gale Storm died last year, and Infinity Entertainment Group celebrates her life and work with the release of America’s Sweetheart: Gale Storm. With the exception of Tom Brown’s School Days, Storm’s debut, the included movies were “second features,” those low-budget films that were shown with the “major vehicle,” newsreels, cartoons, and shorts giving the audience a lot more for their 35 cents than commercials and a feature. Ah, progress.

Six disks of Storm’s television shows would have been wonderful and would certainly satisfy, but this retrospective is a treasure trove. The movies selected are classic examples of the period in which they were made. Comedies like Uncle Joe (1941) are populated with parents who protect their mildly rebellious children, various eccentric characters, and a perky heroine who faces an assortment of complications seem united in presenting one message — life is good. With such outstanding character actors as Slim Sommerville and Zasu Pitts, the audience was given enough silliness, music, and story to fill 51 minutes with a simple tale punctuated by laughs. Modern viewers will smile at the innocent unpretentiousness as the star and her gang make a small corner of the world a better place.

Not all the films included in America’s Sweetheart: Gale Storm are comedies. The dramas are highly melodramatic and emotive. Gambling Daughters is about two rich girls (“Innocent school-girls by day… iron-nerved gambling queens at night!”) at a private school who stumble upon a gambling club and end up the pawns of crooked gangsters. City of Missing Girls is a crime story focusing on a nightclub owner/hoodlum who preys on young singers and actresses (“Talent School Racket Exposed!”). Unlike her role in Uncle Joe, Storm is not the star of most of these films. In Lure of the Islands (about an FBI man, an island girl, and Japanese spies), she had a supporting role, a character named Maui. In other films her roles were even less substantial.

Jesse James at Bay starred Roy Rogers; Storm appeared as a newspaper reporter. Let’s Go Collegiate is a campus comedy centering on the great sport of rowing and the complications that ensue when a star athlete is recruited by Rawley University which is then trumped by the U.S. Army. It’s a comedy! It’s a musical! It’s a romance! It all happens in 62 minutes!

Rhythm Parade, in which Storm starred, was a pre-All about Eve, in which a singer attempts to sabotage the career chances of an up-and-comer. It sounds serious, but it was “…a fun-crammed Jamboree of Beauty! Melody! Stars! Dancing!” that promised a look at the “Private life of the loveliest cuties in Hollywood! See ‘em backstage and out front.” It would be safe to say that none of the movies in this boxed set are the favorite films of millions, but they are enjoyable samples of a style of movie-making long dead and worlds away from what we see today.

Storm went on to star in dozens more movies before she landed My Little Margie in 1942, and became one of the most popular television entertainers in America. Margie was a sweet young thing who lived in a chic New York City apartment with her father, Vern Albright (Charles Farrell). In a switch on most domestic comedies of this type (think Father Knows Best and Bachelor Father), it was Margie who had to save Dad from his own foolishness. Many of today’s financial disasters can be explained by the fact that Vern Albright was an executive vice president “in the investment business” (Mr. Honeywell, the president of the company, was an even bigger buffoon). Fibs and “little white lies” provide the basis of many episodes; if there’s a moral, it’s “start with the truth.” But then it wouldn’t be funny. My Little Margie mined laughs from some now familiar comedy territory, such as the baby of suspicious parentage and the measures a father is willing to take to keep his daughter out of an auto race. “To Health with Yoga” is the funniest of the included episodes, if only because no one has ever seen yoga practiced quite the way it is here. Storm’s breezy comedic style and the inventive scripts provide a half-hour that can still keep the viewer chuckling throughout.

In The Gale Storm Show, later titled Oh! Susannah, Storm was the social director on a luxury cruise ship who was ably abetted by reliably zany co-star Zasu Pitts. Instead of a father to confound, there was a ship’s captain. The comedy was derived from the ship’s travels around the world and its stops at various ports of call. Notable guest stars included Boris Karloff and Robby the Robot (now both deceased). The Gale Storm Show lacks the screwball charm of My Little Margie, but offers some clever dialogue.

The 13 entries on America's Sweetheart: Gale Storm are but a small sampling of Gale Storm’s career. Fun to watch, they offer hours of entertainment. There are no other features included, but a Scott tissues commercial in one episode of My Little Margie illustrates how advertising has changed (and how it hasn’t) in the last 60 years.

Bottom line: Would I buy/rent America’s Sweetheart: Gale Storm? Yes, and I’d be even more enthusiastic about a complete My Little Margie collection.

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