Audio Drama Review: The Life of Riley

The Life of Riley was a radio sitcom that aired from 1944-1951 and starred William Bendix as Chester A. Riley, an aircraft riveter from Brooklyn who moves to California and eventually settles into a bungalow with his wife Peg (Paula Winslow), his daughter Babs (Barbara Ellis), and his son Junior (multiple actors including Tommy Cook and Alan Reed, Jr.). The series has many episodes in circulation and many episodes missing. The Life of Riley went through three distinct phases during its seven-year run.

1. War Worker Riley (1944-45)

From the beginning, Riley was known for his malapropisms and bizarre thought processes, but in these early years, Riley wasn’t near the dope he’d be portrayed as in later seasons. He was involved in essential war work, and in the middle of World War II, you didn’t make essential war workers out to be idiots. He developed one of the best comedy catchphrases of all time, “What a revolting development this is,” and it was often used either in moments of exasperation or surprise, sometimes even when there was a positive surprise after he’d worked himself into a lather.

There was plenty of comedy to be had, particularly caused by the free-loading character of Uncle Baxter (initially played by Hans Conreid). In addition, the housing crunch of the late War era impacted the Rileys, and they spent several episodes struggling to find a place to live. While not all episodes of this storyline remain, … there’s quite a bit of humor in their various ups and downs and what they have to do to find a place to stay. The series also captured another aspect of the war: proxy weddings. In one two-part story, confusion ensues when Riley has to stand in for a deployed bridegroom. The series also featured heartfelt stories, like when Riley invites the boss’s son over for Christmas and teaches him the true meaning of the holiday, or when the Rileys throw a New Year’s Party for troops departing by train.

John Brown would appear as Riley’s neighbor and friend from Brooklyn, Jim Gillis. Gillis would often be Riley’s pal but would also antagonize him.

2. Riley, the Well-Meaning Idiot (1945-50)

After the war, the writers seemed willing to make Riley a bit more ridiculous. Yet, he was still well-meaning. He unleashed havoc because his mind went off in weird directions and he misunderstood a situation. He only wanted the best for his kids, but sometimes comedy resulted from it.

The series also featured several recurring characters. In addition to Gillis, RIley had another neighbor named Waldo Benny (Dink Trout), a hen-pecked husband who stoked Riley’s worst fears to comic effect. Of course, the greatest supporting character on the show was the morbidly hilarious Digby “Digger” O’Dell (aka: “The Friendly Undertaker”) (also played by Brown). O’Dell’s appearance followed very rote procedures, often including his greeting of Riley, “You’re looking fine, very natural,” and his complaint about youths stealing signs from other businesses and placing them in his window. But the character often found a surprising way to turn the conversation back to Riley’s problem with a morbid twist. Digger is such an unusual character that it’s a stand-out in the golden age of radio. Alan Reed played the recurring role of Mr. Stevenson and Riley’s father-in-law, along with other characters.

There were also quite a few flashback episodes to when Riley and his wife Peg were in Brooklyn. This set the stage for other programs to do this a lot, such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, although The Life of Riley really made no attempts to put this into any continuity. In fact, none of the post-World War II episodes have much continuity, which allows for some script re-use.

It was a good run, but nothing lasts forever. The series’s decline over radio began with the introduction of Louella (Shirley Mitchell). Louella was the type of Southern belle character Mitchell was known for playing on a wide variety of programs, including The Great Gildersleeve. She’s a single woman who moves into the neighborhood and gets Riley to do things for her, like household chores and buying her gifts. The joke is that Peg and many people think there’s something between Riley and Louella, and Riley even thinks Louella’s trying to seduce him, when there’s nothing going on. However, knowing that it bothers Peg, Riley continually engages with Louella throughout the entire rest of the series. It wasn’t funny, particularly after the first Louella episode. No married man with any sense would do that to his wife, even Chester Riley. It was a bad turn for the series and a preview of what was yet to come.

3. Riley, The Terrible (1950-51)

The last season of The Life of Riley contains the worst character violation in old-time radio that I’ve ever heard. Riley by definition was a well-meaning family man. In the second episode of the 1950-51 season, the Rileys finally get a new car, and Riley and Peg take their driver’s tests. Riley fails the driver’s test because he didn’t study and has a horrible driving exam. Peg gets her license. Despite this, Riley insists on driving, gets into an accident, and tries to get Peg to take the rap for him. She ends up nearly going to jail, when he had been driving.

This is just one example. In another episode, Junior gets together with some other boys to start a lawn-mowing service, and Riley takes over and turns them into virtual slaves to his massive ego. A similar thing happens with a father-and-son concession stand that Riley and Junior start and that Riley ruins when he goes on a huge ego trip. In this season, Riley is transformed from a well-meaning but dim-witted husband and a father to an out-of-control narcissist. It’s often hard to find joy in these later, more cynical episodes.

John Brown’s Digby O’Dell continued to be a highlight, but his appearance and statements became increasingly disconnected from the plot. It’s as if old Digger O’Dell couldn’t care less about Riley’s self-inflicted problems caused by being a horrible person. And who can blame him?

The series did rebound a little towards the end, but its 1951 cancellation really put it out of its (and its audience’s) misery.

Bendix would reprise the role of Riley when the series returned to television in 1953, and the episodes I’ve seen lean more towards the lovable Riley of the early radio seasons, as opposed to the nasty 1950-51 version.

As a series, it’s a solid episodic family sitcom for most of its run, but the 1950-51 season is one of the worst seasons of a long-running show that you’ll find in Old Time Radio.

The first six years of the Life of Riley earn a 4.25 rating, but I’ll give the overall series a rating of 4 based on the horrendous final season.

You can listen to episodes of The Life of Riley on the Internet Archive for free.

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