Review by KC Carlson
Joe McDoakes was the lead character in an almost forgotten series of comedy shorts produced and directed by Richard Bare and distributed by Warner Bros. from 1942 through 1956. Though the series is named after its lead character, it’s also known as the Behind the Eight Ball series, since Joe always appeared behind a giant eight ball in the opening credits of each film. It’s also occasionally known as the So You Want… series, as most of the series titles begin with this phrase (as in So You Want to Be a Cowboy). The series starred George O’Hanlon as McDoakes in all 63 installments.
There are a number of odd animation and comic book connections to the McDoakes series. These days, O’Hanlon is much better known as the voice of George Jetson in both the cartoon and Jetsons: The Movie (which was the last time he portrayed Jetson, as O’Hanlon passed away before the film was released). Another famous cartoon voice actor — Arthur Q. Bryan, the voice of Elmer Fudd — appears in So You Want to Build a Model Railroad and guest narrates So You Want to Be a Policeman. The series’ musical composer and arranger, William Lava, later went on to do the same job for most of the final theatrical Warner Bros. cartoons (for which he is usually not held in high regard) and for many of the made-for-television Pink Panther cartoons (based on Henry Mancini’s famous original theme). Lava also composed most of the incidental music (as well as the memorable theme song) for the 1960s TV series F Troop — a show that was about as close to a live-action cartoon as you can get.
Phyllis Coates, who portrayed Lois Lane in the first season of TV’s Adventures of Superman, got her start in film playing Joe McDoakes’ long-suffering wife Alice (one of three in the long-running series). She played the character in many of the episodes from 1948-1956.
Each of the shorts were co-written by Bare and O’Hanlon (although usually just credited to Bare), and all of them followed the same format, with McDoakes humorously attempting to accomplish the goal or role stated in each episode title — and usually failing spectacularly. In So You Want to Be a Baby Sitter, Joe is mercilessly tortured by a neighborhood kid that Alice has volunteered Joe to babysit — on poker night, no less. In So You Want to Be Popular, Joe realized that he has a bad personality and tries to get personality lessons from a professional but instead gets “fixed” by his obnoxious neighbor, ending up as obnoxious as he is.
Richard Bare, creator of the character, here talks about how O’Hanlon was selected and the series started:
Most of the episodes are narrated by Art Gilmore, a famous voice actor that you’ve probably heard hundreds of times but never known his name. Besides being on many radio and television shows, Gilmore’s dramatic voice was heard on film trailers throughout the 1950s and 60s. If you watch a lot of TCM, you’ve heard his voice whenever they show old trailers between movies.
Ultimately, the series proves why O’Hanlon is best known as a a great voice actor. Put through the paces in these shorts, O’Hanlon runs through endless emotional changes from extreme frustration to extreme rage and exasperation, but he spends most of his screen time mugging for the camera. His frustrations were much better used to their fullest extent with an animated character like George Jetson, where O’Hanlon can rage to his heart’s content off camera.
Much of the fun in watching these old shorts is in spotting old character actors popping up from time to time. The series is filled with familiar faces from Laurel and Hardy and Three Stooges shorts, as well as lots of actors you might recognize from early television comedies and dramas. I don’t even know half of their names, but I spent a lot of time going “Hey! I know that guy!” while watching these shorts — and then scrambling to IMDB to find out more info. Much fun! A number of more notable actors appear occasionally, like Ronald Reagan and Janis Paige in So You Want to Be in Pictures or Doris Day and Gordon McRae in So You Want a Television Set.
Here’s a clip from So You Want to Be in Pictures to give the flavor of the shorts:
All 63 11-minute Joe McDoakes shorts are included on this six-disc set. It’s part of the new Warner Archive on-demand program of bare-bones DVD sets (no special features or other bells and whistles) featuring lesser-known works. But it may be your only chance to see this wonderful lost chapter of Hollywood comedy shorts. (The studio provided a review copy.)