Let's talk about cheesiness. What was the cheesiest radio show ever? Cheesiest television show ever? Cheesiest movie ever? I don't know which you would choose, but I think a claim on all three could be made by Queen for a Day.
April 30, 1945, was a sad day for good taste and comportment, for on that day the Mutual Broadcasting Company unleashed Queen for a Day over the radio waves. This reality-based popular contest show was emceed by vaudevillian Jack Bailey (actually the first shows were emceed by Ken Murray, but few people remember that) and featured three or four contestants, each with their own sob story. The studio audience would then vote (by their applause) for the sobbiest story and the winner would get a crown, some flowers, gifts from sponsors, and whatever would help alleviate their sob story (rent money, a new refrigerator, a trip to Des Moines, medical equipment, or whatever). Five days a week this would go on. And on. And on. Until 1957 when the radio plug was mercifully pulled.
By that time, however, the sappy juggernaut, complete with Jack Bailey, had branched into television. Beginning in 1956, Queen for a Day began an 8-year run on NBC (and was soon expanded to 45 minutes), followed by a 5-year run on ABC, where it died in 1964. Like the evil undead it rose again in syndication in 1969 with Dick Curtis replacing Bailey as host; Curtis was a character actor best known for his roles as a villain in oaters and for his comedy work in Three Stooges films. Thankfully, the show only lasted a year before it once again died. Let us hope for the last time.
As a kid, my occasional babysitter was an old (really old, to my mind) woman named Minnie Brown. (Coincidently the very first radio Queen for a Day was a woman named Millie Brown. Small world.) Minnie was hooked on the show (her very next favorite show was Dragnet -- so her taste wasn't totally bad, surprisingly). One episode that I remember had a contestant whose husband was sentenced to be executed soon and she needed some money to finance an appeal; the audience, however, voted for a woman who needed a new refrigerator. (Hand to heart, I swear that's the truth.) And in my mind's eye, I also recall Jack Bailey as being a bit smarmy (with his slicked-back hair) and his mustache as being more than a bit smarmy.
Since no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the masses, Queen for a Day was a big hit. So much so that they made a movie based on the show in 1951. This comedic drama or dramatic comedy was based on short stories by Faith Baldwin, Dorothy Parker, and John Ashworth. Jack Bailey was there, of course, along with some now-well-known names (Darrin McGavin, Leonard Nimoy), veteran character actors Tristram Coffin and Phyllis Avery, and a pre-Mickey Mouse Club Lonnie Burr.
I haven't been able to find a copy of the movie on-line, so here's a 1958 (?) episode of the television show:
And an "unusual" opening segments for the show, followed by some commercials.:
And another opening for the show, which I am posting only because I feel sorry for the girl in the Ex-Lax costume:
And a 1951 episode of the radio show:
Mark Evanier said it best* when he wrote the the show was "one of the most ghastly shows ever produced" and was "tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit."
*Quotes stolen by me from Wikipedia.
Update: I spoke to soon. IT HAS RISEN AGAIN! It's now (oh, the humanity!) a musical starring Alan Thicke and was scheduled to premiere this past September in Toronto.
And in 2009, a radio station was experimenting rebroadcasting old episodes of Queen for a Day. I don't know if the experiment worked.
For more of today's Overlooked Film and/or A/V go to sweetfreedom, where Todd Mason will help you fill in the Overlooked gaps in your knowledge.