Spring Break Research RECAP: 2015 (I)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of returning to the UCLA Archives for a day of forgotten sitcom watching. Like last year, I’d reserved my titles and came prepared to take good notes! Now I’m sharing the first five (of the 10) episodes that I screened. Stay tuned for the week after next for the second post!

 

01) The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show: Untitled [a.k.a. “Dinner With The Vanderlips”] (Aired: 01/31/52)

George and Harry Morton will do anything to avoid going to the Vanderlips and seeing their home movies. Starring George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bea Benaderet, Fred Clark, and Harry Von Zell.

Written by Paul Henning, Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, and Willy Burns | Directed by Ralph Levy | Telecaster: CBS (Live)

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This series, starring the funniest husband and wife team of radio, needs no introduction. We’ve featured both the radio and television incarnations of The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show on past Wildcard Wednesdays (several times, actually), and I’m only one episode away from being able to cover my favorites out of all 239 installments from the filmed years (1952-1958). However, prior to the show going to film, there were two full seasons of live shows, which aired on alternating weeks from October 1950 to September 1952. These early episodes, which aren’t syndicated but are in the public domain, are harder to come across — but they are purported to all exist AND over half of them can be found on YouTube. (Anytime a new episode pops up on YouTube, I’m quick to snag it!)

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This live episode from the second TV season is one that nobody seems to have, and concerns the husbands’ reluctance to go to the Vanderlips house for dinner, where they will invariably end up watching their boring home movies again. Harry Morton plans to take sleeping pills before dinner, but Blanche won’t let him. Then he suggests getting George to sing, but there’s the problem of a missing ukelele (resulting in a nice recurring gag in which Blanche keeps destroying and trashing it). But when Mr.Vanderlip has to cancel the dinner because his wife is out of town, Gracie invites him to join them for dinner — and encourages him to bring his wonderful home movies. George schemes to have Harry Von Zell steal the home movies and orders the gardner to temporarily bury the canvas in the backyard. Unfortunately, Gracie stops the gardner and gives them back to Vanderlip. As the boys take those sleeping pills, Vanderlip announces that he has tickets for the three of them at the fights. Cue the curtain! It’s a perfectly amusing episode that gives a lot of comedy to the men (and a great commercial spot for George, Von Zell, and the gardner), but less (than normal) for Gracie and Blanche. Wouldn’t be a favorite of mine, but it’s nevertheless enjoyable! Hope we one day get the whole series on DVD.

 

02) Life With Elizabeth: Untitled (Aired: 11/01/52)

Elizabeth tries to get Alvin to change his mind about vacation; Elizabeth and Alvin experience a modern apartment; Alvin ventures down to Elizabeth’s beauty parlor. Starring Betty White and Del Moore.

Written by George Tibbles | Directed by Betty Turbiville | Telecaster: KLAC-TV (Live)

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Betty White’s first sitcom, which was aired in first run syndication from 1953-1955, has been discussed briefly in a past Wildcard Birthday tribute to the comedienne. These 65 episodes pop up in public domain TV collections regularly and have even been syndicated regularly over the past several decades. But Life With Elizabeth actually began as a live local program on KLAC-TV in Los Angeles. The debut year is in dispute — I’ve seen it cited as both 1951 and 1952 — however, White was reportedly nominated for an Emmy in January 1951 (the third ceremony), and although this show is listed as the reason, I have found no evidence that it premiered that early, meaning that she was likely nominated for something else (or her TV work in general). Interestingly, White frequently recalls beating out Zsa Zsa Gabor for an Emmy with her work on Life With Elziabeth in 1952. But the Academy has no record of this because 1952 was the first year in which the awards went national and other local ceremonies took place for their own programming. White’s 1952 Emmy was likely a local award.

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The show itself stars Betty White and Del Moore as a pair of newly marrieds, the kind of boring and personality-less chipper couple that we see frequently on less distinguished shows of the early ’50s. But this particular installment is the only one from the KLAC-TV run known to still exist. As in the syndicated run, each episode is divided into three separate vignettes. The first — the longest and funniest — finds Elizabeth trying to convince Alvin that they should spend his vacation in the desert. How does she do this? She turns the air conditioning up. Then her friend calls and reminds her that they decided on going to the mountains. Now Elizabeth must do the opposite. It’s a cute little scene. The second, and weakest of the trio, finds Elizabeth and Alvin exploring the apartment of their “modern” and “hip” friends, filled with all kinds of strange and garish objects. Nothing really funny about this one. The final vignette has Alvin traveling down to Elizabeth’s beauty parlor to tell her that her mother is arriving into town early. There are more laugh lines in this scene, but it still doesn’t seem like it could actually reduce an audience to hysterics. Life With Elizabeth, whether live or syndicated, is never a great show. It’s cute and White is charming. That’s it.

 

03) The Brothers: “Renting The Attic” (Aired: 10/16/56)

The Box brothers decide to rent out their attic to make some extra cash. Starring Gale Gordon and Bob Sweeney.

Written by Bill Davenport, Burt Styler, and Albert Lewin | Directed by Hy Averback | Telecaster: CBS

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Right after the cancellation of Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956, CBS), the network snapped up two of its stars into a new series. Gale Gordon and Bob Sweeney play the Box brothers, a duo of San Francisco photographers who share the same house — but not the same personality. Both comedians play exactly the same personas for which they had already become known, and the series, lacking great writing (my opinion) and great ratings (a fact), only lasted a season. (Although it was briefly rerun in the summer of 1958.) I didn’t expect too much of this series, but seeing that Gordon is an iconic TV personality, who worked with two of early TV’s finest (and my favorite) comediennes — Lucy and Eve Arden , The Brothers is a show that I had long wanted the opportunity to see. I finally got it. The episode I screened, contrary to what UCLA says, aired third. (It might have been produced first, but it did not air as such.)

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The premise has Gilly (Sweeney) asking his brother Harvey (Gordon) if they could rent out the attic to a boarder, so that they can buy a new sports car. Harvey agrees — but only if he has approval over the occupant. Cue a scene where Sweeney is fixing up the attic and accidentally traps Gordon into the wall. After Gordon rejects a homeless man who comes to look at the room, he is impressed by a suave British gent who throws a raucous house party on his first night in the house. At first disgusted at the noise, Gordon changes his tune when he sees the parade of beautiful girls that have come to party. It’s not a hilarious episode; the script is predictable and neither of the leading men does anything that defines the character outside of the already established persona. And the problem is the personas themselves — these two men are reactors. They’re not great physical comedians nor captivating comics. They react to a star. Problem is there’s no star. And with the premise, there wouldn’t appear to be an abundance of stories. I’d be curious to see another (later episode), preferably one that features some of the female regulars — like Barbara Billingsley and the two women who played the Box boys’ girlfriends. From what I saw, the series had no legs.

 

04) One Happy Family: “Pilot” (Aired: 01/13/61)

The newlyweds’ first apartment is ruined by some meddlesome, but well-intentioned in-laws. Starring Dick Sargent, Jody Warner, Chick Chandler, Elisabeth Fraser, Jack Kirkwood, and Cheerio Meredith.

Written by Sid Dorfman & Al Lewis | Directed by Al Lewis | Telecaster: NBC

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This 15-episode series (a rare sitcom from Goodson-Todman) about a newlywed couple that lives in the same house with both her parents and her mother’s parents appealed to me most because it was the only new sitcom of the 1960-1961 season produced with the multi-camera format (which, regular readers know, is my preference). Dick Sargent plays a wide-eyed meteorologist, having to deal with his ditsy wife and her crazy family of character actors (see the cast list above). The series has remained pretty obscure, but it’s my understanding that the series was syndicated abroad in Australia, where it was slightly better known. I screened the pilot, which begins with the couple getting married and going off on their honeymoon, and concerns her family’s jettisoned promise not to meddle in the newlywed’s new apartment. Both the bride’s parents — Chandler and Fraser — and her maternal grandparents — Kirkwood and Meredith — end up coming to the new place and making a mess in their attempts to help. Recurring gags include a picture that each cast member tries to hammer into the bedroom wall, as the nail ends up coming out in a fake Mona Lisa hanging in the lobby, where landlord (George Tobias, a.k.a. Abner Kravitz) gets increasingly frustrated, and the exploding kitchen sink pipes that eventually get the couple kicked out before they can even officially move in. (Thus, setting up the premise that will extend through the rest of the short-lived series.)

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It’s filled with silly, early ’60s physical comedy, but it works. Meanwhile, the cast is strong. In fact, almost too strong. There’s a silent battle for attention among the four in-laws that fuels into their characters’ quirks and works for the episode, but also ends up challenging the audience’s ability to relate, and thus laugh. (I’m looking at you, Elisabeth Fraser.) What really surprised me, however, was that the young couple at the center of the proceedings, though comparatively saner and used less than they should have been, show evidence of multi-dimensional personalities. While they remain in that cutesy young TV couple mold, neither is perfect. He’s frazzled by the hijinks and she’s well-intentioned, but goofy. Thus, unlike so many shows that use a young couple as a plot device around which scenery-chewing actors can be funny, there’s something that makes the kids almost MORE interesting than the folks. If I was a network executive having screened the pilot, I’d ask the writers to retain the frantic charm, but make the comedy less in-your-face. I’d love to see more of this series, which, once the characters could be fleshed out, seemed like it had a lot of potential.

 

05) The Governor And J.J.: “There Go The Judge” (Aired: 09/30/69)

The Governor learns that the new judge he appointed has been dating J.J., whose just gotten a traffic ticket for an incident involving a bear. Starring Dan Dailey, Julie Sommars, James T. Callahan, Neva Patterson, and Nora Marlowe.

Written by Allan Burns | Directed by Leonard Stern | Telecaster: CBS

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Any casual reader of this blog knows how hopelessly obsessed I am with He & She (1967-1968, CBS), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this fondly remembered sitcom, which shares a creator in Leonard Stern, is the one I was most excited to screen. The premise of the series, which lasted a year-and-a-half on CBS (and was pulled to make room for All In The Family), has Dailey as a widowed governor whose daughter, J.J. (Sommars) essentially assumes the role of first lady. Modern texts about the series often mention that the pair regularly had political disagreements, but it must be noted that they’re nothing like the Bunker-Stivics disagreements, as the “issues” here aren’t as hot-button or true-to-life. Rather, the clashes come from the generation gap and the differences in their characters. In other words, the series — at least in its full first season — is more ’60s than ’70s. (The shortened 1970-1971 season, I believe, tries to get slightly more topical. I am trying to track down as many episodes of this series as I can find, and most of the ones in circulation are from the second year. I’ll probably do a separate post when I get a significant collection.) But like He & She, The Governor And J.J. features intellectual storytelling that delights in crafting kooky ’60s scripts, but strives to maintain consistency and integrity among the characters.

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The episode I screened was the second aired and merges two stories in that iconically Leonard Stern way. As the press hounds the Governor for appointing a judge that (unbeknownst to him) has been dating J.J., she is given a traffic ticket when a bear, whom she was transporting between the zoo and his vet, rams her vehicle into the police car. She is determined to fight the ticket in court and the Governor, who wants to acquiesce, has difficulty convincing the justice department NOT to fix the ticket. Meanwhile, things are complicated when J.J.’s case is the first to be heard by her new beau. So, Allan Burns has dreamed up another really unique premise and an equally smart script. As for my impressions on the series itself, I must first preface them with the understanding that I have only seen one full episode. That said, I don’t think the ensemble is as uniformly strong as He & She‘s. Furthermore, while I didn’t expect the show to be more topical, the political slant sort of invites a more modern approach, and it definitely feels like The Governor And J.J. is caught in a transition. My biggest qualm was with the rendering of the J.J. character, who’s clearly integral to the show and all of its stories, but doesn’t get a lot of laughs from her character (the way Paula Hollister, for instance, does). I’m willing to chalk this up to the fact that this is only one episode — the second aired, no less — but I definitely need to see more! What I screened was, for the most part, well done and filled with possibilities.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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2 thoughts on “Spring Break Research RECAP: 2015 (I)

    • Hi, Scott! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Hopefully we’ll see more of his forgotten work, like HE & SHE and THE GOVERNOR AND J.J., accessible to a wider audience soon.

      Be sure to check out our Sitcom Tuesday series on the best from THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, and stay tuned for the start of RHODA in two weeks!

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