Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday… on a Wednesday! This week, we’re officially starting coverage on the best of the six filmed seasons of The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958, CBS), which is currently in syndication and available (almost) in full on YouTube here!
Burns & Allen stars GEORGE BURNS and GRACIE ALLEN, BEA BENADERET as Blanche Morton, FRED CLARK as Harry Morton, and HARRY VON ZELL.
With the goal of brevity, I’ll just reiterate three points from yesterday’s introduction. 1) I’m covering this sitcom because I consider it the best radio-to-TV adaptation. 2) When selecting my favorite episodes, I will be looking for memorable, funny plots (what ’50s shows do best), while also expecting, not “character–driven” stories, but stories that at least use established character traits. And I don’t just want vaudeville bits; they have to be sustained by a situation. And 3) The series is best divided into eras: the two live seasons, the first three filmed ones, the transitional New York year, and then the final two back with Ronnie in California. But each year is unique — Three, the first of the initial Beverly Hills filmed trio, is unlike Four and Five. Although there are a few remakes (and shows that will be remade), this season spends much of its output getting the hang of its new filmed format, which is still shot and staged for a multi-camera setup, but no longer performed live, in order, or for an audience, meaning that some of its theatricality is gradually replaced over the course of this transitional year with a more cinematic aesthetic (e.g., George’s side of the proscenium chats give way two-thirds through the season to on-set direct-to-camera asides). Stories have to adjust to this new design, and while you’ll notice a contained quality to all the first filmed years, I think Three is the most bound by its regular sets. Additionally, this is the only syndicated season with Fred Clark as Harry Morton; Clark is superior to his two predecessors — not only is he believable (the most like a typical sitcom husband), he’s also got a comedic trait that can be exploited for big laughs: his love of food. But the part doesn’t yet have the full characterization that’ll make Larry Keating, debuting next year, a more contrasting, nuanced, and comedically utilizable Harry Morton… Now, I’m reluctant to pick a favorite year, as I think each does something great. However, this era is “classic” Burns & Allen — the closest to the live seasons and the radio shows that inspired them. And if Three isn’t the best of this period — that honor goes to Four — it’s still a formative year and a forward step… So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify its finest.
Note that every episode below is directed by Ralph Levy and written by Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Jesse Goldstein, Nate Monaster, and William Burns — unless otherwise cited. (Also, these shows were initially untitled; I’ve labeled them what they’re most often called online.)
01) Episode 54: “Gracie Giving Party For Atomic Scientist” (Aired: 10/16/52)
A scientist agrees to attend a party after Gracie makes him believe George is a scientist too.
Written by Paul Henning, Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, and William Burns
Although the earliest filmed episodes are obviously transitional — trying to explore what this new format can/will do for the series’ storytelling — I’m thrilled that I’m able to highlight one of just three syndicated installments credited to the funny Paul Henning, who wrote for the series on radio and during its live seasons. This entry has a fun misunderstanding and makes great use of the supporting cast, but it ultimately works because Gracie is in A+ form.
02) Episode 58: “Gracie And Blanche Hire Two Gigolos To Take Them Out” (Aired: 11/13/52)
Gracie hires two gigolos for her and Blanche after their husbands won’t take them to a club.
Comparisons are often made between this series and I Love Lucy, so it’s always interesting to find stories that both shows either did or could do — this being one of them. That is, the “husbands won’t take their wives to the club” bit is a familiar notion, but Burns & Allen does it their own way: with misunderstandings and a terrific, well-choreographed climax.
03) Episode 68: “Gracie Thinks She’s Not Married To George” (Aired: 01/22/53)
George has to call in a special friend to help convince Gracie that their marriage is legal.
Another familiar story — we’ve seen it on several shows — this one works especially well for this series because of Gracie’s established persona. However, it’s not really because of the premise that this earns a place on my list; no, it’s here because it memorably guest stars the wonderful Jack Benny, whom George calls in to straighten everything out with Gracie.
04) Episode 71: “Gracie On Train; Murder” (Aired: 02/12/53)
When a stranger on a train jokingly says he’s going to kill his wife, Gracie takes him seriously.
A classic premise; what I like best about this outing is how well the narrative is predicated on the Gracie characterization, for when a stranger makes a joke to her on the train, she — as she so often does — takes the man’s words literally, thus sparking a chain of events that lands all the men (George, Harry Morton, Harry Von Zell) behind bars. It’s a lot of fun.
05) Episode 72: “Blanche Wants New Car; Gracie Gets Von Zell A Wife” (Aired: 02/19/53)
Gracie hopes to find a wife and kids for Von Zell so she and Blanche can get the tax write-off.
Like Lucy, Gracie and Blanche aren’t above scheming — the only difference being that Gracie’s schemes are usually built around some false logic, as here, when she thinks that she can make $3,000 from someone else’s tax write-off. It’s a great idea, but the real joy is seeing Verna Felton pop up looking for a husband, with her three grown sons in tow.
06) Episode 76: “Gracie Gets George In The Army” (Aired: 03/19/53)
Gracie intervenes to get George enlisted in the army — but Harry Morton falls prey too.
With a little heavier story than most of this low-concept season’s efforts, this installment wouldn’t necessarily be a poster child for what I look for in the sitcom. Yet the story is so memorable, and because the script is not only tightly constructed, but well-equipped to afford Gracie moments of outrageous comedy, it’s a hard one to ignore.
07) Episode 78: “Gracie Pretends To Be A College Boy’s Mother” (Aired: 03/30/53)
Gracie poses as mother to a college boy… but she’s in need of someone to play daddy.
A lot of the series’ role-playing stories are fun — you know, the ones where Gracie forces characters to pretend they’re other people for some silly reason — and this is a classic. In fact, it’ll be updated and used again in Season Eight. Both versions are hilarious (I have no preference) — it’s just hard to beat the gag with the parade of men pretending to be the kid’s father. (Note: this was the first offering of the series to air on Monday nights.)
08) Episode 90: “Gracie Sees A Hold-Up; Johnny Velvet” (Aired: 08/03/53)
Gracie is kidnapped (and then returned) by a gangster who doesn’t want her to testify in his trial.
My choice for the year’s most valuable episode (MVE), this hysterical entry features Sheldon Leonard, who returns as Johnny Velvet in an updated and expanded take on his first season debut. This one gains points for its comic boldness, taking the established idea of a gangster trying to stop Gracie from testifying against him, and heightening it — first they kidnap her, then she so thoroughly confounds them that they return her, hoping to swipe George Burns instead. But that’s not easy (of course) and they keep getting the wrong man… including Ronald Reagan, who appears as himself… So, this is the funniest show of the season — the repeated slapping gag is a standout — and it’s definitely the best of Leonard’s four appearances.
09) Episode 91: “Gracie And George Locked Out Of Their House” (Aired: 08/10/53)
George and Gracie are locked out of their house late at night after a party.
This plot was also revamped and reused in Season Eight, but unlike with “Gracie Pretends To Be A College Boy’s Mother” above, I actually do have a preference: it’s for this outing, which is simpler and takes its time to enjoy the situation. It’s classic Gracie to get herself locked out of her own house, but it’s really the ensuing character interactions that shine.
10) Episode 92: “Gracie At Department Store” (Aired: 08/17/53)
A department store is concerned after Gracie trips on their carpet.
Written by Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Jesse Goldstein and William Burns
As with the above, this story was also reused in Season Eight, and despite the final years’ more pronounced comic intentions (read: they go for bigger laughs more often), both versions are quite similar, and they both delight because of their wonderful premise — a hit because of Gracie’s pitch-perfect nuttiness, which confounds and complicates matters.
Other entries that merit mention include: “Gracie Selling Swamp So Harry Will Buy TV Set,” which has a fun climax where the Mortons think they’re oil rich, “Silky Thompson; Gracie Writes ‘My Life With George Burns’,” which also guest stars Sheldon Leonard as a gangster — Silky Thompson (who, like Johnny Velvet, also appeared on a live show) — but isn’t as bold as the MVE, “Gracie Gives A Swamp Party,” where Gracie is an auctioneer, “George And Gracie Hear A Burglar; Up All Night,” which claims a classic 1950s premise, and “Von Zell’s Girlfriend Between Trains,” in which Gracie poses as Von Zell’s wife.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Burns & Allen goes to…
“Gracie Sees A Hold-Up; Johnny Velvet”
Come back next week for Season Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!