Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our 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, LARRY KEATING as Harry Morton, and HARRY VON ZELL.
Season Four is the middle of Burns & Allen‘s “classic” era, the three-year period of format-perfecting following the series’ transition from radio to TV, moving out of live broadcasts to filmed half-hours. There’s been evolution since 1950 — the comedic situation, fueled by core character traits, has grown in prominence — but it’s still the same show (it’s set in Beverly Hills, and features two married couples and an announcer). And if Three was too transitional — trying to navigate the duo’s theatrical, vaudevillian instincts while using a format that needed cinematics — and Five will prove to be too exhausted of episodic story for these particulars, then Four is the era’s happy medium: the best of this original design. It’s not perfect — with 40 shows per year, a certain amount of mediocrity is inevitable — and, sure, there are more remakes of earlier live shows than in any other season, but this generally bodes well. Not only do the remade stories tend to be top-of-the-line Victories In Premise, Four’s elevated quality also ensures that most are improvements — if simply because these are the filmed editions made to go into reruns. That is, by this time, there’s a sense that the show is being more definitive with its storytelling — even in the so-called “mediocre” entries — because, again, it’s acting out, on a weekly basis, the most evolved version of what it wanted to be upon its televisual inception… Additionally, the year is bolstered by a new Harry Morton. Now, I know Fred Clark is popular, and I get it; his portrayal is the most conceptually true — what we expect the secondary husband to be. But Larry Keating is something fresh, and the scripts immediately adapt to his innate persona by creating an entirely different character. Yes, finally a character — a multi-dimensional proxy-human with a unique perspective and obvious flaws. Next to Gracie, he’s probably the most well-defined figure on the show. As such, though he may not be what we expect of Harry Morton (and it’ll take a year or so for Keating and Bea Benaderet to match the chemistry she had with Clark), his writing is a victory for the show by way of character: another piece of the puzzle that cements Burns & Allen’s status as a legitimate TV sitcom… So, while I remain hesitant to cite a favorite season — the later years have their merits — Four is the best of this “classic” era. And I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify its finest.
Note that every episode below is directed by Frederick de Cordova and written by Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler 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 94: “Gracie Helps Morton Get CPA Account” (Aired: 10/12/53)
Gracie causes a mess when she tries to help Harry Morton get a big account.
After being introduced in the premiere via a direct address to the camera by George, Larry Keating’s new take on Harry Morton became immediately clear. But this, the year’s sophomore outing, gives his new persona even more exposure in a classic Gracie scheme that yields guffaws and claims a script with lots of genius bits (like the drunken chicken).
02) Episode 95: “Gracie Gets A Jury Summons” (Aired: 10/19/53)
Everyone intervenes when Gracie is summoned to be a potential juror.
Season Eight will revisit this premise and expand it into a two-parter — benefiting from the later years’ more developed big laugh sensibilities and actually allowing us to see what happens when Gracie goes on a jury (which, by the way, is where the money is). But even if that version will be bolder, this idea alone is so funny that it’s a credit to Four’s creativity.
03) Episode 109: “Gracie Discovers George’s Secret Weakness” (Aired: 01/25/54)
Gracie reads that some men have a secret weakness and she’s determined to find George’s.
This year has its fair share of low-concept narratives, where the plot — although it exists — is so slight that it isn’t more than a series of character interactions. Ordinarily, this would be my preference, but for Burns & Allen, actual situations tend to be key for the depiction of character… To this entry’s credit though, it shines because of its character work, and even as it reuses an old routine — the Kleebob Card Game — it’s a fine representation of this series.
04) Episode 110: “Gracie Has To Sell George’s Car By Five O’Clock” (Aired: 02/01/54)
The law becomes involved when Gracie tries to sell George’s car.
As with most of the outings that make these lists — particularly in the classic filmed era — this installment is notable because it boasts a strong narrative rooted in the Gracie Allen persona, which motivates the kind of story-propelling misunderstanding that follows. There are many routine efforts in this category here in Season Four, but this one is a standout.
05) Episode 111: “Gracie Wins A Television Set” (Aired: 02/08/54)
Gracie is determined to collect her prize for answering a radio quiz question.
There are lots of big hahas in this memorable offering, in which Gracie thinks she’s deserving of a television set after a radio quiz show calls and asks her a question (which she doesn’t answer until she calls the store back after consulting the encyclopedia). It’s choice antics from Gracie, with a hilarious subplot where Harry Morton resents being called a “square.”
06) Episode 112: “No Fan Mail For George” (Aired: 02/15/54)
Confusion develops when Gracie asks her friends to write fan letters to George.
George Burns enjoys being the butt of jokes — his lack of singing ability and his dependency on Gracie are the two most frequent exploited runners — and this entry relishes extrapolating from that notion by having Gracie sympathetically try to increase the amount of fan mail he receives… which of course leads to complications, like when he calls up a random woman (Barbara Pepper) and sings to her, while her jealous husband listens.
07) Episode 115: “Gracie Goes To Psychiatrist For Blanche’s Dream” (Aired: 03/08/54)
Misunderstandings abound when Gracie goes to a psychiatrist in Blanche’s place.
If you’ve been following our coverage, you’ve already seen this story used during the live years, and what can I say? This is simply an A+ Burns & Allen premise — probably among the best ever employed by the series — and every version of it works. This is the “classic” era’s take on it, and it’s a delight, but we’ll see it again, albeit more tweaked, in Season Six.
08) Episode 119: “An Elephant Sits On Gracie’s Fender” (Aired: 04/05/54)
Nobody believes Gracie’s story about how her car fender got damaged.
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “An Elephant Sits On Gracie’s Fender” is an atypical outing, because while Gracie is basically a sincere character — any thoughts of Lucy-esque deviousness within her logic-defying schemes are ameliorated by the fact that her motivation is always obvious, simple, and harmless — her way of thinking, penchant for car accidents, and long history of misunderstandings courtesy of her self-concocted plots, have others not believing her story of, as the title says, an elephant sitting on her fender. And this is unique; most stories keep us ahead of Gracie — thanks in part to George’s metatheatrical commentary, which renders him, and us, abreast of whatever comedic conflict Gracie is about to encounter. But this is one of the only times where we’re with Gracie, who knows the truth before everyone else: despite the absurdity of the premise, an elephant DID sit on her fender. As a result, this script gets to explore the effects that Gracie’s well-established characterization, and her pattern of behavior, have on George, making this one of the funniest character studies of the series. And with a knowingly goofy premise — the elephant incident — this is therefore an ideal example of ’50s situation comedy: a silly idea boosted by a classic character.
09) Episode 128: “Gracie Runs For City Council” (Aired: 07/26/54)
Gracie thinks a candidate for city council is asking her to run.
As with “Gracie Gets A Jury Summons,” this entry is notable for its comic idea, even though it doesn’t quite fulfill the terms of the situation, instead letting the comedy play out within the premise itself: the foolishness of Gracie running for a political office. (Shades of the 1940 presidential campaign.) But this is a very amusing half-hour, with a dynamite concept.
10) Episode 130: “Gracie Buys A Toaster Wholesale” (Aired: 08/09/54)
Gracie thinks she’ll get money by buying items wholesale.
Although I am forever a champion of episodes that commit to a good story, going beyond the “Gracie vs. X” routines that are cute, but need to be sustained by something stronger for the narrative framework, this installment feels like it’s nothing but two funny, disconnected ideas — Gracie buying things wholesale to get rich (used earlier in a lost live show) and the hierarchy of card game superiority with Von Zell always losing to George and George always losing to Gracie. But these ideas are so comedic — as is the script — that this becomes a gem.
Other entries that merit mention include: “Problem Husbands ” or “Jane (Wardrobe Woman) And Her Problem,” which has a fresh premise and makes fine use of Von Zell, “Columbia Pictures Doing ‘Burns And Allen’ Story,” which has a memorable story but is most notable for being hailed by TV Guide as one of the medium’s best episodes (I think they wanted to include this series in some form, but chose randomly), and “George Resting For Insurance Examination,” which is ideal low-concept narrative fun. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are the season premiere, “Morton Buys Iron Deer; Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses,” and two episodes with routine ’50s plots, “Harry Morton Is Missing” and “One Week To Live” or “(Harry Morton Has) One Week To Live.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Burns & Allen goes to…
“An Elephant Sits On Gracie’s Fender”
Come back next week for Season Five! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!