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 Five is the last of the “classic” era; it’s the final year before the series commits itself to several shake-ups — a change in scenery and an addition to the regular cast. As we’ll see next week, the decisions made in Six will rejuvenate the show, providing, among other things, a wider array of narrative possibilities. This is important, for Five is proof that the series was in desperate need of something new. As the third year in a row with the same basic format — location, structure, ensemble — Five has a harder time coming up with fresh story. There aren’t as many remakes from the live years — the good ideas have already run out — but there’s a sense of sameness to many of the episodes, and it begins to seem as if the show is in a rut. That’s why it turns to stunts — like a well-promoted color broadcast and a cross-promotion with Bob Cummings’ new series for McCadden — and even attempts to inject a new recurring character into the mix: Blanche’s brother Roger (King Donovan), a moocher whom the wives adore but the husbands loathe. He only appears in five episodes this year, but his presence is the result of a staling structural dynamic and the need for additional plot engines. The problem with Roger — and he’s apparently quite a divisive figure, with most viewers taking George/Harry’s side — is that his rapport with the others is one-dimensional, and he doesn’t actually change or evolve the series in any permanent way, which is what Six will successfully do… Meanwhile, with the year having story problems, it decides to redirect focus in its final weeks to something that these performers know is tried-and-true: a vaudeville centerpiece. Coming in the last quarter of the season, every show from here until the end of the run concludes with a theatrical return to the duo’s roots as George and Gracie step out to deliver a classic Burns & Allen routine. It’s a break from the cinematic style established in these early filmed seasons — and it’s certainly a distraction from plot — but they do it so well, and while I don’t really give these bits much credit when choosing favorite entries, they are the cherry on top of a sundae: an added treat that reinforces why this show is so special… So, even though this isn’t the best year, I have, as usual, picked ten episodes that I think exemplify its finest.
Remember: every offering below is directed by Frederick de Cordova and written by Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler and William Burns — unless otherwise cited. (These shows were initially untitled; I’ve labeled them what they’re most often called online.) Also, the only filmed episode of the series that I’m missing is from this collection: “George Trying To Keep Doctor’s Appointment.” If anyone has a copy, please let me know!
01) Episode 135: “Gracie Gives A Wedding In Payment Of A Favor” (Aired: 10/18/54)
Gracie offers to throw a friend’s wedding at her house.
This remake of a joyful 1951 live episode is not very different from its predecessor — it even includes some of the same memorable gags, like the runner where Gracie thinks “cuckoo” is a French word meaning pretty — and because this is the classic era’s, syndicated version of a top-shelf Burns & Allen premise, it was a must-include. (Note: Ronnie Burns appears.)
02) Episode 137: “Auto License Bureau; George Becomes An Author” (Aired: 11/01/54)
Gracie befuddles the DMV while George gets a book deal.
Introducing the idea of George’s forthcoming book (I Love Her, That’s Why, which will factor into several entries next season when it’s published), this offering’s A-story is an enjoyable take on something we’ve seen before. What puts this one over the top though is the opening centerpiece, in which Gracie does her thing at the DMV — one of the series’ funniest scenes.
03) Episode 140: “Shoplifter And The Missing Ruby Clip” (Aired: 11/22/54)
Gracie tries to shoplift a piece of jewelry after a mix-up with Emily Vanderlip.
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Shoplifter And The Missing Ruby Clip” is one of the finest testaments Burns & Allen ever produced to the value of having a solid story supported by character, for this quintessentially convoluted narrative has Gracie unknowingly fooling a matronly crook’s attempt to frame Emily Vanderlip for theft, only to then jump to the conclusion that Emily went back and stole the clip herself (since she has one in her home). So, Gracie has Blanche go over and steal back the clip, which yields more complications when they learn that the item wasn’t stolen — it was purchased — and Gracie believes that the only way to set things right is to go down to the store and steal back Emily’s clip. It’s lots of story turns, yes, but it’s unique and comedic unto itself — and as it’s motivated by Gracie and how she reacts to the world, it’s a shining example of why this series is a terrific study of the 1950s sitcom: a silly plot, fleshed out by a great character.
04) Episode 149: “Blanche And Clara Bagley Leave Their Husbands” (Aired: 01/31/55)
It’s war when Blanche and Clara Bagley feud with each other and their husbands.
As usual, there are many outings this season that register as key samples of domestic situation comedy as it existed in the 1950s, and I’ve chosen this one to represent the category, for the catty infighting between ladies’ club members, which in turn becomes a battle of the sexes with the wives vs. the husbands, is classic fodder for many of this era’s favorite shows.
05) Episode 153: “George And The Missing Five Dollars And Missing Baby Pictures” (Aired: 02/21/55)
George’s friends and neighbors think he’s lost it over a missing five dollars.
Because it was good promotion for his book, George Burns included a draft of this script in his aforementioned autobiography, but it’s also a strong entry in its own right, for this funny, solid show puts George in the center of the action, as his search for a baby picture to include in his tome develops into a misunderstanding where a shrink has to be called.
06) Episode 156: “The Romance Of Harry Morton And Countess Braganni” (Aired: 03/14/55)
Gracie becomes convinced that their new neighbor, a countess, has her sights on Harry Morton.
Burns & Allen did a lot of what can be termed “mild sex farces,” in which Gracie misunderstands a conversation and believes that certain people are, uh, shall we say, hooking up with each other. I tend to classify these outings as run-of-the-mill, for they’re relatively ubiquitous and often good-but-not-great. Well, this is one of the better examples, courtesy of an outstanding teleplay that gives choice material both to Gracie and to the Mortons.
07) Episode 159: “Gracie Tries To Select George’s Next Wife” (Aired: 04/04/55)
Gracie thinks she’s close to death, so she tries to find George a replacement wife.
The idea of one spouse choosing a hypothetical replacement for herself has since become a fairly standard husband-and-wife sitcom story in the decades after its utilization here on this series, where the premise not only works because of how tailor-made it is for Gracie, but also for the text’s funny additive flourishes, like the interview of prospective new wives.
08) Episode 160: “Gracie Gets A Ticket ‘Fixed’ By The Judge” (Aired: 04/11/55)
Gracie thinks Blanche has gotten a traffic ticket and tries to have it fixed.
At the heart of this excursion is a classic “Gracie befuddles a stranger” scene when, after Von Zell secretly has George pay one of Gracie’s parking tickets and tells her that he had a judge “fix it” for her, she believes she can do the same for Blanche, who didn’t really get a ticket, but Harry Morton believes she did because… well… it’s a long story: a classic Gracie mix-up.
09) Episode 161: “Gracie Hires A Safecracker For Her Wall Safe” (Aired: 04/18/55)
Gracie gets a wall safe as a surprise for George… but keeps needing help unlocking it.
With a wonderful premise about Gracie locking important papers in a wall safe that she just installed, this episode is a tour de force for the leading lady, particularly when she goes down to a pool hall and confounds a couple of salesmen while attempting to solicit a safecracker to help get her out of this mess. Lots of hearty laughs in this one!
10) Episode 170: “Gracie Tries To Cure Roger Of Amnesia” (Aired: 06/20/55)
George tries to prove that Blanche’s brother is faking his bout of amnesia.
King Donovan makes his fourth of five appearances this season as Roger, Blanche’s mooch brother who, as discussed above, the back half of the year uses several times in the hopes of cultivating new plot. None are truly excellent, but this is the best of his lot, due to the memorable story, which successfully pursues big hahas in support of its foolishness.
Other entries that merit mention include: “Gracie Thinks She And George Are Moving To New York,” which has a funny climax thanks to a Gracie scheme where she falsely claims George is a witness to a crime, “Gracie Saves Blanche’s Marriage,” which would qualify as a mild sex farce when Gracie assumes Blanche is fooling around, and “Gracie Believes George Has A Criminal Record,” which employs bolder-than-usual comedy as George and his vaudeville pal try to pull a prank on Gracie. Of more Honorable Mention quality are: “Burnses And Mortons Going To Hear Antonelli Concert,” which has a fun puzzle idea, “Vanderlip Leaves His Parakeet With George,” a well-liked, familiar sitcom narrative, and “Blanche And Brother Roger Move In With The Burnses,” the year’s second-best Roger show.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Burns & Allen goes to…
“Shoplifter And The Missing Ruby Clip”
Come back next week for Season Six! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!