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, RONNIE BURNS, BEA BENADERET, LARRY KEATING, and HARRY VON ZELL.
Season Six is a transitional year that deploys two major changes to the series’ narrative framework, which, as we saw last week, was struggling to generate story. The first is unique to the season and it’s why Six is best classified as its own era: the move to New York. That’s right; just as Lucy swapped coasts the season prior, Burns & Allen decided to contrive a reason to do the same (or, rather, the reverse), moving the entire company from the Burnses’ Beverly Hills home to the chic St. Moritz hotel in Manhattan, where new story could be, and is, supplied by fresh scenery and fresh faces, like Mrs. Sohmers (Doris Packer), an elite woman’s club matron who recurs this year and participates in several of its funniest episodes. Speaking of fresh faces, the year’s biggest change is a permanent addition to the regular cast — Ronnie Burns, George and Gracie’s real-life son, who we’re supposed to pretend has existed in the show’s world this entire time. Ronnie is on hand for the rest of the series’ final three seasons and his presence links the two eras together with many of the same qualities. For instance, stories that devote a lot of time to Ronnie (and his recurring pals) tend not to be satisfying — Ronnie’s not the greatest actor, and we’re more invested in the original regulars than him or his posse — but he does create new narrative opportunities, and as long as he’s poised in support of the others (particularly Gracie), he has an additive effect, providing more story and more laughs. To that point, Six is alternatively benefited by, and suffers from, the kid’s dramatic ambitions, which are fine when they’re used comedically at the expense of his parents, but not-so-fine when they’re used earnestly by the series to promote Ronnie as a brilliant actor. (Again, he’s not.) Future seasons will drop this angle, and he’ll become more of a typical college student, but they’ll retain what also comes this year with his inclusion — that aforementioned extra comedy, which defines these last three years via a widespread elevation in the show’s humor, with bolder stories that achieve bigger guffaws. In fact, courtesy of this new directive and the novelty inherent to Six based on these changes, the year, which is among my favorites, claims some of the best episodes of the ENTIRE run. So, I’m thrilled to share the ten that I think best exemplify its finest.
Note that every episode below is directed by Frederick de Cordova and written by Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler, Norman Paul, and William Burns — unless otherwise cited.
01) Episode 173: “The Burnses And Mortons Go To New York” (Aired: 10/03/55)
Gracie mistakes a scientist for a salesman as the company heads to New York.
Written by Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler and William Burns
Season Six opens on the train that’s taking the company from Beverly Hills to New York, and while the explanation for why they’re going (Harry Morton’s business deal) is rather thin, we’re just happy to appreciate the refreshing change in scenery, and the overall uptick in comedy that, as we’ll see, will come to distinguish the series’ last few years from their predecessors. Also, the story here is a classic misunderstanding, with great material for Gracie.
02) Episode 176: “Changing Names” (Aired: 10/24/55)
Confusion abounds when Gracie changes her name to keep Ronnie from changing his.
Although Ronnie’s introductory show — the year’s sophomore excursion — makes the most comedic use of the idea that he’s an aspiring dramatic actor ashamed of his parents’ comedic “lowbrow” endeavors, this is a more roundly enjoyable effort, making terrific hay of that notion but in a more engaging narrative, where Gracie’s characterization drives the plot.
03) Episode 177: “Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party” (Aired: 10/31/55)
Blanche mistakes Harry’s business partner for a masher, as George’s book is finally published.
My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party” is earning this distinction mainly because, in a collection filled with hilarious offerings (just look at how many Honorable Mentions I have this week!), this one stands out as the funniest. Part of its success is due to the fact that it’s rather atypical… and not in the way you’d anticipate, for while I hoped to single out a favorite show because of how well it reinforced the elements only associated with Season Six, with its reformulated ensemble and New York location, the truth of the matter is that this story easily could have taken place in Beverly Hills, too. Yet perhaps that’s to its credit — for though it certainly is part and parcel of this new era’s revitalized comic energy, it’s otherwise not based on anything but a situation motivated by characters. And here’s why it’s unique: it’s BLANCHE who makes the mistake that causes the whole mess. We’d typically expect a plot like this to result from Gracie, and so this is a marvelous change of pace. Even better: the story still doesn’t shortchange its leading lady from propelling the comedy; aside from being a hoot at the bookstore (where the series is plugging the recent release of George’s autobiography), it’s also Gracie who drives the climactic role-playing scheme — a wonderful farce where the ladies swap parts to fool Harry’s business partner, with the icing on the cake being Kathleen Freeman as a Swedish maid they try to pass off as Gracie.
04) Episode 190: “Politeness Never Pays” (Aired: 01/30/56)
Gracie hires a gigolo to make George jealous, as Harry Morton’s father comes to visit.
There’s something of a routine premise at play for much of this outing, and I must admit, it’s really only until the back half that the show asserts itself as a must-include here, not only because we finally meet Harry Morton’s much-beloved father, but also because we’re treated to a choice gag with a made-over Blanche and a hired gigolo who mistakes her for Gracie.
05) Episode 194: “The Ladies’ Club” (Aired: 02/27/56)
The ladies meet society matron Mrs. Sohmers, who’s vexed by Gracie.
The hilarious Mrs. Sohmers, played by character actress Doris Packer, has her debut in this notable episode, and though there are upcoming entries that provide better stuff for her character, it’s already clear what a great comedic foil she can be… as this smart show deftly uses Ronnie’s rehearsal of the Stanislavski Method to confound the society matron.
06) Episode 196: “The Stolen Plants” (Aired: 03/12/56)
Gracie thinks she should go to jail after taking plants from Central Park.
With a quintessential Gracie premise, this offering utilizes the Manhattan setting to spark a story in which Gracie goes to Central Park and takes home some flower bulbs, only to learn from Harry Morton that this is illegal… a revelation that convinces Gracie that she must be arrested for her misdeed, which, of course, confuses the heck out of the cops!
07) Episode 197: “The English Playwright” (Aired: 03/19/56)
Gracie pretends to be a widow to get Ronnie a part in a play.
There are many Ronnie-led shows in Season Six that, as noted in the seasonal commentary, fail to satisfy, for they put too much focus on him and his friends; I use this installment as an example of an ideal Ronnie entry, because it’s driven by Gracie, as her scheme to help get him a part in a play keeps the series’ central, and funniest, character at the fore (per our want).
08) Episode 210: “Questions And Answers” (Aired: 09/10/56)
Mrs. Sohmers tries to help Gracie cheat on the club entrance exam.
Mrs. Sohmers takes the lead in this hilarious outing, where she’s given a clear motive and schemes to achieve it — in order to keep Blanche in their society league, she’s got to help Gracie pass the literary entrance exam. This is an excuse for two amazing set pieces — the main encounter with Gracie and Mrs. Sohmers, and the final test, which is a riot. (Note that this, and the next two, are often listed as part of Seven because they aired in September, but they were produced for Six and are syndicated as such.) A favorite!
09) Episode 211: “Mrs. Sohmers Needs A Psychologist” (Aired: 09/17/56)
A misunderstanding develops after Gracie pays a visit to Mrs. Sohmers’ psychiatrist.
Referenced several times in past weeks, this is Six’s updated take on the series’ ol’ psychiatrist narrative (among its best), which we’ve seen in both the live years and in Season Four’s classic era. But while those were nearly identical, this one starts with a different foundation — Mrs. Sohmers’ insistence to her shrink that her mental health has been eroded thanks to Gracie. From there, the plot unfolds as expected — with the same hilarious results.
10) Episode 212: “The Switchboard Operator” (Aired: 09/24/56)
Gracie and Blanche make a mess of things when they take control of the hotel switchboard.
The year closes with an episode built around an unforgettable classic centerpiece — Gracie and Blanche running amok on the switchboards. It doesn’t really matter how the script motivates the scenario, because it’s simply a brilliant launching pad for typical Gracie confusion, and boy, this installment, the season’s finale, doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. Hysterical.
There are so many great shows this year that I truly enjoy, so I’m listing an entire second set of ten that are worth noting: “Ronnie Arrives,” which introduces Ronnie and has the right comic idea, but tries too hard to be a showcase for his dramatic talents, “Ronnie Moves To The Village,” memorable mostly for the gag of Gracie dressing up “bohemian” to check out Ronnie’s new Greenwich digs, “Company For Christmas,” an amiable holiday outing where Gracie dresses up as a maid, “Ronnie Gets An Agent,” which employs a smart premise and includes a Jack Benny cameo, and “George Needs Glasses,” a familiar premise made funnier than ever before. On the second-tier of Honorable Mentions, meanwhile, are “Alice Gets Married,” the best of this era’s routine misunderstanding shows, both “The Indian Potentate” and “Burlesk,” which boldly seek big laughs by having their leads don costumes (à la Lucy), “The Magic Act,” which is notable only for the centerpiece with Gracie and the magician, and “The Triple Surprise Party,” where Gracie does some physical comedy.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Burns & Allen goes to…
“Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party”
Come back next week for Season Seven! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!