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 Seven finds the company returning to Beverly Hills where Ronnie has enrolled in USC and both the Burnses and Mortons have had their houses conveniently redecorated. With the show back home and Ronnie now a typical college student with typical college concerns (and acting ambitions no longer as highfalutin), Burns & Allen is in the final era of its TV run. This period is also marked by the same uptick in comic energy we saw last week, as the series more boldly pursues big laughs from big story — a lot of which stems from Ronnie’s addition to the regular ensemble, which has opened up the show’s narrative aperture, for better and worse. That is, while the show always welcomes new plot, relishes boldness, and generally benefits from the dimensionality Ronnie provides to his parents’ personas, our interest in him is only a function of our interest in them; we only care about the stories he propels when they make good use of his folks, particularly Gracie. Accordingly, it’s possible to appreciate the universe of peripheral players that Ronnie invites — friends, girlfriends, and even Howard McNear as a plumber with a gaggle of daughters (whom Burns hoped to spin off) — but they simply aren’t the main attraction. And so, Seven, which relies too much on its bright and shiny new objects, can’t even count on its elevated humor (like clowning from Von Zell) to overcome this lack of ideal plots, wanting for the kind of Victories In Premise that we’ll see in Eight. As such, this year isn’t great, even though it also introduces one of the most famous elements of the series’ identity: George’s “magic TV.” The introduction of this device is a symbol of the show’s final break from radio and the theatricality inherent to that medium, for after evolving to become more cinematic, the series is now contextualizing this aesthetic through the literal TV screen; these are no longer stage performers on film, but creatures of a whole new medium, meant to be seen in a whole new way. The last two years are made especially fun for this surrealistic TV gag — not because it radically changes the series’ storytelling (no plot is born from this stunt), but because it cements Burns & Allen as a fully evolved work with TV DNA, coming of age alongside “the tube.” So, on that note, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.
Remember that every episode below is directed by Rod Amateau and written by Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler, Norman Paul, and William Burns — unless otherwise cited.
01) Episode 216: “The Interview” (Aired: 10/22/56)
A reporter wants to do a story on the Burnses, as Mrs. Sohmers comes to town.
Doris Packer, who played society matron Mrs. Sohmers in many of the prior season’s classic New York excursions, revives the character for her first of just three appearances this year with this wild installment that seeks and ably delivers chaos (not to mention a Francis X. Bushman cameo — and Harry Von Zell as a phony Bushman), all in the name of a tried-and-true “interviewer drops by for a look at a normal day in the life” premise. A goody.
02) Episode 217: “Ronnie’s Initiation” (Aired: 10/29/56)
Ronnie’s being hazed as part of his fraternity initiation, and Gracie’s only happy to help.
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Ronnie’s Initiation” is perhaps the funniest outing on this list, yet it really earns my favor because I think it makes the best use of this final era’s particular narrative charms. And, no, I’m not talking of the “magic TV” set — that wouldn’t be introduced until November of ’56 — but rather of Ronnie, who brings with him a posse of friends in this classic college premise that finds the kid being hazed by a fraternity in the form of “opposite day,” a routine that inspires lunacy that’s perfect for the Gracie character. She’s thrilled to go along with it to help her son — confounding everyone, including Mrs. Sohmers, in the process. Lots of fun, lots of laughs, lots of character.
03) Episode 223: “The Girl Behind The Perfume Counter” (Aired: 12/10/56)
Gracie mistakes Ronnie’s girlfriend’s mother for his new love interest.
There’s a choice misunderstanding at the crux of this offering — Gracie assumes that Ronnie’s dating an older woman when his girlfriend’s mother stops by to drop off his coat — and while this kind of narrative is routine for the series at this point, the entry gains merit for being the season’s best version of this type of story: classic Burns & Allen, now with Ronnie.
04) Episode 225: “Christmas In Jail” (Aired: 12/24/56)
George recounts how a Gracie scheme landed him in jail on Christmas.
A well-liked Christmas show, this outing’s got a terrific story that’s told well, with wraparound flashbacks (featuring George in jail) that are structurally atypical, but dramatically true-to-form, thanks to the Gracie characterization. It’s something of an easy yarn — George falling victim to a Gracie scheme — but it’s improved by great hahas, such as Gracie as a gangland “moll.”
05) Episode 229: “The Aptitude Test” (Aired: 01/21/57)
Gracie thinks George needs to take an aptitude test to find a business other than show.
What I enjoy best about this episode — aside from the affable premise, which “affirms” Ronnie’s rightness for show biz (ha) and enjoys the possibility that George is suited for something else — is that it indicates one of the unique charms of this final era: with Ronnie now filling the romantic plots, Von Zell becomes a goofball, a lovable clown used and abused by both George and Gracie. He’s great at this, and his work in this entry’s climax is proof.
06) Episode 231: “The Matrimonial Bureau” (Aired: 02/04/57)
Gracie hopes to find a wife for Ronnie, but gives a matrimonial bureau George’s picture instead.
Again, this won’t gain any points for originality. Even though Ronnie’s on hand to replenish the figurative story well, you’ll notice that Seven (like earlier years) uses a lot of the same types of ideas. As usual, this one makes the list simply for being above average, as the arrival of Eleanor Audley as a potential wife for George is a riot, a misunderstanding that yields more.
07) Episode 233: “Fighting For Happiness” (Aired: 02/18/57)
Gracie wants to fight with George so that they can make up.
One of the funnier shows here, this classic ’50s premise — we’ve seen it before; e.g., Our Miss Brooks — finds Gracie envying a young couple for their ability to fight and reconcile, and after sparking a beef between the Mortons, she hopes to do the same with George. She can’t bring herself to insult his singing though, and he has to take over. It’s charming, and so of its era.
08) Episode 234: “The Termites” (Aired: 02/25/57)
Gracie tries to convince George that their house has termites.
In choosing episodes to highlight, I’m looking for solid stories, but give preference to the ones that are the most memorable. So, while I try to avoid shows with only one climactic gag worth seeing (like some of the Honorable Mentions below), I confess that “The Termites” makes this list primarily for the great centerpiece where Gracie rigs the house to jostle and disturb George in the hopes of convincing him that it has termites. It’s too funny to ignore.
09) Episode 236: “The Ring” (Aired: 03/11/57)
Gracie gives Ronnie her ring but tells George she lost it down the sink.
Admittedly, this outing is here to round out what is otherwise a list of the year’s strongest entries. Although I don’t count this one quite in the same league as the others featured above, it’s, as a whole, stronger than the Honorable Mentions below, for it boasts the first appearance of Howard McNear as the plumber, Mr. Jantzen, who’ll recur seven times in this last era.
10) Episode 248: “Blanche’s Mother Arrives” (Aired: 06/03/57)
Blanche’s mother pays the Mortons a visit.
What can I say? This installment absolutely makes this list purely because it offers the delightful chance to see the always impeccable Bea Benaderet pulling doubly duty as both Blanche and Blanche’s visiting mother, whose arrival is of course a source of conflict for the Mortons. This one’s “no great shakes” story-wise, but it’s funny and you won’t forget it.
Other entries worth noting include: “The Missing Stamp,” which sees the return of Roger but is most interesting because it’s the first with the so-called “magic TV,” “George’s Gray Suit,” which makes a clown of Von Zell, and “The Refrigerator Salesman,” which has an easy misunderstanding involving razors and refrigerators. I’d also like to mention: “The Plumber’s Friend,” the second Jantzen show, which is itself most rewarding for a subplot that inspires a Mary Livingstone(!) cameo, “Wading Pool At Acapulco,” which has a funny climax with the men purposely botching a lifeguard tryout, and “A Pain In The Back,” which has a hysterical centerpiece where Von Zell is whipped into shape by the Rams’ trainer.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Burns & Allen goes to…
Come back next week for Season Eight! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!
Thanks for a look back at another classic. I haven’t seen too many B&A shows, but what I’ve seen looks good. I was wondering if you’d ever take a similar look at Jack Benny’s tv show, since you’ve been reviewing his radio show regularly. I’ve seen more of those, especially in its days in the 1980s on CBN, and I liked several episodes, including those that starred Johnny Carson, Peter Paul & Mary, and Raymond Burr as Perry Mason in a dream sequence. I know its irregular schedule would cause problems w/ a season by season review, but maybe you could hit a few of the better shows in a special column.
Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Sadly, beyond a one-off, last-minute, minimal-effort Wildcard entry that features an episode or two, no; too much of the TV run remains unavailable and therefore unideal for significant attention. Also, in contrast to BURNS & ALLEN, the television JACK BENNY PROGRAM is less formative with its situation comedy elements than its radio predecessor, so for our purposes, we’ve already covered the more relevant part of Benny’s career. (Not to mention, as far as I’m concerned, the better part of his career…)
Thanks for reviewing. I want to watch more of this show but it is hard to find. Gracie Allen was such a gem. I would like to see the episode with Bea playing her mother. She was such a great actress.
Hi, Smitty! Thanks for reading and commenting.
238 of the 239 filmed episodes are available, as of this writing, on YouTube. Every BURNS & ALLEN post here has featured a link to this YouTube channel — you can find it above in the opening paragraph.
George’s television isn’t just a wonderful, creative invention for the show; it’s an enormous gift to Burns himself. His conspiratorial relationship with the audience has always been there, but once he has his television, the audience is brought even further into his confidence regarding both the necessities of the plot and the mechanics of creating the show. In addition, Burns’s function is often to react to the other characters, and the television allows him to react without necessarily breaking the scene. (Often, the series has no problem breaking the reality of a scene, but sometimes it might be distracting.) Also, because of the nature of the plots, the show has a lot of required exposition. The magic TV grants those scenes an innovative quality that makes us pay more attention than we otherwise might. For me, that narrative invention freshens these last two seasons a lot, and keeps this series much less “tired” than many others by the same age.
Hi, Lee! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I agree with you about the inventiveness of this device, how it enlivens these final years, and what a benefit it is to the George persona, especially given his relationship with the audience.
However, it’s become de rigueur to define the TV run of BURNS & ALLEN via its use of the TV, and to more aggressively link its value *with* the novelty, for in our post-cable culture where audiences have become so media literate that they expect “smart” series to telegraph a sense of self-awareness about the limitations within their own identity, the use of such a device — and the metatheatrical comedy it implies — affirms our prejudices about the show’s unique, forward-thinking charms, and its worthiness of being hailed as a sitcom great.
In contrast, my study has firmly impressed upon me that, for a series that only boasted the “magic TV” for two seasons — and in those seasons, used it only for George’s asides to the audience, which had always been a part of the weekly design — it misses the mark to let this interesting, funny gag be credited as anything more, for there’s so much else to BURNS & ALLEN that better suggests why it’s worth discussing. And so I am VERY conscious about the way I talk about the “magic TV” here — I’m not going to overstate what it does or how it’s featured.
That said, the TV is a fun novelty that indeed distinguishes the show in this last era, and it’s a device that corroborates these final years’ more ambitious pursuit of comedy, as their bolder scripts take more laugh-seeking risks. I also think, as expressed above, for the purposes of tracking the series’ development, it offers an ideal physical representation of the show shedding the radio medium and embracing television, which is the journey that motivated my desire to feature BURNS & ALLEN’s TV run here in the first place.