Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
The final season of Burns & Allen, and the last professional endeavor ever for the retiring Gracie, is a companion to its predecessor. Like Seven, it’s also set in Beverly Hills, benefits from the twinge of televisual surrealism that accompanies the introduction of George’s “magic TV,” and makes much narrative use of Ronnie, whose coterie of friends and girlfriends creates an expanding universe of peripheral players — including the Texan McAfee family (specifically recurring love interest Bonnie Sue), best friend Ralph, and the beautiful Jantzen daughters (with their plumber dad, played by Howard McNear). But the same rules as before apply; though Ronnie and these new characters are good at propelling fresh story, episodes with them are only worthwhile to the series, and us, when they firmly put the main attraction — Gracie Allen — in the center. Our interest in these bright and shiny new objects therefore only matters insofar as they’re able to cater to what has always been the show’s priority. Accordingly, there are many entries that are simply unideal. (Who cares about the ten-year-old girl who has a crush on Ronnie, or his heavily promoted music single?) However, unlike Seven, Eight comes off better, thanks to both a further uptick to these final years’ emboldened comedic sensibilities — there’s more slapstick here than in any other season (with Von Zell, in particular, clowning it up well) — and a handful of excellently premised installments, which thrillingly showcase the Gracie character. Some of these are remakes, or tweaks, of past classic era offerings, while others — like the celebrated two-parter where Gracie is hypnotized into brilliance — are legitimately new. Either way, there are plenty of gems, and with a go-for-broke comic directive, and much fun for those who like the metatheatrical TV gags (there are a plethora of winking Western jokes this year), I’m happy to say that Burns & Allen goes out on a relative high note — as a fresh and imaginative situation comedy built for this new television medium. And even though George wouldn’t be so successful continuing a weekly series without Gracie, the ten episodes that I have selected to exemplify this season’s finest are also some of the pair’s finest.
Remember that every entry below is directed by Rod Amateau and written by Harvey Helm, Keith Fowler, Norman Paul, and William Burns — unless otherwise cited.
01) Episode 256: “An English Tea” (Aired: 10/21/57)
Gracie tries to impress Ronnie’s girlfriend’s British mother.
Although this offering engages with typical Burns & Allen themes — Gracie scheming to help someone (her son) and forcing people to perform (in this case, Harry Morton is pretending to be George) — it’s really the subplot, which runs throughout the year’s first four weeks and culminates here, that earns this one distinction. You see, Harry Von Zell thinks George should turn the show into a Western (to be more competitive in the new TV season) and wants to prove his worth in this genre, so the climax has Von Zell doing some choreographed slapstick with “an Indian.” It’s absurd, but provides some of the biggest laughs of the year.
02) Episode 260: “One Little Fight” (Aired: 11/18/57)
Gracie and Blanche stage a fight to convince Ronnie and his friend to reconcile.
You’ll notice that never once in the entire TV series have Gracie and Blanche been at odds (unlike Lucy and Ethel, who fought at least once a season). For that reason, it’s a treat even to see the two actors pretend argue, as part of a scheme to reconcile Ronnie and his buddy Ralph. Adding to the joy is Von Zell’s attempt to do the same with Harry Morton — very funny!
03) Episode 264: “A Hole In The Carpet” (Aired: 12/16/57)
A department store is concerned after Gracie trips on their carpet.
This premise was originally used at the end of Season Three, and because it’s not-so-different from its predecessor — only now Ronnie is an employee of the store, so he’s included in the narrative — it’s a winner just like the earlier iteration was; it’s a terrific idea that plays to the Gracie persona, as she first misunderstands the store’s concern and then confounds a doctor who thinks she’s suffered brain damage from the fall! A gem.
04) Episode 268: “Ronnie Finds A Friend An Apartment” (Aired: 01/13/58)
Gracie thinks that Ronnie has become a husband and father.
A classic misunderstanding is at the heart of this story — Ronnie helps a friend land an apartment, but Gracie thinks he’s gotten it for himself. Yet I appreciate it for the outrageous turns it takes, for Ronnie’s friend has a baby, and Gracie not only assumes that the kid is Ronnie’s, but also that he has already dumped its poor mama! Kathryn Card guests.
05) Episode 269: “McAfee And The Manicurist” (Aired: 01/20/58)
Gracie tries to help Bonnie Sue get her father away from a young manicurist.
Here’s a quintessential story from the show’s final era, for one of the many recurring presences associated with Ronnie — his Texan girlfriend Bonnie Sue (Judi Meredith) — comes to Gracie with a problem, and Gracie tries to solve it in her own way, which involves, again, performance: Von Zell playing a Texas oil man trying to steal away a gold-digging manicurist. Also, this entry boasts an example of the series letting George’s TV justify an added plot complication.
06) Episode 270: “Too Many Fathers” (Aired: 01/27/58)
Gracie poses as Ronnie’s friend’s mother… but she’s in need of someone to play daddy.
Once again, you’ll recall that this premise was used back in Season Three and there’s really not too much separating the two versions, except for the fact that this final era is both more accustomed to the broad, farcical comedy inherent to the story and more used to having college kids wandering in and out of the action — which makes it more of a “fit” for the series at this time, when it’s even easier to enjoy the hysterical climax, with all the different papas.
07) Episode 273: “Hypnotizing Gracie” (Aired: 02/24/58)
A hypnotist thinks it would be good publicity to turn Gracie Allen into a genius.
“Hypnotizing Gracie” is the first of two entries that employ the series’ most celebrated narrative, in which Gracie Allen, perennially known as a Dumb Dora, has a reversal of fortune and becomes brilliant. Just as we saw with Jack Benny, when he hit his head and suddenly became a spendthrift, this idea works because it plays against our expectations — expectations that only exist because of a well-established character with easily definable traits, making the premise a testament to both great character comedy and great situation comedy, with a story that has Gracie at its foundation. Now, although I’m selecting the second half of this “twofer” as my MVE, they are a package deal, and I enjoy this one as much as the following, for it’s also got great material for the ensemble, as the hypnotist not only does his magic on Gracie, but also on Harry Morton, who becomes amorous with Blanche, and Von Zell, who barks like a dog. So, when I call the below my MVE, that’s a credit to this one’s mutual perfection, too.
08) Episode 274: “Gracie Is Brilliant” (Aired: 03/03/58)
Gracie has become a genius, but this threatens the Burns & Allen act.
My pick for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Gracie Is Brilliant” is, as discussed above, the second part of perhaps the greatest narrative in Burns & Allen history. And while I enjoy both equally, this half is rightfully the more famous, and fascinating, because the drama now stems from what Gracie Allen’s brilliance means to others, hitting on themes that speak to conflicts for both the characters and, true to the era’s metatheatrical interests, the series at large, as Gracie’s shattered public persona now forces George to consider what his career will be like without her — something that would become reality for Burns in just a few months, following Allen’s retirement. Furthermore, with the central character decidedly out of character, the leading lady gets to showcase a range heretofore unseen on the series, proving her value as an actress and the show’s excellence at reinforcing a fictional, but fully believable persona. Meanwhile, there’s also some ’50s era fun via a TV quiz show and — best of all — a choice gag where Blanche is accidentally hypnotized and starts acting like Gracie, making a tour de force performance for the marvelous Bea Benaderet; it’s easily her finest work in the whole series. And ultimately, given its use of character in story, there’s no doubt about it — this is the show’s high-water mark: proof of this personality comedy’s evolution into a true TV sitcom.
09) Episode 280: “Blanche Gets A Jury Notice” (Aired: 04/21/58)
Harry Morton is elated when Blanche is called for jury duty.
The idea of Gracie serving on a jury was first explored back in Season Four, but in an outing that derived its comedy from an entirely different source — the others trying to get her out of it. It was hilarious, built around her character. Yet this era is a little more direct, and so it desires to actually put her on a jury, expanding this into a two-parter, the first half of which involves Blanche being dismissed from consideration (because of Harry Morton’s hilariously self-serving attempts to get her on the jury) and then features a classic interview scene where the judge thinks Gracie’s purposely trying to get out of service. If only he knew the truth…
10) Episode 281: “Gracie And The Jury” (Aired: 04/28/58)
Gracie causes confusion when she’s a juror on a counterfeit case.
With the above establishing the premise of Gracie serving on a jury, this show — which was rerun as CBS’ last official primetime broadcast of Burns & Allen in September 1958 — actualizes the idea and allows us to see what happens when Gracie is put on the job. Naturally, she does as expected, with an amiable, if predictable, counterfeit yarn sustaining the conflict.
Other entries worth noting include: “September And May,” in which Gracie keeps mistaking Ronnie’s girlfriend for a young hussy running around with a bunch of older men, “The Old Mink Coat” or “How To Wrap A Mink Coat,” which has a typical narrative for the series, but with a fun sight gag involving Blanche thinking mink and ending up with raccoon, “The Stolen Car,” which has George and Gracie both scheming against the other deliciously, and “The Accident,” in which Gracie decides to testify against Harry Morton in a traffic accident. Of more Honorable Mention quality, meanwhile, are “A Visit From Charles Vidor,” which guest stars Vidor and once again makes Von Zell the stooge, “Locked Out,” a remake of a solid, enjoyable third season offering, and “The June Wedding,” which I like, in particular, for the Mortons’ amusingly atypical lovey-dovey scene.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of Burns & Allen goes to…
“Gracie Is Brilliant”
Come back next week for The Phil Silvers Show! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!
You touched on the Gracie/Blanche friendship in one of the earlier episodes on the list, but one of the elements that strikes me about Gracie is Brilliant is that Blanche misses her beloved friend’s special personality, while George is solely worried about the act. It’s never been a particularly sentimental series, so that distinction is not out of character; it just underscores the inextricable link between George’s feelings for Gracie and his feelings for the act. If you read Burns’s writings and listen to even his most serious (such as they were) interviews, that line always appears blurred. The circumstances of her delayed retirement also illustrate his difficulty in separating the woman from the partner. It’s rare to see a sitcom episode, especially from that era, hit quite so close to home.
Hi, Lee! Thanks for reading and commenting.
I actually don’t agree. In the first place, it’s difficult for me to take George’s depiction in “Gracie Is Brilliant” and extrapolate that the actor himself had trouble “separating the woman from the partner.” For if we agree that there’s a distinction between Gracie on and off screen (as this concern implies), then that holds true for George, as well — and his character’s representation shouldn’t really be taken as anything more than that (at least not without more support).
Second, if this impression of conflation comes from the way Burns spoke about Allen *outside* the show, I think such confusion would be a testament to the pair’s commitment to their established personas and the framework through which he posthumously encouraged us to view his late wife: as a performer… who was thoroughly committed to her character. In fact, even when asked, I don’t think he was ever really communicating to us about their relationship — but our relationship to her; any personal details beyond that were intentionally trivial, and not meant to give a whole, accurate picture. (But we could argue that forever.)
If anything, I believe our potentially vague interpretation of their relationship and how they existed off-screen only speaks to a larger point about how controlled the show’s use of metatheatricality actually is — it was perfectly okay to treat the TV show as a TV show and to talk about the couple as a pair of performers with a vaudeville history, but scripts could never subvert the characters as depicted or alter the dynamic that was built decades prior. For instance…
In watching BURNS & ALLEN today, we’re never meant to know anything beyond the show’s fiction. Even in this two-parter, the Gracie character’s change is motivated by a known cause, and never once labeled an indication of how Gracie Allen, the woman, is supposed to be. Also, George’s reaction to the conflict — a conflict audiences of the time were indeed allowed to associate with the actor’s, even though the show itself does not mention it — is not as emotionally true as we’d like it to be; it simply can’t be, for this is a contrived scenario with a known beginning, middle, and end, and dramatic interests that have to sustain that structure.
So, when Blanche is worried about Gracie’s change in behavior, and George is worried about Gracie leaving the act, I see this simply as two different characters performing two different dramatic functions based on their different roles. As you said, this isn’t out of character for George because the show is unsentimental about his and Gracie’s relationship… However, to think that Burns and/or Allen were similarly unsentimental about their relationship would require assumptions that go beyond what they allowed us to know, and a rejection of what should be obvious: that the magical, all-knowing TV is itself a work of fiction. It’s ALL fiction.
Ultimately then, I think it’s more fitting to, once again, not give more credit than is due; “Gracie Is Brilliant” is simply a terrific character piece, with a central conflict that seems more emotionally potent, given our awareness of the performers’ circumstances. I believe looking for clues about anything more than that, specifically an off-camera relationship, would leave one lacking.
Just want to say how much I enjoyed these posts and your insightful comments like the one above. Helps me better appreciate the show and you really write so well. Thank you.
I was wondering, do you plan on doing Larry Keating’s next show, “Mr. Ed”?
Hi, Joey! Thanks for reading and commenting.
What a nice compliment — thank you!
I have no current plans to discuss MISTER ED, but look for Bea Benaderet to pop up here again later this year when we start our study of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!
Yes, George and Blanche are performing different dramatic functions in the piece. I just think it’s significant that it’s Blanche’s function to care about Gracie as an individual. Compare George’s reactions to, for example, Oliver Wendell Douglas on Green Acres. Another daffy wife in a metacognitively aware show, but Oliver is played as more emotionally engaged than George. (And yes, I do also recognize that George is the audience’s guide here and Oliver is the one not aware of the audience.)
Of course you are right about insufficient information about their offscreen relationship in this episode. The show stands on its own. My point was simply that if you do read some biographies, the same questions come up as are raised in this episode. (e.g. George only proposes to Gracie when she is considering leaving the act; or George refusing to end the series despite Gracie’s pleas to retire.) Real life doesn’t alter the nature of the art, but they can sometimes meet in interesting ways. Van Gogh’s self-portraits did eventually have bandaged ears…
The George character is different — and less dimensional — than Oliver’s on GREEN ACRES; I don’t think a comparison of the two in relation to their *fictional* spouses makes a point about an off-camera relationship between a truly married pair, especially given how forcefully the BURNS & ALLEN show affirms and caters to what we know are well-established comedic personas (not real people interacting as they would without the benefit of an audience).
Of course, I certainly take your point that art and reality do often intersect — heck, the conflict the George character faces in “Gracie Is Brilliant” would have seemed familiar to an audience who had just read in the papers that Gracie would be retiring from their decades-long act. The circumstances telegraphed meta self-awareness to the viewer in 1958 — even if that’s absent from the show itself — and that’s why I agree that it’s worth mentioning in a study of the episode: it’s relevant within a premise where the conflict facing the characters may end “the show” on which they star.
But when discussing BURNS & ALLEN, I think it’s difficult to make presumptions that don’t distinguish the players from their characters, especially because — and this is where I think we most disagree — I don’t believe the way Burns described their relationship to the public tells us enough about their relationship to make charges that can then be corroborated here. (As stated before, I think every time Burns talks about Allen, he’s reinforcing what he wants us to think of her and them, not what he thought of her or how they actually existed. Also, I simply don’t think we have enough to read between the lines; they were very careful not to give us more than their personas.)
And ultimately, I believe that because of how little we know about them as people, and need to know about them as people to appreciate a situation comedy about characters who motivate story within a “metatheatrical” (in quotes, because it’s qualified) format, talking about why “Gracie Is Brilliant” is indeed brilliant needn’t go beyond the bounds of the series: its own characters and the situational self-awareness that’s inherent to the premise, but itself as controlled as the characters.
Again, I singled out this episode because it’s a triumph of character. That’s why it works, and why I would argue against a view that might undersell the craftsmanship in this evolved form of situation comedy — the journey to which has defined this blog’s interest in the series. (How much the actors mirrored their characters is, to me, unknowable, and on the show’s terms, not relevant.) I say all this so you know I’m not aiming to nitpick or be a contrarian, but to defend what I believe to be a central position taken here about the series and why it’s worthwhile in a study of the genre.