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!