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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

FUN WITH OZZIE AND HARRIET -- DVD review by porfle

(NOTE: This review was originally posted at in July 2007.  I didn't mention the unrestored picture and sound quality of these public-domain episodes, because I mainly just wanted an excuse to talk about Ozzie and Harriet.)

Ozzie Nelson was a bandleader and Harriet Hilliard was his lead singer, and when they got married in 1935 they also teamed up to create a popular radio show which made the transition to television in 1952.  With the addition of their real-life sons David and Ricky, the Nelson family stayed on the air for sixteen years (1952-66) and 435 episodes.

Until recently, my only memory of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was that it was a boring, corny old show that existed only to give old fogeys something to watch.  But thanks to my recent rediscovery of the show through some episodes included on a couple of those fifty-cent DVDs that I dug out of a budget bin, I found that it was anything but boring and corny.  In fact, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was one of the funniest and--dare I say it--hippest sitcoms of all time.

Now, with Mill Creek's 4-disc, 38-episode set, FUN WITH OZZIE AND HARRIET, you can enjoy several hours of their best episodes for less than ten bucks.  (A 100-episode set from Mill Creek is due out in October.)  Most of them focus on Ozzie, who had an amazingly restrained, laid-back, and exquisitely deadpan comedy style that never seems forced or false but is always funny.  Hardly the perfect, know-it-all TV Dad people seem to remember him as, Ozzie is actually more of a kinder, gentler version of Homer Simpson.  His main goals in life are to enjoy his family (we never find out where he works), have fun with his friends, and get out of doing household chores whenever possible. 

Harriet, who seems to have acquired a reputation as one of those "yes, dear" Stepford wives of the 50s, is anything but.  She may be the perfect wife and mother, and dress impeccably to perform her duties as a homemaker, but she also has a sharp sense of humor and a well of common sense that must often be relied upon to keep Ozzie out of trouble. 

Rounding out the family are Dave and Ricky, who were 16 and 13 respectively at the show's inception and grew up on the air.  Dave is the sensible, conservative older brother who has more in common with Ozzie, while Ricky is the little wiseacre with a burgeoning passion for rock and roll.  Both are natural actors, never coming off as though they're reciting lines or "performing." 

Ricky, in particular, is so preternaturally relaxed and unaffected in his demeanor that he comes off as one of the coolest characters in television history.  As a kid, he could skillfully toss off snappy wisecracks and one-liners without seeming like a brat or a smartass, and in later years, his totally natural coolness puts the exaggerated, artificial greaser act of "The Fonz" to shame.  Rarely does a TV performer have this much presence without having to expend the slightest conscious effort to do so.

When he began to develop as a singer and Ozzie started featuring his performances on the show--debuting with a rockabilly-tinged cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" in the episode "Ricky the Drummer"--it was the first time many viewers had ever seen real rock and roll presented in a positive light back in the days when many still considered it a harbinger of the downfall of America's youth.  Ozzie caught a lot of flack for this, but as a music lover he was determined to present all kinds of music to the public with equal enthusiasm, whether it be big band, barbershop, cool jazz, or rock and roll. 

And unlike other musical sitcom characters like the Bradys or the Partidge Family, the Nelsons were the real thing.  (Ricky, in fact, would be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.)  Ozzie, Harriet, Ricky, and even David, who wasn't quite as musically inclined as the others, were frequently given the opportunity to display their talents, and their genuine love for music and performing always made it entertaining.

But what of the plots for these creaky old sitcom episodes?  That's where a contemporary reassessment of the show yields its most pleasant surprises.   "Seinfeld" may have become famous as "the show about nothing", but Ozzie and Harriet beat them to it by a few decades.  The most inconsequential things, such as Ozzie having to clean out the garage or send back a couple of chairs that have been delivered to his house by mistake, can lead to a mind-boggling series of non-stop gags and one-liners. 

"Tutti Frutti Ice Cream" finds Ozzie waking up in the middle of the night with such an intense craving for some tutti-frutti ice cream that he wakes up his next door neighbor Darby (Parley Baer) and they embark on a desperate all-night search for it all over town.  Recalling a newspaper story in which a little lost boy was given tutti-frutti ice cream at the police station until his parents came to pick him up, Ozzie and Darby declare themselves lost and turn themselves in to the police, where they finally get some tutti-frutti ice cream.  (Little Richard's hit song of the same name was actually inspired by viewing this episode!)

In "The Odd Bolt", Ozzie is going through a box that he uses to deposit odds and ends that he might need later, and comes across an unidentified bolt.  His need to find out where the bolt is supposed to go becomes an all-day obsession as he tries to fit it into various things, until he ends up taking the motor of the family car apart.  Still no luck.  At last he goes to bed in defeat, and when the bed caves in, he finally realizes where the bolt was supposed to go. 

Probably the most surreal story in the collection, "Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise", is a stupefying trip through Ozzie's subconscious mind which begins when he devours two triple banana splits right before going to bed.  The resulting nightmare is a labyrinth of baffling twists and turns in which Oz is never sure whether he's awake or asleep, or what's real and what's part of the dream.  It could almost qualify as a comedy episode of "The Twilight Zone."

The one that really had me rolling on the floor, though, was "The Pajama Game."  This one features Don Defore ("Hazel") as Ozzie's mischievous neighbor Thorny, a great character from the earlier years of the show.  Oz and Thorny are planning an early fishing trip but the 5:00 a.m. wakeup time is making it hard for them to get to sleep.  Somehow they each get locked out of their houses in their pajamas in the wee hours of the morning and have to sack out in the back of Ozzie's station wagon. 

The next morning, Harriet, unaware that they are asleep in the back, drives to town to go shopping.  When they wake up, they're in the middle of downtown in their pajamas and end up being chased by a cop and an indignant mob.  While laughing my rear end off, I could just imagine the very same thing happening to Cosmo Kramer and George Costanza. 

Amazingly, Ozzie Nelson produced and directed almost every episode of this show himself.  According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, he shot the show on 35mm film to give it a quality lacking in most other TV product of the time, and previewed the episodes in a rented movie theater so he could place laugh track cues according to actual audience responses. 

Ozzie and his brother Don also co-wrote the scripts along with the likes of Jay Sommers, Perry Grant, and Dick Bensfield, who would go on to write for such classic comedies as "Green Acres", "The Andy Griffith Show", and "The Odd Couple."

In addition to Don Defore and Parley Baer, the supporting cast often features such familiar faces as Frank Cady (Sam Drucker of "Green Acres"), Hal Smith ("The Andy Griffith Show"s Otis Campbell), Lyle Talbot, James Stacy, and, of course, Skip Young as "Wally", plus the likes of John Carradine and Ben Johnson as guest stars.  The DVD set includes many of the original commercials, some of which in addition to being fun to watch are just plain odd, and feature products like the "Prophylactic Toothbrush."  (Make up your own joke.)

Despite the genial, easygoing nature of this show and its stars (I actually think watching it might lower your blood pressure), it's one of the funniest and downright wackiest comedy series I've ever seen.  The Nelsons are like the flip side of the Simpsons, but in their own inimitable way they're just as funny and lovable as their cartoon counterparts. 

Even if you're a fan of more off-the-hook stuff like "The Simpsons" and "Married w/Children", as I am, there's no reason not to derive equal delight from the homespun, family-oriented hijinks of Ozzie and Harriet.  I'm glad I rediscovered them, and if you've yet to do so, FUN WITH OZZIE AND HARRIET is a great place to start.

Buy it at


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