Just in time for Halloween (?), Shout! Factory has released The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Christmas With the Nelsons, another Nelson family-sanctioned effort that gathers together four holiday-themed episodes from one of television's most beloved sitcoms. Episodes included are: The Boys' Christmas Money and Late Christmas Gift from season one; The Fruitcake from season 3, and The Christmas Tree Lot from season 6. And yes, these are still the edited prints owned by the Nelson family that appeared in syndication and on The Disney Channel back in the 1980s. All are wonderful and sweet and warm (as usual with this series) slices of life with the fictional/real Nelsons, while the beautiful Late Christmas Gift enters onto my own personal list of truly exceptional TV.
Back in May of 2007, I wrote a detailed defense of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet's aesthetics and appeal (a review that some people, apparently, read quite closely), so I'm not going to go back and cover a lot of the same ground again (you can click here, though, if you'd like to read that review which has important background on the show). Suffice it to say, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was an utterly beguiling, deceptively complex series that provided a view of American middle-class life in the 1950s that wasn't nearly as "fantasy-based" as its critics contended. It was also deliriously surreal and bizarre, a hermetically-sealed, gently funny, warm world springing forth whole from the head of writer/producer/director/actor/song writer Ozzie Nelson, who fashioned a fourteen-year-long adaptation/reinvention of his own family story - even down to plugging in his real-life wife and kids...as his TV wife and kids. It's one of the most remarkable accomplishments in American pop culture (an experiment that proved enormously popular on radio and TV), and one that has been unfairly maligned and misinterpreted for decades now by cynical, scornful "TV critics" (blech!).
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Christmas With the Nelsons is a fairly good approximation - if that's possible in only four episodes out of a 14-year series - of what made the show such a brilliant exercise in self-reflexive pop culture. More importantly, perhaps, the four episodes gathered here accomplish exactly what Ozzie Nelson set out to do with his show: they entertain. Wonderfully so, in fact. They present a picture of life lived among a (then) typical middle-class American family that emphasized love and respect and great sympathy for each member - while providing laughs that were in equal doses quite conventional, and oddly dreamlike and unreal. They're fascinating examples of what a true genius Ozzie Nelson was, so let's look at each episode (fair warning: spoilers will be contained in the episode discussions).
The Boys' Christmas Money
Originally premiering on December 19, 1952, The Boy's Christmas Money finds David and Ricky asking Ozzie if they can get part-time jobs to earn a little extra Christmas money for presents. Ozzie, initially enthusiastic, gives the go-ahead, but then after some thought, begins to worry about the boys working away from home. To protect the boys, he sets up a deal with the local grocer, who agrees to let the boys work around the store (even though he doesn't really need the help) in exchange for putting their salary on Ozzie's tab. With the boys off to work on their first day, Ozzie begins to worry about their well-being, particularly since there's a driving rainstorm going on outside. Eventually, both Ozzie and Harriet (who also set up a similar deal - unbeknownst to Ozzie - with the town baker) discover that the boys had actually scored their own job - watching TV as part of a display in a department store window.
A typically solid, beautifully integrated episode, The Boys' Christmas Money features the frequent "Nelson twist" at the end of the show (in this case, two twists), where expectations held by Ozzie and Harriet go out the window when the reality of the boys' real lives becomes apparent. What could have been a gimmicky show about the boys getting jobs based on their parents' interference, is completely abandoned in favor of showing yet again how loving and warm and supportive the Nelsons are with each other. We never see the boys at work (today, the whole episode would have been about the boys wreaking havoc at the store); indeed, the entire episode is about Ozzie and Harriet showing their concern for the boys' welfare.
When Ozzie first talks to the boys about working, he lays a story on them about working as a boy, and having to walk three miles one-way to get there, that I'm sure every parent out there will appreciate. Where Ozzie shows his brilliance is later in the episode when, having built up in his mind the idea that the boys will be delivering groceries in the driving rain without their slickers, he admits to Harriet that his boyhood job wasn't really all that tough, and that his father actually drove him around for all his deliveries (and that his dad might have even set up the job, just as he did for Ricky and Dave). Ozzie was a genius at bringing up something like that boyhood story in an episode, creating a feeling of nostalgic reflection that must have warmed viewers' hearts ...only to utterly deflate it later for comedic effect. Importantly, though, Ozzie never makes himself (or anyone else, for that matter) the object of ridicule or mockery due to that nostalgia (as is tiresomely the case for almost everything on TV sitcoms today). We don't see anything wrong with Ozzie inflating a story from his boyhood (we've all done that as parents); we just see the genuine concern and love he has for his boys - a simple, honest, human emotion that seems utterly rare on today's network schedules.
Of course, Ozzie keeps the peripheral light and breezy with some funny asides by Harriet (the more I watch her, the more I'm convinced she's the funniest performer on this show), with a delightful nod to proto-feminism as Harriet perks up to the discussion of the boys getting paid to perform housework (watch Ozzie backpedal on that one). And the double twist ending with Harriet secretly getting in on the act of helping the boys, is neatly accomplished (can you imagine a store doing that today? The lawyers would have a field day). But as with most of the episodes from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, we come away remembering not the funny plots and lines, but the sincere emotion surrounding the characters, carefully nurtured by Ozzie.
Late Christmas Gift
A brief holiday visit from Ozzie's insurance agent (veteran character actor Franklin Pangborn, in a funny turn) has Ozzie feeling vaguely morbid, a feeling immediately erased when he receives his late Christmas present from his mother: a jazzy, loud sports coat. David is adamant that he likes his gift from Grandma Nelson: a big, thick book of political biographies. But Ricky suspects that Grandma Nelson mixed up the cards, and that the two gifts were accidentally switched. Ozzie, having returned from the malt shop with next-door neighbor "Thorny" Thorndike (Don DeFore), feels a little silly about feeling so young, wearing the coat, until he gets a far greater gift when he learns his mother did intend for him to have the jacket.
Simply one of the loveliest episodes of TV I've ever seen. Layered with deeply touching moments throughout its brief running time - and yet never obvious or saccharine or insistent on tugging your heart strings - Late Christmas Present, which premiered a week later after The Boys' Christmas Money in 1952, manages to touch on themes of middle-aged longing for youth, of youthful rebirth among old friends, of a child's love for their parent, and a parent's love for their own parent. Ostensibly a routine episode about a mix-up in late Christmas packages, Late Christmas Present eschews all the "humorous" complications that such a plot would demand today on a network show, going instead, as was always the case with this series, in the direction of humor and warmth through character interaction. It may be difficult for younger viewers today to understand the central dilemma of the show: Ozzie's concern that a seemingly normal sport coat would look too "young" on him (adults actually acted their age back in the '50s). But once that lynch pin to the plot is accepted, the themes put forth are timeless.
When Ozzie begins to act "old" (putting on a shawl when he takes his nap) after his insurance agent sets him in a morbid frame of mind, you think you have the whole episode figured out. Ozzie is gradually going to feel more decrepit until someone reminds him that he's really young inside and that age is just a state of mind. But that doesn't happen here; that would have been too pat and facile. Once Ozzie puts on the jacket, and models it for an admiring Harriet, he looks like a little boy again, pleased with pleasing his girl. Borrowing a bow tie from Dave, Ozzie can't wait to show off his collegiate outfit to Thorny next door. And like little two middle-aged friends, they buck each other up, convincing each other that they are really still young, and that they have nothing to fear from going down to the malt shop - even if it is filled with high schoolers at that time of day (significantly, the episode doesn't show them there - the point of the scene is how they feel about their age, not showing potential hijinks at the malt shop).
Coming back rejuvenated (Ozzie even admits that two girls may have been giving him the eye), he's crestfallen when he accepts the fact that the jacket was meant for David. He's resigned to his fate: a middle-aged parent who felt, just for a moment, like a young kid again. But then, in the "Nelson twist," Harriet finds a note in the jacket, from his mother, apologizing for the delay in sending Ozzie the jacket, but reassuring him that, "the salesman at the campus shop assured me all the young men were wearing them this year." To Ozzie's mother, Ozzie is still a young man, worthy of a handsome, youthful jacket. And as he hears this, an indescribable expression of wonder and pride and deep love for what his mother really did for him, comes over his face - it's a remarkable moment. Of course Ozzie tells Harriet not to say anything to David, and to let him have the coat - Ozzie's true gift was realizing how his own mother saw him: a vibrant, youthful man.
That scene alone would be a terrific ending to an excellent episode, but Ozzie goes even further (without ever straining for effect) when David comes down to get his tie back from Ozzie. Proud of his new jacket, David is told by Harriet that Ozzie is taking a nap in the den and that if he's quiet, he can get the tie off of him. David goes in and very gently removes the tie, carefully lifting Ozzie's head so as not to wake him. And then, having taken the tie, David looks down on his father for a moment, and leaning down, touches his shoulder for just a second, in thanks. It's a quiet moment (no music, no laugh track), and one of absolute tenderness between a sleeping father and a young son expressing silent, eloquent affection and regard. Going further still, after the boys have left, Harriet goes in and puts a blanket over Ozzie, kissing him quietly on the cheek...only to have Ozzie put a final, self-deprecating coda to the scene by having his character say, deep from dreamland, "Please, girls. I'm married." He's dreaming about the malt shop girls. What may have made you tear up, now makes you laugh. Love, affection, respect, and gentle humor. That's the genius of Ozzie Nelson.
The Fruitcake and The Christmas Tree Lot
After the sheer brilliance of Late Christmas Gift, discussing these last two episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: Christmas With the Nelsons collection seems almost anti-climatic, but it shouldn't. Both are entertaining episodes, with interesting examples of what made the series so unique. In The Fruitcake, which premiered during the third season on January 7, 1955, Ozzie discovers that the jar of hard candies that he's been giving to Thorny, are about as welcome as the fruitcakes that Thorny's been giving to him, both for the last three years. When Ozzie talks himself into taking back the fruitcake to exchange it for something else, he learns that Thorny has done the same thing: they both wanted what they actually had given to each other. The Fruitcake is an excellent example of the sometimes bizarre, surreal world of the Nelsons, where a seemingly insignificant event - receiving a fruitcake for Christmas - can snowball into a whole world of humorous conflicts, each one carefully built upon the next by expert craftsman Ozzie Nelson.
And in The Christmas Tree Lot, which premiered during the show's sixth season, on December 18, 1957, Dave and Rick discover the pitfalls of trying to strike out on their own business venture when complications hinder their Christmas tree-selling scheme. Naturally, Ozzie's gift of showmanship comes in handy when he suggests Rick put on a show to draw in customers, which of course works like gangbusters. This episode is the most complete of the four offerings here (it runs over 26 minutes), and it has the novelty of the Kodak commercial/introduction to the episode at its head (Christmas themed, of course, with the Nelsons getting a snazzy-looking camera outfit). And while the story itself is the usual carefully-mounted, integrated script that you'd come to expect from the show, the part I found most interesting came at the end. Naturally, when the plot comes around to the boys putting on a show, you assume Rick is going to sing a song - which he does: Baby I'm Sorry. But once the boys pick up their dates and leave the lot, Ozzie and Harriet take over, and Ozzie assumes the mantle of rock 'n' roller, performing the same song in a remarkable approximation of Rick's teenybopper-crush stylings. While I'm sure there are some people who would suggest this might be another example of Ozzie's total control over "the product, Ricky Nelson," it doesn't play that way at all. Instead, the boys, hearing their father over loudspeaker outside the store, acknowledge how good ol' Dad is, with David almost breaking the fourth wall by saying, "Dad was the Ricky Nelson of his day," implicitly addressing the phenomenon that was going on at the time with Ricky Nelson's music career. That kind of multi-layered self-reflexive plotting/performing makes The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet endlessly fascinating to watch: a long-term experiment in self-creating, self-fulfilling pop culture prophecy.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.