Less heartstrings for Hazel here...and more out-and-out laughs. Shout! Factory is back with Hazel: The Complete Third Season, a 4-disc, 32-episode collection of the hit NBC sitcom's 1963-1964 season. Starring Shirley Booth, , Don DeFore, Whitney Blake, and Bobby Buntrock, Hazel won't ever top a list of best TV sitcoms, but it's expertly produced, written and performed, with stage and screen legend Booth effortlessly charming as head-down, arms-pumping maid Hazel. No extras for these admittedly up-and-down, rough transfers.
In a small, well-heeled suburban New York State town, live-in maid Hazel (Shirley Booth) runs the show at the Baxter residence. Nominal lady-of-the-house Dorothy "Missy" Baxter (Whitney Blake), who has nothing to do with the actual keeping of the house, is an interior decorator who has a rather sumptuous work studio out back. Hazel was Dorothy's maid when she was a child, and now her own son, Harold (Bobby Buntrock), sees the kindly Hazel as a surrogate mother, as well. Man-of-the-house George Baxter (Don DeFore), an often harried lawyer with a local law firm, sees Hazel as anything but a warm-hearted maternal figure―at least until he cools down―as the two spark continuously over their battle to see who actually is in charge of the Baxter home. Hazel is deferential to George...up to a point, always calling him, "Mr. B.," but she also loves to gently razz him and get his goat over silly, small points concerning the running of the house, while invariably butting into his business affairs that he conducts in his office den―not in a mean-spirited way, but rather as an expression of her always-honest, upfront, no b.s. personality. This grates on the short-tempered George, as it would any successful late 50s, early 60s American suburban male who (incorrectly) believed he was the king of his own castle.
I wrote a lengthy appreciation of Hazel's second season a few months ago (you can read that review here for context), so I'll try not cover the same ground here. Watching these episodes, it became pretty clear, though, that the "sometimes sad" Hazel I wrote about from Season Two was muted this go-around in favor of more intricately-plotted storylines that were grounded less in her character, and more in the conventional "comedy situations," if you will. As a result, some of Hazel's "heart" isn't as readily highlighted (which I miss, since Shirley Booth is so wonderful when she transitions from laughs to thoughtful melancholy), but in compensation, the laughs are bit stronger here as Hazel goes from gently amusing to surprisingly deft laugh-getter (which I like, since Shirley Booth's expert comedic timing gets a stronger work-out now).
Even if laughs are the foremost goal here, you can still find some intriguing ideas percolating under these episodes. Hazel's ever-present "commonness" (and that's not meant as a pejorative) is as always celebrated, with her socio-economic leveler for all society snoots and rich-uns being the "straight dope" and a plate of brownies that apparently have magical powers of persuasion. The season opener, Pot Luck A La Mode, is a good example of this, with Hazel telling off George's rich, demanding, superior-acting clients...only to have them beg her to work for them because they love her cooking and her no-nonsense honesty. All Hazel Is Divided Into Three Parts has Hazel's snooty foil, Deidre (Cathy Lewis), George's sister, trumped again by the plucky maid when Hazel utterly charms a society portrait painter Deidre is wooing. In The Countess, when Deidre learns Hazel may be descended from royalty, she instantly oozes obsequious charm on the non-plused maid, who doesn't want anything to do with a life-changer like a countess moniker. And in Maid for a Day, the transformation is complete when Hazel takes Deidre under her wing and coaches her on how to be a domestic for an upcoming part in a play―with Deidre morphing into a take-charge commoner with a distaste for rich, demanding jerks...like herself.
Stand-out episodes this season include An Example For Hazel, where Hazel transforms another shy, retiring type (George's spinster cousin), into a ballsy domestic like herself (there's a hilarious scene where Hazel shows her marksmanship at an arcade, shooting literally from the hip). Dorothy Takes a Trip (which unfortunately shows how disposable Whitney Blake's character was) is a funny episode where Hazel suspects a perfectly-happy-to-be-temporarily-single George of having an affair. George's 32nd Cousin is a nice, cold bucket of water on the stereotypical 60s suburban stereotypes that often cropped up in these network sitcoms, when scruffy, horrible Diane Ladd comes to stay with the Baxters, exhibiting a bummy, hick-slob coarseness that's hilariously at odds with the blemish-free Baxter household. The Baby Came C.O.D. gives Don DeFore a good outing as he tries to help out a young law student...before getting hooked for more and more expenses when the student's wife has a baby. Hot Potato A La Hazel features funny Bewitched alum Alice Pearce in a well-orchestrated series of misunderstandings as she and Hazel are accused of stealing some money. The Fashion Show is another amusing Hazel/Deirdre match-up, with Hazel again showing a lot of class in the face of snobby Deirdre's drubbings (Reginald Gardiner has a fun bit as an exasperated fashion designer).
Everybody's A Comedian, from those pros Keith Fowler and Phil Leslie, is a beautifully-designed little gem, all predicated on Hazel's unwillingness to admit her eyesight is going, setting into motion all sorts of trouble for who else, George (good throwaway bits here, too, like the guy who robs Hazel when she's stuck in a phone booth). The Retiring Milkman, again from Fowler and Leslie, plays like a looney Capra classic as slacker milkman Sterling Holloway is kept hopping by Hazel's network of maids so he can keep his job...before new boss George fires him (Holloway is so weirdly funny when he asks Hazel for "one more leeeeeeeetle smidgeon of eggs!"). And of course, second only to Booth for big laughs, is series regular Howard Smith as eccentric tycoon Howard Griffin. Anytime he shows up, Hazel leaps forward in laughs; just watch him in the delightful Hazel And The Model T, when after Hazel "forces" him to help out George, he politely asks for a brownie, just like a good little boy. He's priceless, and I hope he's around for the fourth season (the delightfully wacky neighbors, the Johnsons, played by Donald Foster and Norma Varden, are here, too; when Hazel insists on upping how much she'll pay for Mr. Johnson's Model T, he indignantly exclaims, "It's outrageous!") .
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.