The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952) | poster excerpt
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952) | poster excerpt

‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ and the Nerve-Wracking Nature of Nothingness in 1950s White America

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet impresses me not for its alleged blandness but for its ingenious minimalism, its meta-structure, and its nerve-wracking nature of nothingness.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet: The Complete Season One
Ozzie Nelson
MPI Home Video
21 Jun 2022

Harriet’s stamping ground is the kitchen, where she makes meals or “tollhouse cookies” all the while wearing her apron. In the critical side of pop culture, she and similar television housewives are sometimes condemned for their complacency in accepting this role and failing to provide a progressive model similar to, for example, Mrs. Goldberg studying for her psychology degree at night school, or Eve Arden as a beloved teacher in Our Miss Brooks. (Oddly, Harriet spends one episode studying psychology at night school!)

Perhaps the problem here is expecting one show, or a set of shows, to be all things to all viewers. Taken as a whole, including its dramas, television showed a spectrum of women. Now forgotten are the pioneering “working girls” of Meet Millie or Private Secretary. Better recalled are more scatterbrained (or Chaos) figures as in I Married Joan or the calm illogic of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, or Gale Storm’s roles in My Little Margie or as the cruise director in The Gale Storm Show.

Meanwhile, if you wanted a woman doctor or lawyer, she’d show up as a guest – often on a western, for some reason. Television then would have you believe the Old West was littered with women doctors, and perhaps it was. Women entrepreneurs were frequent guests on detective shows, where they were often in trouble. It was as though telebision wanted to allude to such options but was skittish about showing them on a permanent ongoing basis, in case too many women got ideas.

For the record, the first women detectives were played by Anna May Wong on The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951), Mary Lou Taylor (1949) and Barbara Britton (1952) in versions of Mr. and Mrs. North, and Beverly Garland as a policewoman on Decoy (1957). Then there were the anthologies, both live and filmed, which afforded a greater and deeper variety of roles as one-offs. My point is that over the course of a week, viewers saw many different images of women on “TV land”, which was its own country. The landscape was richer than we recall, and one show needn’t bear the burden of representing whatever one prefers.

(Let it be said that my suburban mother did the same as Harriet Nelson, in addition to making lots of her own clothes or painting pictures for the walls. My retired father did nothing but read or make woodwork. As with David and Ricky, I bickered with my brother. Let others carp about realism; my life wasn’t far from the Nelsons.)

The first season of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet belies the term “adventures” in its ritualistic minimalism. Episode after episode focuses on the confusion and insecurity of Ozzie, the paterfamilias who also happens to be running the show and directing and co-writing it. He keeps tripping himself up with the wrong advice or weird conclusions or peculiar obsessions, which are reinforced by the continual intrusions and blowhard-isms of neighbor “Thorny” Thornberry, who has the run of the place. He’s played by Don DeFore, who graduated to befuddled paterfamilias of Hazel.

Ozzie displays an uncanny facility for projecting mountains out of psychosomatic molehills. As he bumbles and whinnies through his contradictions and assertions, working himself deeper into a pointless muzzle over this or that, Harriet usually stares at him with pursed lips, making it clear she’s more level-headed and is just waiting for him to stop talking. Occasionally she’ll indicate that she’s just better at concealing her neuroses. Eventually, Ozzie’s self-created, imaginary concerns work themselves out.

This describes a large percentage of episodes, making the series an early candidate for Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing“, unless the theme is Ozzie’s nervous hysteria. Seinfeld pretended to be about nothing while concocting the most elaborate charades reminiscent of old Jack Benny episodes, but The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet easily takes the prize for devoting whole episodes to non-existent conflict out of a blue sky. I’ll go further and suggest it’s an early model for the squirm-inducing comedies of discomfort and awkwardness that have proliferated since The Office.

The more the show reinforces its own minimalism and predictability, the more its manifest subject seems to be the obsolescence of Ozzie. Oh, everyone respects and likes him, but they sort of tolerate or work around him while he does little besides dither, sometimes maddeningly or agonizingly. The character of “Ozzie Nelson” is utterly unthreatening, unproductive, and inconsequential. The house runs without him. The paradox is that this concept hatched from the real-life Ozzie Nelson, the show’s mastermind.

So unlike those Order shows where the paterfamilias seems involved in something significant, even if we’re not always sure what it is, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet seems to limn the theme of that figure’s dwindling importance in postwar America, his increasing entrance into a self-absorbed dream state. Can this be a conscious message or is it some kind of zeitgeist-y accident? Is it an alibi to lull us off our guard, or is it a prediction of society’s tectonic shifts?

Stories that touch on gender roles, such as episode 17, “The Tuba Affair”, end up delivering the impression that Harriet is the “master”, and various remarks are dropped about women’s changing roles and whether Harriet should be paid for her housework. This might be a patronizing gesture from show-runner Ozzie, or it might be recognition of bubbling cultural discontents. In any case, what we read about the real Harriet indicates she was no pushover and knew what she wanted. Her run on radio and television was less flashy than Lucille Ball’s and was virtually the anti-Lucy, yet it’s well to remember they were both highly successful at the same time.

In these early tales, the boys mostly argue or enact peripheral plot points about dating girls or earning money. They’re polite enough to address their father as “sir” and otherwise behave as much like model citizens as mildly rambunctious boys can do. They wear crewcuts, button shirts, and jeans with rolled cuffs. It’s impossible to imagine them smoking in the boys’ room. I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t, only that their presentation conforms to the ideals of the parental generation who are presumably watching the show and buying the sponsor’s products.

Maybe the boys are really two-faced Eddie Haskell’s like in Leave It to Beaver, though we have reason to doubt it. While Leave It to Beaver often gets credit as the most “realistic” of the family sitcoms I call the Order group, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet might stake a claim as the most open to existential absurdism and even surrealism.

If that claim sounds odd, I direct you to “Deeper into Ozzie & Harriet“, a Video Watchblog entry by Tim Lucas, my former editor at Video Watchdog magazine. Pointing out that regular writer Jay Sommers would create Green Acres, Lucas gives examples of the series’ surrealism and even extends his study to the commercials. Such episodes came later, although we begin to catch glimpses when Ozzie dresses as a devil for Halloween and a man comes to the door for lemon lollipops for his 25-year-old son, or when Ozzie’s photograph reacts in the punchline of “Thorny’s Gift”.

Many things would happen over the years, such as the sons’ marriages and their attendance at law school, along with Rick’s alternate-universe emergence as a pop star that caused him frequently to perform on the show, but this first season confines itself largely to the family home. We initially see a living room, kitchen, dining room, and patio, at first hearing only rumors of an upstairs. Characters leave the house and return, and the camera only rarely follows anyone into the wide world. This changes as the season becomes more confident.

In other words, the early scripts follow a strict “four people talking in a room” format, as seen also in Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners or Norman Lear’s All in the Family and even to a large extent on Seinfeld. This first season’s writers are Ozzie himself, his brother Don Nelson, Bill Davenport, and Ben Gershman.

The series hits its stride in the sixth episode, “Riviera Ballet”. It’s the first episode with substantial action outside the Nelson home and also the first to use the structuring device of having characters address the camera, and not just during commercials. The plot about ballet tickets is a mild excuse for some “war between the sexes” jealousy but the real point is the graceful series of twists and reversals, just like a ballet but performed entirely in dialogue.

Episode 11, “Harriet’s Hairdo”, is also crucial, and not just because we finally go upstairs. Harriet’s stylist is played by mouth-popping character actor Fritz Feld as a narcissistic artist who would use Harriet’s hair as his medium while disregarding what anyone else wants, including Harriet or unimportant husbands. In this way, he’s a rival to Ozzie. Hmm.

After the plot about Harriet’s blonde wig and references to Marilyn Monroe and the implication that husbands don’t want their wives too sexy, plus a joke (one of several this season) about the feminization of neighbor Thorny, the episode ends with Ozzie smiling enigmatically as he reads from a novel: “That was one of Rudolph’s most disarming characteristics. People were constantly underestimating him, taking his sly, crafty, subtle sense of humor for boyish naïvete or even plain stupidity.”

This episode is also unusual, in fact unique, for expanding the writers’ credits to include John L. Greene, Sol Saks, Sherwood Schwartz “and several others”. While Greene, creator of My Favorite Martian, would be permanent in later seasons, Saks and Schwartz aren’t mentioned again. Television mavens know well that Saks created Bewitched while Schwartz blessed the world with Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch.

Episode 16, “Stop Worrying” (as if the show ever could), proves that Ozzie and Harriet sleep in the same bed, despite the cultural mythology that such things weren’t possible on television. (By the way, the Goldbergs also slept in one marital bed.) Actually, they’re twin beds that may be pulled apart or pushed together, and they’re often separated. Still, here’s a precedent.

In episode 19, “Separate Rooms”, Harriet even refers saucily to her share of the sheets, and she tells her Aunt Ellen (Ellen Corby) that “my feet get so cold and his back is so warm”. So there you have it. All scenes of “together in bed” are presented in a silhouetted dark, either not to shock us or to be more suggestive.

That amazing episode begins with the brothers proposing separate rooms because their shared room is cluttered with each other’s stuff. (We finally see their room in the next episode, “The Valentine Show”, and it’s spotless.) Ozzie supports what he calls the normal masculine desire for privacy now that David is a “big guy”. This time, it’s Harriet who works herself into pointless worry over the notion that Ozzie wants his privacy, leading briefly to separate rooms. All this is handled with no mention of sex topics like masturbation or nookie, yet these are clear subtexts.

By and large, this isn’t a series in which characters do things. It’s about talk. The writers can spin an epic scene out of something as trivial as Ricky reading a dance invitation, or watching them regroup in different combos to chew over the same topics. The boys trade deadpan comebacks like ping pong, while scenes between Ozzie and Harriet, or especially Ozzie and Thorny, can whip up a frenzy of frazzle. “Much ado about nothing” is the theme, even mentioned aloud in episode 38, “Curiosity”. Episode 18, “The Rover Boys”, announces another in the first line: “Man is a confused animal”.

We must at least nod at the Ozzie/Thorny subtext that keeps bracketing them visually, and even in dialogue, as “sweethearts”. These jokes are too numerous to mention. A good example is how they’re cornered into giving each other Valentine’s Day gifts. Ricky wonders if his dad is a “sissy” when he appears to request a corsage. Thorny’s invisible wife Catherine is suspicious of “the Rover Boys” spending all night together reading.

Season One’s other notable figures include Florence Lake as gossipy Clara Randolph, Janet Waldo as chatterbox Emmy Lou, Barbara Eiler Nelson (Don Nelson’s wife) as various neighbors called Barbara (like they keep forgetting what her last name is supposed to be), Bob Sweeney as grocer Mr. Miller (who mentions his divorce, an unusual detail), Eilene Janssen as David’s friend Nancy Barker, Paula Winslowe as Mary Dunkle (and other roles) and Joseph Kearns as Herb Dunkle (and other roles).

Frank Nelson, Herb Vigran, and Hal Smith keep recurring in different roles. Such well-known characters as Alan Mowbray, Jeanette Nolan, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton and Mary Beth Hughes pop in. That’s an uncredited Franklin Pangborn as gloomy insurance agent Mr. Canfield in the Xmas episode and little Jerry Mathers as a trick or treater in the Halloween show.

Thorny’s wife Catherine and daughter Julie are never seen but his teen son Will (Mason Alan Dinehart III) drops in once. Weirdly, the announcer informs us that Elizabeth Patterson plays Aunt Martha in episode 37, “Who’s Walter?” but there’s no such person. Since the plot covers people who don’t exist, maybe it’s a very subtle joke.

Later seasons would add the aforementioned writers Sommers and Greene as well as Dick Bensfield and Perry Grant, and that’s a very tight staff for over 400 episodes. Bensfield and Grant would team up to write for more sitcoms than you can shake a stick at, including The Andy Griffith Show, which has strong parallels in tone to the Nelson family, The Doris Day ShowI Dream of JeannieThe Partridge FamilyThe Odd CoupleGood TimesHappy DaysOne Day at a Time and The Jeffersons. That’s basically the history of American family sitcoms for 20 years.

The current IMDB listings are often inaccurate, and that’s another reason these remasters are important. The soundtracks fluctuate, indicating that multiple sources had to be used to restore dialogue. Some frames have rough edges, and the Christmas episode apparently exists only in a 1965 incarnation with an added Ricky song. For the most part, these restorations are sharp and clear and a quantum leap from what’s been available.

As I’ve said, the most important reason for these remasters is our chance to focus on the Nelson’s concrete legacy, as opposed to their more common role in cultural discourse as a symbolic football of our frustrated dreams. I remember reviewing David Halberstam‘s The Fifties (Ballantine Books, 1993), a superficial attempt at cultural commentary in which he unconvincingly suggests the Nelsons were dysfunctional, apparently because they were on television and “dysfunctional” was a newly trendy term.

I see his remarks referenced on Ozzie’s Wikipedia page, which also quotes from Bernard Weinraub’s New York Times review of 1998 A&E documentary that claims Ozzie “thwarted his sons, preventing them from attending college and reminding them that they were obliged to work on television.” However, the same article quotes David strongly disagreeing: “My father is depicted as a Simon Legree-type guy, cracking the whip. That wasn’t the case. My father went to great pains to see that Rick and I had as normal an upbringing as possible.” He states that his brother’s pop stardom is what kept them on the air so long.

On the subject of thwarting college, we can play dueling Wiki pages. David’s page states that he went to the University of Southern California, and Ricky’s page finds his biographer, Philip Bashe, asserting that Ricky didn’t want to go to college because he was a rich pop star working on his career. We can’t say that doesn’t add up. Because Rick died in a plane crash at 45 and had the typical flirtation with substances, and because his “shotgun” marriage to a pregnant girlfriend (that detail omitted from the series!) eventually ended in acrimonious divorce, cultural exegetes feel a concomitant impulse to read his life “tragically” while contrasting his reality with his television image. It makes for good copy.

Had he lived, though, he’d probably have been a latter-day Grand Old Man like other survivors, akin to Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen or whomever you want, so I feel no profound impulse to mourn the “dysfunctional” Nelsons. Ricky’s offspring is handling this restoration project, so they’re caretaking the family legacy as they should. They seem reconciled to the show’s place in television history and theirs in the dynasty.

So I repeat, to my own surprise, that The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet impresses me on its 70th anniversary not for its alleged blandness but for its ingenious minimalism, its middle-class neurosis, its awkward discomforts, its “meta” structure, and its celebration of the nerve-wracking nature of nothingness. The family camaraderie is the bedrock of these other qualities, which make it the strangest and hippest of the Order shows.