“There is an old saying that blood is thicker than water.”
We’ve had Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Gene Simmons with his Family Jewels, and even Snoop Dog’s Father Hood. It’s become a bit of a trend to follow these celebrity families around and watch the drama of their privileged lives unfold on our television screens. You might think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, but would you believe they were doing it back in the infant days of television when we followed around a musician named Ozzie and his wife way back in 1952? No, we’re not talking about Ozzie Osbourne and his family. I’m talking about Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. They were television’s darling family before we ever heard about Lucy and Desi. The show actually started on radio like many of the fledgling industry’s early hits including the likes of Gunsmoke. Four years after the radio brought us The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, they moved to television. While their two sons were played by actors on the radio, both David and Ricky Nelson joined the television show, and it went on to make television history, breaking records, some still held today. It was the first television series to ever hit 10 seasons. It lasted from 1952 to 1966 with 436 episodes. Until The Simpsons, it was the longest running scripted television comedy and remains still the longest live-action scripted comedy ever on television. And while the stories were, of course fictional, most aspects of the show were quite real. Their television home was modeled after their real home. Many of the family’s life stories found their way to the series. The four family members were quite real, and you just couldn’t fake these relationships.
As time went on, the series would change. In the 60’s, now teenaged Ricky would go from the little brother to the star of the show and become television’s first teen idol. Long before David Cassidy or Davey Jones, there was Ricky Nelson. The show started to take advantage of his status and began to work his performances of his own music into the episodes. Ricky would have a pretty solid career. He was in the middle of a 1980’s comeback after a hit with Garden Party when his airplane crashed and killed him and his wife, who would also be a part of the show as Ricky’s wife toward the end of the series. The series found a new life in syndication in the 1970’s, which is where I first encountered the series. The syndication packages often ignored the early shows before Ricky took off for stardom, so I only got to see those episodes, and that was many years ago.
Ozzie and Harriet’s grandson and Ricky’s son Sam Nelson went on a 7-year journey to hunt down the original elements to all 436 episodes and begin to restore them. He found them often in horrible climate conditions and in great need of restoration, and so he took on that task as well. I had a chance to talk to Sam about that process, and you can listen to that conversation Here. That process is about 50% complete, and through MPI they are now being released. The first two seasons of 39 episodes each are now available on DVD, and it’s a big part of television history that you can now add to your home video shelves.
In the first two seasons we find most of the episodes are very contained with most of the action taking place in the Nelson home. Like most shows of that era, the advertisements were incorporated into the shows themselves. The shows often opened with a short vignette about the sponsors. In these first two years they were primarily Hotpoint Appliances, which the family’s home were well populated with from the range to the fridge and chest freezer. The other was Listerine, with the focus on their toothpaste of the day. The only other regular outside of the family was Erskine Thornberry, or Thorny as he was referred to by his friend Ozzie. He was played by Don DeFore, who would go on to star in his own series, Hazel with Shirley Booth as the titular maid and DeFore as George Baxter, a widower with children for whom Hazel worked. Ozzie and Thorny were best friends, but they had an often fierce rivalry with each scheming to get one over the other. They often got mad at each other but always made up by the end of an episode. He would appear in 119 episodes over five seasons with the show. Other recurring characters would pop in and out, but many returning actors might play a different character for five straight weeks in each episode. There really was no continuity here.
Unlike most of these 1950’s television shows, Ozzie doesn’t appear to have a job. He’s always home, and there’s never even a mention of what he might do for a living. We know he does something, because many episodes started with the family having breakfast, and Ozzie would be in a coat and tie. Of course, he was almost always in a coat and tie, as was Thorny. He had relationships with local affiliations like the Chamber of Commerce, but we have only to guess about his profession, since it is never mentioned in the series. Harriet was the typical 1950’s housewife. In these two seasons the boys are young and in school, with Ricky about 10 and David about 14. Ricky had a tagline in these earlier years: “I don’t mess around, boy.”
The show was in black & white until the very last season in 1965/66 when it had its final season in color. The episodes certainly show their age with plenty of issues from time to time from shifting light to scratches to some kind of overlapping dirt. But when you consider the age of these early seasons, I think they did a tremendous job of restoration here. There have been more famous and recent shows that were not restored this well. It helps that unlike many comedies, particularly later in the 70’s and 80’s, this wasn’t shot on videotape. This was 35mm film and native 4K. You’re not going to get that kind of resolution here, but I think you’ll find they did a pretty good job in restoring the material. Starting with the second season, episodes were culled not from their original broadcast copies but from later repeats that included Ozzie or Harriet explaining the episode was from years ago, and these were followed by a Ricky Nelson song. It’s obvious we lost a small piece of the original episode, but I assume this was done to give us the best possible copy.
The show often broke the fourth wall, and the actors spoke directly to the camera. It’s likely most of the “rules” for television hadn’t even been established yet, and the industry as a whole was learning. Ozzie was the main guy here. He wrote and directed and produced most of these episodes as well as writing and directing the show’s music. He was Desi a few years before there was a Desi. I watched all 78 episodes in these two sets before writing this. It was a big investment of time and energy. “I don’t mess around, boy”.