Beginning on radio in 1944 and continuing until the popular sitcom telecast its last episode on the small screen in 1966, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was one of show business’ greatest misnomers. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson—“America’s favorite young couple”—may have been involved in the radio/TV endeavors…but their weekly visits into the homes of American listeners/viewers were anything but adventurous. The Family Nelson led a low-key, unexciting existence—even their younger son Rick’s foray into becoming a teen idol music sensation (rock ‘n’ roll, baby!) did nothing to disguise the fact that a day in the life of Ozzie and Harriet had all the exhilaration of a milkshake with two straws.
I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m not a fan of the sitcom. Far from it—I think it’s one of the best-kept secrets of radio/TV, and anyone who dismisses it as merely a relic of its era is someone who’s never really watched the show. Sure, the Nelson Quartet never went to Hawaii or the Grand Canyon like another famous TV white-bread clan (they came close on the Aloha State thing, though) but they didn’t need any of those pathetic “sweeps” stunts to jazz up their humdrum lives—the Nelsons entertained fans by being warm and subtly funny, mining much humor from mundane activities as searching for tutti-frutti ice cream or a toy submarine giveaway from a kid’s TV show.
The pilot for the TV version would appear in the form of a feature film released by Universal-International in 1952, Here Come the Nelsons. Aaron Rosenberg, a producer with U-I, approached Ozzie with the idea of a feature film based on the family’s radio show in the fall of 1950 and by the following spring Oz, his brother Don, and Bill Davenport hammered out a script that went before the motion picture cameras in July of 1951. In the director’s chair was Frederick de Cordova, the future helmer of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, whose cinematic resume included the infamous Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)—something that Carson never let Freddie forget, by the way. As my Facebook chum Hal Erickson humorously observes in his great reference From Radio to the Big Screen: “If de Cordova had the patience and dedication to coax a persuasive performance from a chimpanzee, he certainly would encounter no difficulty whatsoever wrangling David and Ricky Nelson.”
Here Come the Nelsons opens in the family’s fictional radio burg of Hillsdale (with longtime radio announcer Verne Smith narrating), though you may be a little disappointed that the clan’s signature address of 1847 Rogers Road isn’t displayed on the mailbox. (I think The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was being sponsored at that time by Heinz Foods anyway.) The old “What-did-Ozzie-Nelson-do-for-a-living?” joke is dispensed with in this film by having Oz work as an advertising executive for the H.J. Bellows Agency. Bellows (played by OTR veteran Gale Gordon) wants his top inventive mind (though technically, Oz appears to be the only employee…outside of a secretary played by Lillian Bronson) to dream up a publicity campaign for a corset/girdle manufacturer, Samuel T. Jones (Paul Harvey).
Before Ozzie can run it up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, he gets a visit in his office from Barbara Schutzendorf (Barbara Lawrence), the sister of one of Oz’s college pals; she’s in town as a performer for the rodeo that’s scheduled as the highlight of the centennial anniversary of Hillsdale. Ozzie invites Babs to stay at Casa del Nelson because there’s no room at any of the inns due to this centennial celebration (you’d think the outfit she works for would have guaranteed accommodations for their employees) …and he’s a little surprised that Harriet has taken this news of a female lodger without the slightest hint of jealousy. Oz is unaware that his wife has received some advice from an astrologer (played by a curiously unbilled Frank Nelson) that Harriet should keep calm and carry on because husbands born under Oz’s astrological sign get a bit frisky that time of year…and the best thing is just to ignore it.
Ozzie’s bewilderment that Harriet is copacetic with the Barbara situation (she’s not, though) leads to a series of wacky complications ensuing—including a scenario where Rock Hudson (hey, he’s under contract to Universal—he needs the exposure), playing Barbara’s love interest (Charlie Jones), manages to worm his way into also staying at the Hotel Nelson…and whose attention to Harriet has her husband’s Rutgers-emblazoned unmentionables in a knot. Here Come the Nelsons is far more “adventurous” than any episode of the TV sitcom ever managed to be: not only does Ozzie risk his fool neck by trying to ride a bucking bronc at the rodeo but the irrepressible Ricky gets kidnapped by a pair of hoodlums (Sheldon Leonard, Edwin Max) and must be rescued in a thrilling chase climax.
Here Come the Nelsons is described by Erickson as “Ozzie and Harriet for people who don’t like Ozzie and Harriet.” It is without question unlike any episode of the long-running TV sitcom, choosing to spotlight a darker side of the Nelsons’ seemingly perfect marriage in a scene where the two engage in a rather ugly quarrel (Harriet even bursts into tears!). As for the plot point of Ricky being held hostage, Hal notes: “Little Ricky in danger? The most danger anyone ever encountered on TV’s Ozzie and Harriet was trying to carry on an intelligent conversation with David’s troglodyte college pal Wally.” I think the slapstick wrap-up of Nelsons (including a rather inspired use of girdles to stop the bad guys) is riotously funny…even if it does seem borrowed from a Ma and Pa Kettle movie.
I know Barbara Lawrence from several 20th Century Fox pictures (The Street with No Name, Unfaithfully Yours, Thieves’ Highway) and she’s at her most attractive (and quite believable) in the ingénue role of “sweetheart of the rodeo” (she sports an evening ensemble in one scene that exposes much of her shoulders, prompting young Ricky to crack “I didn’t know she was a bareback rider”). Hudson is game to show his comedic side as Charlie, but I enjoyed more seeing all those character greats in supporting roles: Backus, Doran, Gordon, Nelson, Leonard, Chubby “Whiskers” Johnson, Arthur Q. Bryan, and Paul “Wishbone” Brinegar (practically unrecognizable as the skinny cop in the rodeo office). As for “America’s favorite family” …well, as the TV intro always went: “Here’s Ozzie…who plays the part of Ozzie Nelson. And of course, his lovely wife Harriet…as Harriet Nelson. The older of the Nelson boys is David…who plays the part of David Nelson. And his younger brother, the irrepressible Ricky, played by Ricky Nelson.”
Here Come the Nelsons did very well at the box office (Universal even re-released the film in 1959 at the height of “Rickymania”), and it ultimately convinced ABC-TV (who got first dibs on a TV adaptation when The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet moved to their radio network in 1949) to greenlight a sitcom that remained the longest-running in TV history until The Simpsons shattered that record in 2005. The movie is not available on DVD…but you can purchase Nelsons on disc (caveat emptor: it’s been “liberated” from the VHS release) from Finders Keepers and I’m truly convinced that both OTR and classic TV fans will enjoy it. (I don’t mess around, boy.)