Saturday, December 29, 2007

Deeper Into OZZIE & HARRIET

There is no shortage of new things to watch here at Chez Watchdog -- the new BLADE RUNNER briefcase edition, the MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. set in its similar attaché case, and much else -- but Donna and I have become absorbed in the myriad pleasures of Mill Creek Entertainment's monolithic-in-its-own-way 12-disc box set THE ESSENTIAL OZZIE & HARRIET COLLECTION, which contains no less than 100 "complete" episodes.

Regrettably, not all of the episodes are quite complete -- it seems that the original cuts of some episodes got misplaced along the way when they were re-cut for shuffling back into the original run as retrospective episodes, at which time the first couple of minutes were lopped off to make room at the end for a newly-inserted Ricky Nelson performance -- but an impressive percentage of them are intact, even to the point of including their original commercials for such products as Coca-Cola, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and Kodak camera.

THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET has an undeserved reputation of being bland family comedy. With many of its best episodes co-authored by future GREEN ACRES scribe Jay Sommers, it's often delirious in its comic convolutions of ordinary life and sometimes downright surreal, as in the classic episode "Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise" (also included here). The shows benefit all the more from being seen in their original broadcast context, as the Nelson family would also often appear in the commercials adorning their program -- and so would some other surprising, familiar faces.

Case in point: Here is a frame from one of the show's Kodak commercials, which finds Ricky Nelson aiming his Kodak camera at actress Joyce Taylor. You may remember Joyce as Beatrice Rappaccini in the best segment of the Nathaniel Hawthorne anthology film TWICE TOLD TALES or as the female lead in Edward L. Cahn's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but this is her closer to the beginning of her career.

Around this same time, Joyce was the female interest in an episode of OZZIE AND HARRIET called "Ricky the Bullfighter" -- shots from which, featuring her, later turned up in Ozzie's 1961 promotional film (the prototypical "rock video") for Rick's hit single "Travelin' Man."

No, this isn't a scene from LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD; it's an even more bizarre pairing of actors in a different Kodak commercial, found in Mill Creek's offering of the episode "David the Law Clerk." Here we see future ZOTZ! co-star Julia Meade extending the palm of her hand toward actor William Berger -- who would subsequently appear with Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney in a classic Halloween episode of ROUTE 66 and then relocate to Europe, where he founded a commune for psychedelic experimentation and appeared in such films as THE MURDER CLINIC, Jess Franco's LOVE LETTERS OF A PORTUGUESE NUN, and HERCULES II with Lou Ferrigno.

A star comes down from the heavens, alighting on Julia's hand...

... et voila! It becomes Kodak's then-new Starliner camera!

If they still made commercials as trippy as this, psychedelic communes might well be more prevalent today.

But the commercial is a great discovery because it dates from 1959, pre-dating the earliest of Berger's known work on film and television.

The OZZIE & HARRIET episode which this commercial accompanies, "David the Law Clerk", rates special attention for a still-astonishing dream sequence in which David Nelson (who finds his application for a job in a law firm troubled by a true but unbelievable number of coincidences) rehearses pleading his case to prospective employer Mr. Ralph Dobson (Francis DeSales) in a court of law. The tour de force sequence, directed by Ozzie Nelson himself, finds David Nelson playing all of the principals except the members of the jury.


David also plays the court stenographer in a single cutaway shot. The only characters he doesn't play, as I said, are the members of the jury, who are all played (even the female members!) by Francis DeSales!

Mind you, no CGI or motion control were used in the creation of this sequence!

This last shot is particularly clever because as the jury foreman stands to deliver the verdict (which he cannot find on his person), he blocks the view of the jury member seated directly behind him, who peeks around for a better look at what's going on. This sort of thing shows tremendous pre-planning, and the trick photography (by DP Neal Beckner) continues to represent a superior, seamless technical standard almost 50 years after it was shot.

"David the Law Clerk" was one of the episodes included in this year's somewhat disappointing Shout Factory release THE NELSON FAMILY PRESENTS THE BEST OF THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, the only family-authorized release of these public-domain episodes to date. (The authorized version is the one that doesn't include the original commercials, sad to say.) David Nelson contributed audio commentaries to some of the episodes in the Shout Factory set, but unfortunately not for this episode, which I imagine would have made for very interesting listening.

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