19 March 2007 | lugonian
Room and Boarders
IT'S A GREAT LIFE (NBC, 1954-56), directed by Christian Nyby, is a situation comedy with a little more originality than the typical comedy shows of that era. Unlike the most popular ones: "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners," or "The Burns and Allen Show," the situations didn't center upon a married couple and their next door neighbors, but on a family living in Los Angeles, California. They are the Morgans: Amy (Frances Bavier), a middle-aged widow; Earl (James Dunn), her lazy brother who hasn't had a job since Herbert Hoover was president, but does take time out volunteering as a department store Santa during the Christmas season; and Cathy (Barbara Bates), her attractive daughter whose ambition is to become an actress. Living among them are their two prize boarders, Denny Davis (Michael O'Shea), a quit wit, self-centered wise guy with an eye for the ladies, and his friend, Steve Connors (William Bishop), a simple-minded, straight-laced guy, both discharged veterans who spend their civilian lives as vacuum cleaning salesmen.
In the premiere episode, Mrs. Morgan (Bavier) places an advertisement renting out her brother's (Dunn), bedroom in order to have some added income. The ads are answered by a middle-aged married couple followed by two ex-GIs new to the area. Without each other's knowledge, Cathy (played by Barbara Logan in this one episode) rents out the room to the young men while Earl rents his room to the couple. Of course confusion sets in before Amy is left with a decision as to which couples are to remain. The decision is finalized in the second episode, with Denny, Steve and Earl sleeping three in one bed up in the attic, setting the pattern for the next two seasons and 77 more episodes. Only Cathy (Bates) would be phased out before the end of the first season, settling on a career in New York City, leaving Mrs. Morgan to tend to her all male household.
IT'S A GREAT LIFE is truly a fine show with enough funny episodes to make this one a classic from the past. While every TV show, no matter how great, is capable of coming up with bad episodes, IT'S A GREAT LIFE is no exception. Of all of them, only two fall into that category: "Private Eyes" (mediocre) which has Dunn and Bishop carrying the story, while "Glamour Doll" (the worst) guest stars actor Tommy Noonan as himself filling in for Denny, who happens to be away for the weekend, with Barbara Nichols as a ditsy movie star. Interestingly, Michael O'Shea, didn't appear in these. Although O'Shea was basically a dramatic actor with a screen career going back to the 1940s, his wit and presence keeps these shows going, indicating how good he is at handling comedy. Married to actress Virginia Mayo, IT'S A GREAT LIFE takes puns regarding this blonde beauty, especially in "A Visit From Steve's Mother" where O'Shea, playing himself, meets Denny, who obtained O'Shea's apartment because he looks like Virginia Mayo's husband so to help Steve by impressing his visiting mother. Although Mayo never got to guest star in this show, it did include silent screen veteran Laura LaPlante appearing as "The Movie Actress." Veteran actor Allen Jenkins does a great stint as a sleazy hotel manager in "The Palm Springs Story" where he offers the Morgans a room that happens to be on the other side of a bowling alley, with the loud sounds of striked bowling pins, and at one point, a bowling ball crashing through the wall and into their room. Nancy Kulp (best known as Jane Hathaway in "The Beverly Hillbillies: (CBS, 1962-1971) had recurring roles in this show as well, playing different characters.
With a leading cast headed by movie veterans, notably James Dunn (Best Supporting Actor winner for 1945s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN), the least familiar name happens to be William Bishop. A tall, dark and handsome type whose film career also began in the 1940s, yet never making it to the top of the ranks as Gregory Peck or Rock Hudson. I was surprised to learn that not only was he the nephew to Broadway legend Helen Hayes, but succumbed to cancer at an early age of 42 in 1959. His character is a sensible type, the least likely to get laughs, but most likely a straight man to Dunn (with a catch phrase, "I like that!" as he excitingly raises his right hand to hit the top of his left palm) and of course, O'Shea. While this was the only half hour sit-com for them, only Frances Bavier resumed her career as a television actress before winning fame as Aunt Bee Taylor in "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-1968) and its spin off, "Mayberry RFD" (1968-1970), whose character in these shows are not much different than her role in this nearly forgotten IT'S A GREAT LIFE. Amy and Bee are outspoken women who keep both house and family together. Even her boarders, Denny and Steve, would address her simply as "Ma" or "Mom" instead of Mrs. Morgan.
Out of circulation since its rerun syndication days of the 1960s, it seems unlikely that IT'S A GREAT LIFE will never become part of the current trend of classic TV shows making its way onto DVD, even with Frances Bavier in the cast, but thanks to cable television's The Nostalgia Channel, renamed The Good Life TV Network, and finally American Life TV, IT'S A GREAT LIFE can be seen and rediscovered by anyone fortunate enough to have this particular channel, and go back in time hearing the announcer's final words during the closing credits, "Yes, it's a great life when you own a new 1955 Chrysler." Fine viewing for anyone tired of watching the same old TV shows and looking for something different. "I like that!!"