Monday, November 14, 2016

Hazel: The Early Years: Episode 1, "Hazel and the Playground"

Finally it's time to begin our episode-by-episode look at the inaugural season of Hazel, the 1961-1966 sitcom based on a comic panel by Ted Post about the know-it-all (that phrase is harsh, but she IS) live-in maid of the Baxter family. We will revisit the Early Years, that is Season 1, when the show was in glorious black and white, courtesy of the Sony DVD set. This week it's "Hazel and the Playground," a show that does a lot to establish the Hazelverse.

I do regret that there isn't a true Hazel Burke origin story. What I wouldn't give for an episode with flashbacks to a young Hazel, just out of Maid College (I know, but bear with me), maybe with, oh, Noreen Corcoran or Sheila James trying to do Shirley Booth's mannerisms. Instead, we see a fine debut outing that features many of the hallmarks of the series: Hazel going on a crusade, Mr. Baxter showing exasperation (I said it before, I'll say it again: Nobody, and I mean nobody does "taken aback" like Don Defore), coincidences-a-plenty, and of course Hazel using her body to get what she wants from a man.

Say what?

We'll get to that in a minute.  There are other important aspects of this first installment of the show. For example, we learn that Mr. Baxter is an amiable but workaholic corporate lover and that his wife Dorothy (Hazel, who has known her since she was a wee lass, still calls her Missy). That's an important bit of info because while George's business interests seem to run counter to Hazel's agenda every episode, it's easy to forget Dorothy actually has a part-time vocation.

We also meet the Baxter's hapless neighbors  the Johnsons, a well-meaning but inept older couple who are lost without their own maid, Phoebe. In "Hazel and the Playground," Hazel "The Toe" Burke kicks a football that lands right in the Johnson's chimney, causing their living room to fill up with smoke. As the elderly couple discusses what to do, we learn that Phoebe has the day off. By the time the idea of "opening the windows" occurs to them, there's so much smoke in there I expect the camera to pan to reveal Edward R. Murrow in an easy chair.

So let's talk about Hazel as a physical specimen.  Oh, don't worry, we'll get to her using her feminine wiles later--and I will keep it PG--but my immediate focus is her supreme athleticism. The first ever scene of the series  depicts Hazel encountering a young girl  on the sidewalk and asking her f she's made her own hopscotch squares. The girl says, nah, she's too old for hopscotch. Well, Hazel ain't!

WITH groceries, no less!

I believe the scene is designed by screenwriters William Cowley and Peggy Chantler Dick (both would write dozens of subsequent episodes), to demonstrate Hazel is sassy, feisty, and not a staid, stuffy domestic. What it really proves is she is a world-class athlete.

Later, when young  Harold asks Mr. B  to teach him how to placekick a football, Dad begs off because he's prepping for an important business meeting. So Hazel volunteers to show Harold how it's done, noting that after graduating high school (not Maid College?) she did a year of semi-pro.  Defore's reaction is priceless:

"You know, I wouldn't put it past her!"

Hazel gives Harold first crack at kicking the football, and while I am not a cruel man and I do not loathe child actors, part of me did wish she would yank the football away so Bobby Buntrock would flail and land flat on his  back with a large thud. It's much less dramatic, though: Harold whiffs, then Hazel shows off her classic straight-on kicking style and booms the pigskin into the Johnson's chimney.

A skilled hopscotcher, a talented placekicker...impressive. But Hazel's true calling is bowling, and she displays her abilities in this episode by winning a local tournament on live TV (Remember this kind of thing next time you lament the days when there were only a few channels) with 3 consecutive strikes--the final one left-handed!

She uses the post-game interview (What would a locally televised live bowling competition be without a post-game interview?) to lobby the audience to sign a petition to convert half of a local botanical garden to a playground so that she doesn't have to kick footballs into chimneys anymore. And you thought bowling and local politics didn't mix.

Now the moment we've all been waiting for, the moment that may get this post stricken from browsers with "safe search"  options. Backing it up a bit, Hazel learns in order to get a playground, she has to talk with the local Park Commissioner.  When told it will be tough to persuade him, a confident Hazel says she ought to wear her flower print, "the one that shows off my figure so good." Not only that she gives Mr. B a literal nudge and wink.

And she does makes sure that commish sees her! Ooh la la!


Her meeting is inconclusive, as she doesn't get tangible help but does learn she needs 5,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot for the election that happens to be taking place in a week (Remember what I said about coincidences?).  I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Hazel ended up collecting 5.000 signatures...and one phone number!

Then Mr. Baxter tells her how hard it is to draw up a legal referendum, and she casually relates she had a judge do it that morning. You  know, the one she met when she was foreman of a  jury a few months ago--the judge who was :kind of sweet on her."

HEY, NOW! At this point, I can't help but wonder what I have gotten myself into. I am not sure I am prepared for the rawness of the Early Years of this presumably innocent sitcom.

There really is a lot going on in "Hazel and the Playground," and I am leaving out many plot details, but it's a fine kickoff (sorry) to the series. Rewatching it for this post, I was surprised how many familiar staples of the show were evident right from the beginning.

I can't leave without one final screencap, though. A triumphant Hazel gives Mr. Baxter's client the honor of making the first kick at the new playground, which has a dedicated "Place-kick practice area." Somehow I think that detail didn't find its way into the actual referendum.

After using helium to inflate the football (be thankful I am making no Tom Brady  jokes here, folks), the middle-aged businessman makes his kick, and look at what happens:

You really have to see it to appreciate the little cartoon football, but...special effects, baby! Who needs fancy CGI when you have old-school animation like this?

I think "Hazel and the Playground" is a great premiere, establishing the characters and the tone of the series in fine fashion. What do you think?

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