I got a review copy of Shout! Factory’s The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet: Best of Ricky and Dave. Their first best-of set for Ozzie and Harriet was a major disappointment because all the episodes were syndicated versions, cut from the original 25 minutes to a more syndication-friendly 22 minutes. This set improves on the first one, but only a little: I checked the timings of of the 24 episodes included, and found that eight of them are original-length (25 minutes) and the other 16 are syndication cuts. These masters are provided to Shout! Factory by the only surviving Nelson, David, and it looks as if most of the prints in his collection are of the syndicated versions. Shout!’s Father Knows Best set was the same way, a mix of full-length and syndicated prints with no rhyme or reason as to which episodes were complete and which were not.
The reason I bring this up is that it’s one of the many frustrating things about watching or collecting television shows: so many of them exist in circulate or poor-quality versions. TV is in the same position that movies used to be in. For many years, studios simply didn’t care about preserving movies; they would make cuts to the original negatives, let the films deteriorate and even lose them entirely. Eventually movie fans, and moviemakers like Scorsese and Spielberg, raised awareness of the idea of film preservation, that movies need to be made available intact, uncut, and looking like they originally did. TV episodes were also treated like commodities that could be chopped up, beaten up and battered as much as necessary. The BBC and CBC and many other networks lost or erased many hours of great television; studios sometimes didn’t bother to keep the original episodes on hand once they were cut down for syndication; print quality ranged from mediocre to abominable.
What this means is that even if a studio is willing to release a show in its original form — and most of them are now making cuts and changes of their own even if they have access to the original prints — it may not know where to find the original versions. To reconstruct a show as it originally aired, complete and uncut, can be really difficult. I know this from personal experience having tried to reconstruct old WKRP episodes, but others with actual professional experience at this stuff can find it even more frustrating. A company is trying to release the old ’50s cop show M Squad, starring bad-ass Lee Marvin, but they can’t release the complete series because 17 of the 117 episodes can’t be found in watchable form. (Perhaps those episodes went into hiding because they’re so intimidated by the unbelievable bad-assedness of Lee Marvin.) They’re doing a very sensible thing, though: asking collectors to send them the missing episodes. There are people out there who have old TV episodes, including film prints; sometimes private collectors have material that the studios don’t. But what we really need is some kind of systematic attempt to restore and reconstruct old television shows, the sort of process that’s now at least fairly common for feature films. Otherwise a lot of scenes, episodes, and even whole series may be lost to history.
Of course, all this points up one of the few bright spots of the ever-shrinking TV running times: network broadcasts are so short now that they’ve just about caught up with syndication, meaning that when a show gets syndicated, not a lot gets cut in the first place.
On the subject of Ozzie and Harriet itself: that show has gotten kind of a bad rap. It holds up better than most of the warm-and-cuddly family sitcoms — not as well as Leave it To Beaver, which is one of the best shows ever made, but better than Father Knows Best or My Three Sons. Unlike Father Knows Best, which was much funnier on radio than it was on TV (where the father became less of a bumbling loveable dad and more of an obnoxious ass, constantly insulting his kids), Ozzie Nelson kept at least some of the spirit of the radio program when he moved the show to TV — and it was his show all the way; he produced and directed every episode. All the writers were either people who had written for the radio show — Nelson, his brother Don, the team of Perry Grant and Dick Bensfield — or radio veterans like Jay Sommers, who went on to create the insane Green Acres (which was essentially an old-school radio comedy transplanted to TV). The show has some of the goofy Vaudeville humour and surrealism associated with good radio sitcoms, along with the blurring of the lines between sitcom and variety show: on the radio show, Nelson and Harriet Hilliard played a bandleader and singer, which is what they were in real life, and on the TV show, Ricky Nelson got plenty of time for musical numbers. This loose, anything-goes way of doing a sitcom is almost unknown now but it was very popular for many decades on radio and TV, and honestly some shows today could stand to let the story drop occasionally while somebody sings a song.