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Televising Masculinities: The Sitcom Dad in the 1950s on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet

Arguably, no figure has more comprehensively embodied American masculinity than the father character in sitcoms.

Over the next three columns, I will delve into how fathers and their expressions of masculinity were portrayed during the period commonly referred to as “television’s golden age.”

In the 1950s, television fathers exemplified the transformations in the concept of fatherhood that unfolded after the trials of the Great Depression and World War II.

This era saw a shift from the traditional image of a dad solely as the provider and the voice of authority to one where a father assumed the roles of provider, mentor, and affectionate companion within the household, serving not only his children but also his spouse.

Marriage in the 1950s was deemed to offer stability and security for the nation, thereby upholding the longevity of its values.

Elaine Tyler May underscores the significance of marriage and family during the Cold War era, noting that “from the 1940s to the 1960s, Americans had a higher marriage rate than their European counterparts” (3).

These marriages, coupled with the explosive population growth, led to a shift from urban areas to the suburbs.

May also reveals how the concept of the nuclear family was utilized to promote the idea that “the home appeared to provide a safe, private haven, shielded from the perils of the external world” (1).

Consequently, the home became a sanctuary for families to escape potential Cold War threats.

It offered men a retreat from the pressures of their work lives, and for numerous white middle-class Americans, this sanctuary was located in the secure confines of the suburbs.

“Out of the 13 million new homes constructed between 1948 and 1958, 85 percent were situated in the suburbs, resulting in suburbia housing an equal number of Americans as the central cities by 1960” (Osgerby 64).

In essence, the suburbs symbolized the significance of domestic life to the nation’s security, often linked with materialism, consumerism, and conformity.

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet title screen
The series ran for 14 seasons, making it one of the longest-running family sitcoms in television history.

The conformity that characterized the 1950s, epitomized by suburban life, had a significant impact on the definitions and constructions of American masculinity.

During the 1950s, men found themselves in a world that emphasized the collective good of the nation over individualism.

Suburbia facilitated the emergence of a novel form of ‘domesticated masculinity,’ where fathers engaged in leisure activities with their children and organized backyard barbecues on weekends.

As Osgerby points out, “the domestic breadwinner was revered as an unwavering cornerstone of the nation’s moral uprightness and economic stability” because, for the nation, the “prosperous suburban family was conceived as the bedrock of American democracy” (68).

Amidst these demographic, social, and masculine transformations, the longest-running American sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” (1952-1966), premiered on ABC on October 3, 1952.

The series originally launched on the radio in 1944, after Ozzie Nelson and his wife Harriet Hilliard, who had been working on Red Skelton’s radio show, created their own series.

Ozzie Nelson, a former bandleader in the 1930s and 1940s, and Harriet, the lead vocalist of the band, fell in love and got married while touring the country.

They were promoted as “America’s favorite young couple” on the radio and depicted themselves as a typical American family with children.

During the initial five years of the show, child actors portrayed Ozzie and Harriet’s sons, but Ozzie’s actual sons, David and Ricky, later assumed these roles.

The series enjoyed popularity on the radio, but Ozzie recognized that radio’s influence was waning as television gained popularity and broader accessibility.

To persuade network executives that his radio series could successfully transition to television, Ozzie independently financed, produced, wrote, and directed a television pilot.

After creating the pilot, he released it as a feature film in theaters to recoup his investment, thereby generating public interest in the upcoming series.

Ozzie recognized that television was ideally suited for stories about ordinary Americans and thus decided to eliminate the showbiz elements from their fictional lives in the television series.

Ozzie’s profession remained undisclosed, and their home, a faithful replica of their real residence, was situated not in Hollywood but in the unremarkable suburban neighborhood of the fictional, all-American city of Hillsside.

Further, Ozzie’s substantial influence over the series was evident from the outset.

He exercised complete control over the production, serving as the producer, director, and head writer.

He also oversaw set construction and enlisted the services of cinematographer William Mellor, a veteran of the film industry, to imbue the show with a polished, high-quality appearance.

As noted by Gerard Jones, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was considered a sophisticated production (92).

Despite its “classy look,” Jones also points out that the series was “one of the most deliberately unremarkable programs ever broadcast” (92).

While this assessment may appear overly critical, it underscores the fact that “blandness” was precisely what the nation sought and required after the traumas of World War II.

As Laura Linder emphasizes, “we needed to feel secure about the way our daily lives and our country were heading.”

As Americans pursued the American Dream by relocating to the suburbs and increasing their consumption of products, a series like “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” encapsulated these sentiments (64).

The Nelsons served as a role model for suburban American families and became a blueprint for future depictions of sitcom families, especially the sitcom dad.

The Nelsons not only demonstrated how an ideal home should appear, complete with modern appliances, but also how to engage with neighbors, exhibit good citizenship, and raise children, as noted by Linder (64).

Unbeknownst to Ozzie at the time, what he was creating was, in many respects, a “wish fulfillment fantasy with a strong underpinning of nostalgia” (93).

Jones observes that “this was the first note of an odd theme that would resonate through all the suburban sitcoms of the 1950s” (93).

Ozzie’s portrayal of the American family often lacked significant conflict.

When conflicts did arise, they were typically over trivial and sometimes absurd situations.

Jones points out that “the Nelsons thrived in the thinnest of comedic scenarios” (93).

Nevertheless, it was precisely these “thin” situations that contributed to the show’s success, as they allowed for stories with minimal conflict, enabling the characters to playfully tease each other and evoke genuine emotions.

More often than not, the series derived its humor from Ozzie’s depiction of the suburban father as a constant presence.

Ozzie’s representation of the sitcom dad portrayed someone who, in his quest to be wise and authoritative, was ultimately revealed to be somewhat ridiculous.

In fact, Ozzie’s physical demeanor was ideally suited for portraying this type of father, as he was “an endearing figure, small and vulnerable, with crinkling eyes, a hesitant and embarrassed smile, and a voice that was perfect for laughing at his own folly but always quivered when he attempted to assert himself” (94).

Furthermore, as the bumbling dad, Ozzie played a role in helping other American men find amusement in their departure from traditional notions of heroic masculinity (94).

Perhaps no episode exemplifies Ozzie’s formula for the series and his representation of 1950s masculinity better than the episode titled “Tutti Frutti Ice Cream” (aired on December 11, 1957).

In this episode, Ozzie faces a dilemma when he develops a craving for tutti frutti ice cream after reading a newspaper story about a young boy rescued by the police.

The police had given the boy as much tutti frutti ice cream as he desired while waiting for his parents to arrive at the station house.

Hilarity ensues when Ozzie and his neighbor join forces to locate this coveted ice cream.

Their quest ultimately leads them to the local police station after they get lost while trying to find a 24-hour supermarket in a nearby town.

The episode commences with Ozzie’s youngest son, Ricky, expressing his dissatisfaction with the family’s decision to diet together and forgo dessert.

While his mother sits darning his socks, Ricky remarks, “I sure do miss dessert,” and insists that he, as a growing boy, requires carbohydrates to keep his energy up.

David, his older brother, chuckles and points out, “Look at dad, no one loves desserts more than he does, and he’s not complaining.”

Ricky dismisses this by stating, “Naturally, it was his idea.”

Ozzie enters the room, having just come downstairs, and advises his son not to fret about dessert.

He instructs Ricky to complete his homework and hands him a section of the newspaper, suggesting that reading it will help occupy his mind.

As Ozzie leafs through the paper, he finds himself tempted by the advertisements for delicious food, pondering, “Why is it that when you’re on a diet, you automatically focus on the ads showcasing tempting treats?”

Ozzie’s habit of spending his evenings with his family nearby exemplifies the 1950s family model, characterized by closeness and good manners.

Furthermore, Ozzie’s image reading the paper after dinner reflects a notion of American masculinity in which the man is at liberty to relax while the wife continues to work to maintain order and cleanliness in the household.

While perusing the newspaper, Ricky comes across a local human-interest story featuring a lost boy who was found by the local police.

He excitedly shows his mother a picture of the adorable child seated in a police station, holding a cone of tutti frutti ice cream.

Ricky playfully suggests that he might intentionally get lost to score some ice cream.

The story in the paper sparks a conversation about tutti frutti ice cream and the values of yesteryears between Harriet and Ozzie.

They fondly reminisce about their youthful days. Ozzie shares with his family, “They sure used to serve big portions.

Somehow you just don’t get ice cream like that anymore… A quart of ice cream was really a quart of ice cream.”

Ozzie then inquires whether they have any tutti frutti ice cream in their freezer, and Harriet replies in the negative.

To demonstrate his willpower and assert his control over the family, Ozzie reassures his wife that he’s fine, noting they had “a fine big dinner.”

However, when Ozzie retires to bed that night, his willpower is once again tested as he dreams of his youth and the local ice cream parlor where he used to enjoy a bowl of ice cream for a dime.

Once more, the series evokes a sense of nostalgia as it portrays Ozzie’s carefree and enjoyable youth in the 1920s.

In the dream, Ozzie is attired like a college man of that era, sporting a bow tie and striped jacket, while Harriet is dressed as a flapper, singing an upbeat song about lost love with the catchy and lighthearted refrain of “goody goody.”

The scene serves as a reminder of Ozzie and Harriet’s youthful romance and showbiz personas, emphasizing the idea that life in America in the past was superior, safer, more wholesome, and enjoyable.

Ozzie awakens from his dream, frustrated by the fact that even in his dream, he cannot subdue his craving.

He and Harriet then rise from bed, get dressed, and venture out late at night in pursuit of the ice cream.

They head to a downtown drug store, where they rouse the pharmacist from his slumber.

He sells them a carton of cherry ice cream, which they bring home and share with their sons.

However, their disappointment is palpable as the ice cream is not tutti frutti. Disheartened, Ozzie and the family return to bed unsatisfied.

Subsequently, Ozzie’s neighbor, now also yearning for the dessert, wakes Ozzie up, having been previously awakened by Ozzie inquiring about the ice cream.

The two men join forces in an attempt to satisfy their craving.

They first engage in a game of cards, then whip up a late-night snack of hamburgers in Ozzie’s kitchen, and finally decide to call the police to inquire about the source of the ice cream.

The on-duty officer informs Ozzie that the police procure their ice cream from the local all-night supermarket.

The fact that Ozzie and his neighbor can visit an all-night supermarket highlights how consumerism had already begun to reshape the daily lives of American citizens, as they increasingly depended on a society where shopping and the fulfillment of material desires were available at any hour.

Lizbeth Cohen observes that “mass consumption in postwar America created a new landscape,” and it was this landscape that the show consistently idealized and portrayed (286).

However, for the show’s humor to thrive, Ozzie’s quest to rediscover the ice cream of his youth must be complicated.

This occurs when they reach the supermarket, only to discover that it has run out of tutti frutti ice cream.

In an effort to ensure customer satisfaction, the store owner suggests they visit another market in a nearby town along the highway, symbolizing American progress and the driving force behind the nation’s burgeoning consumer economy.

While attempting to locate the second market, Ozzie and his neighbor become disoriented and lost.

Ozzie’s neighbor then proposes that they follow the example of the little boy and seek assistance from the police since they are lost.

Eventually, Ozzie attains his ice cream as he sits in the police station, donning the cop’s hat, and indulging in ice cream with his neighbor and the officer who had rescued the young boy featured in the newspaper.

In the end, Ozzie manages to find his coveted ice cream and relishes it with his family.

However, this occurs only after his masculinity is momentarily reduced to that of a small boy.

As Jones aptly notes regarding Ozzie’s character in the series, “Ozzie was a big kid” and, most importantly, “he was the embodiment of an America that no longer had to be tough and serious” (94).

Ozzie demonstrates to American men that they can embrace self-deprecating humor, find joy in their life situations, and relish their families and lives, all while disregarding the external pressures of society.

American masculinity no longer required stoicism, violence, or gruff behavior as defining attributes.

For sixteen years, Ozzie and his family entertained and, I would contend, educated American viewers on how to lead, consume, and savor their American lives.

Ozzie’s model of fatherhood received praise, and as Jones points out, “Ozzie’s constant presence in the house carried a special poignancy.”

For the generation that grew up with television, “the enduring proximity of Ozzie echoed a bygone, more comforting era” (92-93).

The need for order and “blandness” is what sets Ozzie’s characterization apart and allows it to continue resonating with viewers to this day.

Jones rightfully observes that “the Nelsons created the suburban Neverland of family sitcoms” during each of their sixteen seasons.

Despite never achieving exceptional ratings, the series somehow managed to locate and sustain a loyal audience that tuned in weekly to find amusement in the everyday trivialities of the American family and its issues, as well as Ozzie’s portrayal of suburban masculinity.

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Nirajan Shrestha
Nirajan Shrestha
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