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This was one of my favorite sitcoms of early television. We got our
first set in 1953 when I was ten years old. My generation loved "I Love
Lucy," "Dragnet," and the marvelous "Your Show Of Shows." But few
recall "It's a Great Life." That's too bad, because it was a great
show. I've never seen it in reruns or on VHS or DVD. When we got our
first set there was only one station in Arkansas where we lived and
that was the new KARK, an NBC affiliate which also aired what today
would be called syndicated shows. KARK was located in Little Rock which
was over 100 miles from where we lived. Even with our so-called
all-channel antenna the reception was usually snowy. We could tell when
it was about to rain because the picture cleared up due to the
atmospheric changes. So most of what I remember about this sit-com is
As I recall it was sort of a humorous version of "The Best Years of Our Lives." Steve and Denny (William Bishop and Michael O'Shea) were returning G.I.'s trying to find a niche in life. Since it was difficult to get jobs the two ended up selling vacuum cleaners and rooming at a boarding house run by the future Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) playing Amy Morgan, a role similar to the one she would play on "The Andy Griffith Show." Since Steve and Denny were young and single, they spent much of their spare time chasing women. One of the women being chased was Amy Morgan's beautiful young daughter Katy, played by Barbara Bates, a talented but troubled young actress who had a brief but memorable role in "All About Eve."
The character I loved best and the one who really gave life to the series was Amy Morgan's deadbeat brother Earl, played to perfection by James Dunn. He was always looking for an easy ride based on some get-rich-quick scheme he had concocted that involved Steve and Denny. The two ex-G.I.'s would end up in plenty of hot water as a result. The situations were always fun-filled. Naturally all seemed to work out for the best by the end of each episode. If you ever get the chance to watch this and you're a fan of old-time TV, don't miss it.
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!!"
I am so happy to read that other people remember and enjoyed "It's a
Great Life" as much as I did. I was a little kid when I saw this
series, but I laughed my head off. I've often wondered if it was just a
silly show or really funny - now that I've read the other posts, I
realize it was a truly funny comedy about GIs living together.
For some reason, I remember one of the guys making coffee and having it pour out of the pot like a thick syrup.
The handsome William Bishop sticks in my head as does Michael O'Shea, whom I've loved ever since. My memories of James Dunn and Francis Bavier are a little more vague, but hey, I was perhaps 7 years old.
I, too, wish there were a way to see "It's a Great Life" again.
Before she became Aunt Bee on the Andy Griffith Show, Frances Bavier
rented out rooms in her house to William Bishop and Michael O'Shea, a
pair of ex-GIs who even by 1954 hadn't settled down to anything. Hadn't
these guys heard of or taken advantage of the GI Bill. I have to
believe that they could have done better for themselves than just being
vacuum cleaner salesmen.
But that didn't stop them from trying all kinds of get rich quick schemes, usually involving James Dunn who was Bavier's brother and who was essentially a freeloader. Dunn, Bishop, and O'Shea were always involved in some scheme or another, some of them as ridiculous as ones thought up by women named Lucy and Ethel.
The romantic figure of the show was Bishop who was trying to make it with Bavier's daughter Barbara Bates. Bates left the show halfway through its two season run. In the show she was an aspiring actress and no doubt did not want to be tied down with her deadbeat uncle and his pals.
It's A Great Life was a moderately successful show, the chemistry was good with the cast, but the premise of the show was thin. I mean at some point reality had to hit these deadbeats.
One of the cable stations ran this series a few years ago. Like so many
comedies from the 50's, it was genuinely awful - the plots, stories and
jokes just weren't funny - and the actors weren't either. There was no
chemistry between them. This was the era when Newton Minnow called TV
"a vast wasteland" and he was so right.
Over the years, cable brought back a number of comedy shows that I loved as a kid - Gale Storm, I married Joan, Our Miss Brooks, etc. - and they were all really awful. The same was true for most of the westerns and cop shows. Recently, one station has been running Highway Patrol" with Broderick Crawford. Just awful. It must have killed a talented guy who won a best actor Oscar to do that sort of drivel.
I guess it makes me appreciate the shows that were well done all the more - The Honeymooners, The Rifleman (some episodes, anyway), Maverick, Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Naked City, etc. The quality of most of those were "hit and miss", but at least they had some style and charm.
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