DVD REVIEW: Hazel - The Bizarro Season (The Fifth & Final) @ 13 February 2014 05:58 PM

TV's beloved version of Ted Key's newspaper gag cartoon, Hazel was one of those cozy shows that was just there for comfort, like a carton of ice cream or mom's leftover soup. It wasn't groundbreaking or earth-shaking, but is was better than it gets credit for, largely due to its gifted star, Shirley Booth.

Booth was an unlikely movie and Broadway superstar, winner of Oscars and Emmys (for Hazel) and the narrator of one of the all-time most loved Rankin/Bass holiday specials, The Year Without a Santa Claus. Short and plump with a voice like Betty Boop's, Booth was ideal in the lead role of her series. She reveled in its nuances (yes, Hazel had nuances).

For the first four years of the series, which was also a long-running hit in syndication, Hazel was the live-in maid to the affluent Baxter family. The dad was played by Don DeFore (who also starred in the wonderful Christmas B-movie It Happened on Fifth Avenue and also an owner of one of Disneyland's first restaurants). Mom was played by lovely Whitney Blake (mother of actress Meredith Baxter and co-creator of One Day at a Time). Bobby Buntrock played little Harold with the skill to tear your heart out when he cries about losing his dog or some such--the hallmark of a great child actor.

Season Five was bizarre-O because suddenly mom and dad moved to Saudi Arabia because dad had a business deal...? Harold was left behind to continue in school, to be cared for by dad's younger brother and his young wife. They also had a daughter, giving the lad someone with which to get into wacky adventures.

Hazel was still there for Harold (which seemed to suit him fine, since he always seemed most partial to her). She moved in to a somewhat fancier house with young Steve and Barbara. If you think this sounds convoluted, watch the first episode of season five and set your timer for how long it takes it all to be explained!

Anyway, Steve is sort of like a pre-perm Mike Brady, if he fell asleep at his drafting table and his face stayed pushed in. Barbara (Lynn Kellogg) is like Samantha's little sister with a sing-song voice but without magic powers. Adorable Susie is adorable (visit stusshow.com to download an exclusive interview with grown up Julia Benjamin, who played Susie). Also appearing regularly was Ann Jillian as Steve's teen secretary.

Hazel lost none of her crusty-but-benign common-sense nor her fresh-baked gumption. She was constantly butting into people's business and coming up with wacky schemes to help others or herself, always in a loving and sensible way. She was the mom we never had -- or the mom we did have minus all the baggage.

There are some great episodes in season five, including one in which she mistakes a great painter for the house painter; Hazel tries to overhaul a roadster; Hazel markets her homemade chili (a surefire sitcom staple); Steve tries to win a perfect boss contest; and my favorite of the season, in which the adults aim to get the boys to give up that surely-to-go-away "rock and roll fad" by dressing and acting like hippies and groovers (it's always fun to see how '60s sitcoms treated the youth movement).

By the time that episode was made, Ray Fulmer, who at first had lacked the charm and warmth of Don DeFore, had become more comfortable and loose in his role as Steve. The chemistry between Steve and Hazel was different; Hazel couldn't chide this thinner, younger man about his weight or his age. Film veteran DeFore never lost his charm, even when he was furious. Stage actor Fulmer, who later derided the Hazel show's writing, became a soap actor, for which his dour demeanor was better suited.

Steve and Barbara are like a sitcom version of Don and Betty Draper, a couple that looks like the top of a wedding cake, trying to ascend the ladder of what was defined as success in the Wonder Bread world of early sitcom suburbia.

The later shows in Season Five of Hazel are the strongest. The cast begins to connect and storylines are less about real estate and more about the people in and around the Baxter home, particularly sister-in-law Deirdre, a social shark played masterfully by TV and radio veteran Cathy Lewis (the original Jane on My Friend Irma). She's the perfect Margaret Dumont to Hazel's Groucho. Once familiar faces return, the season swings into gear.

There would have been a sixth season, since the series was still getting great ratings (this year it had moved to CBS's strong Monday night lineup), but Booth's ill health prevented it. Too bad, the world always needs its Hazels -- especially in the late '60s.

How would Hazel Burke have dealt with protestors? She'd probably pick up a sign, march with them, totally embarrass Mr. Steve, enrage Mr. Steve's stuffy business associates, then whip up some hot, juicy roast beef sandwiches and home-fried donuts (all the while claiming that "they ain't up to my usual") -- which would soften everyone's heart so much that all the troubles would go away.

Until next week.

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