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TV History: Burns & Allen

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Prof. Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2017. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

Gracie's Role in Society

by Brian Curley

1950’s television tackled many of the issues in 50's American culture, and one of the most prevalent examples of this is the challenging of gender roles by domestic sitcoms. This was a genre filled with top billed shows such as "I Love Lucy", "The Donna Reed Show", and "Burns and Allen", where the main female characters in these sitcoms challenged the position of women in the home and society every week. In "Burns and Allen", the main character of Gracie Allen was portrayed as a ditz who was incapable of functioning outside of the home, but it was through this persona that the audience understood, “that Gracie the comedienne knew exactly what she was doing and why,” (Douglas 50). These female characters used their positions in sitcoms to challenge the idea that women belong in the home by attempting to work outside of the home in most episodes.
In the episode of "Burns and Allen", “Gracie’s Checking Account”, Gracie’s husband George was tasked with making sure that Gracie stops patronizing a local bank because her antics were annoying the owner of the bank. Gracie is presented as incompetent in this episode where the owner of the bank tells George how Gracie adamantly believes that her one thousand dollar checking account should have over two million dollars in it, and uses checks to send people recipes and song lyrics rather than using them to transfer money. This idea of Gracie being unable to understand the basic workings of a bank and a checking account is indicative of how women were seen in society in the 1950’s. At this time in American history it was thought that women should remain at home and focus on housework and raising their children, because they were incapable of working outside of the home. By showing Gracie’s inability to do something simple like write checks or understand the amount of money she has in her bank account plays right into the stereotype that women were unable to handle daily tasks outside of the home, which was far from the truth.
Although Gracie is seen in this negative light, immediately after hearing that he needs to tell Gracie that she cannot go to the bank anymore George starts to panic and think of a way to tell her the news lightly, joking about buying her a new dress or some flowers. George then goes on to joke about how he would be fine if something happened to him and Gracie, stating that he could afford to, “never do another day’s work until Monday,” (Burns and Allen), without Gracie’s money. This joke references the wealth of Gracie Allen the actress, showing that although she is a woman she has been able to make a considerable living outside of the home. This fact, although it is played off as a joke, is yet another example of how these shows subtly challenged the idea that women were unable to make a living outside of the home.
At the end of the episode George and his friend Bill Goodwin concoct a plan to casually bring up the bank in front of Gracie, which was when Bill was going to mention how he recently read a book that smart women did not go to banks. Hoping that this plan would deter Gracie from going to the bank once again shows how women were seen as unintelligent in American society, where a woman would give up something like going to the bank solely upon hearing that someone read in a book that it is not something smart women do. The fact that this plan ends up failing when one of Gracie’s antics puts Bill in “a daze” (Burns and Allen), shows how even though women were seen as incompetent, they were able to fend for themselves and undermine the plans of men. Although Gracie “unintentionally” ruins all of George’s plans to tell her about the bank throughout the episode, the show follows the general premise of the domestic sitcom where, “the woman was happily tamed at the end of each episode,” (Douglas 51). In this episode Gracie tells George that she no longer wants to go to the bank because she thinks it is dishonest, because, “as fast as [she] put money in one window, somebody was taking it out of another,” (Burns and Allen). The end of this episode, which is intended to be incredibly humorous to the audience, shows how even though these sitcoms would challenge the gender roles of the 1950’s, the end of each episode would resolve itself so that the woman always ended back in the home where she belonged. These 1950’s comedies were able to subtly tackle some of the most prevalent issues in American society at the time, especially through the slapstick comedy of actresses like Gracie Allen.

Works Cited
Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Times Books, 1995. 43-60. Print.

Henning, Paul, Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, and William Burns. "Burns & Allen "Gracie's
Checking Account." Burns and Allen. CBS. New York City, New York, 7 Dec. 1950. Television.

"Gracie's Checking Account," The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show

This clip presents four excerpts from the episode of Burns and Allen entitled "Gracie's Checking Account," Episode 5 of Season 1, which first aired on December 7, 1950, on CBS.

from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950)
Creator: CBS; Director: Ralph Levy; Writers: Paul Henning, Sid Dorfman, Harvey Helm, William Burns
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Christine Becker