Father Knows Best
Season One (1954) (Shout! Factory-2008)
A fresh look at Father Knows Best does nothing to answer that chicken-or-the-egg dilemma which has haunted us for over a half century: was family life in the 1950s really this stable, or did television devise a set of standards for happy living so impossible to attain that it could only cause disappointment and dysfunction?
Like all fifties family comedies, Best looks innocuous on the surface, and barely leaves an impression. Yet when peeling away the layers, and when realizing that in your own real life you are not exposed to kindly faces, extreme politeness and excellent telephone manners, you are witnessing the major Something Wrong that has been the exact fault line between TV and reality (and not TV reality).
The house here is even surrounded by a white picket fence. They even pat their mouths with a cloth napkin when they finish dinner (and they actually eat dinner, in a dining room, as a family, all at the same time, and every morsel of food is cooked and not microwaved.).
Robert Young, who is the father who knows best, plays it like this: he gives advice, and then through a series of coincidences, is pressed to do as he says, not as he does. He makes promises, and then is forced to live up to them (a speech about civic duty leads to an actual civic duty obligation; a speech about keeping his word leads to him having to keep his word). He grumbles crankily as he is caught in his own unintentional web (add a laugh track), and fights hard to keep himself from looking like a hypocrite. Admirable enough. We are asked to be amused as he eats his words.
This is not as complicated as it sounds, and yet it’s the stuff of family dynamics as complex as those in Ordinary People.
Father, naturally, is the breadwinner, and is one of the few fifties dads who actually has a real job (insurance salesman). We even see him working at it, in an actual office that does not look too far removed from reality.
Because the series is oddly well-written and unusually verbal, his character is almost two-dimensional: he has dreams of chucking it all and moving to a farm. Of course, common sense (and his wife’s passive but determined manipulation) wins out. Through her wrangling, he remains in his Pleasantville, ultimately happy in his narrowly defined role and the social order is saved.
He chills out on a Saturday while wearing a suit and tie, and says to his family when they are arguing mildly, “we sound like the third act of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Would any TV family say that today? Would any viewer understand it?
His overeducated, overly articulate wife (the Katherine-Hepburn-like Jane Wyatt) bakes cakes while wearing evening clothes (that a cake might fall in the oven is actually a plot point of sheer dramatic tension on one episode). Her major interests are, of course, her children, but also matchmaking for her plain cousin (an unmarried woman is not an option). She advises, “Every man is the marrying type,” but forgive her. Remember, this is decades before Will and Grace. The poor sucker she ropes into marrying her cousin says, without a trace of irony, “You know, I thought being married would be pretty dull. But after spending an evening in this place, I’ve changed my mind.”
Mom defers to dad, but not really. She is really the one who knows best, but lets dad think otherwise. Get it?
“We can’t let them run wild,” she claims when referring to her son, who would rather play in the church baseball game than do chores around the house. Though this family only attends church when necessary to the plot, Mom should count her blessings when you consider the future of TV youth, and their horrifying very special episodes.
Like most sitcom spawn for decades to come, the kids act like kids who act like adults (in the eyes of middle-aged writers). The roles are, to say the least, strongly-defined, and to say the worst, inflexible.
There are three of them, but most prominent is the oldest daughter and teen-queen, Betty, who is accurately nicknamed “Princess.” She is meant to be atypical, so much so that you almost hear rhythm-and-blues music playing when she enters a room. She drops such gems as “if I don’t go to the Christmas party, I’ll die,” (she doesn’t), and “do you believe that Elizabeth Taylor’s waistline is only nineteen inches?” (so we know we’re watching something really, really vintage). And speaking of old, the worst thing she can lay on her parents is not being modern: “If you insist on being so Model T!”
Ironically, this role is played by the very good Elinor Donohue, who in the early nineties will play Chris Elliot’s passively aggressively bitchy mom in the brilliant cult-classic Get A Life. That Princess will give birth to the ultimate in goofy dysfunction, Chris Elliot, is a stroke of casting revenge. In fact, the town in Father Knows Best is named Springfield, the same of that of the anti-Andersons: The Simpsons . Coincidence?
As well, Donahue states in the commentary that, for all her intense depiction of an All-American teenager, she had never been to high school or to a dance, and she regrets it. In fact, in her determination to rebel (fifties style), she had run away from the show, eloped and gotten pregnant, which naturally enraged the producers. Now there’s a series.
Each episode is worthy of its own warning label, even when Father contemplatively lights up a Kent in one opening scene (as they were the series’ sponsor). Here we have a string of intense morality plays, gift-wrapped lovingly in a heartwarming theme song performed by a fully functioning orchestra.
At Father’s office, he chats amicably with his cleaning lady, who happens to be seventy-four (obviously, nobody told her about social security). As old and as “foreign” as she is (Irish, which is the fifties’ equivalent of foreign), she tells Jim, “Don’t try to be what cha ain’t. Find out what cha are. And be the best one of it.” So here, in a rare psych-out, Irish Scrubwoman Knows Best.
Most of the situations zero in on character-molding and child rearing. However, in one strange episode that was never broadcast, the kids learn a valuable lesson about the importance of U.S. Savings Bonds. In a passionate plea to get the kids to invest (“I’m against gambling, but this is one gamble I’m going to take.”), Dad turns their house into a suburban Soviet Union, just to see how the other half lives. He assigns the kids numbers and work chores, and ultimately explains to them that “peace costs money.” You have to see it to believe it, but make sure you witness the end of the episode, in which George Meany takes it from there, rambling on about wage oiners and poisonal security.
There is an added bonus of some of Robert Young’s actual home movies, with his grandson trying to sell us on what a regular guy he was (even though he owned a house in Beverly Hills and two airplanes). But don’t hate him because he knows best. What we’re supposed to get is that father knows best, but he really doesn’t, but in the end, somehow, he does. Like every other fifties sitcom, it confounds and confuses us, but we come back for more and never live up to the dream. Many of us don’t even buy savings bonds.
Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 15, 2008.