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
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
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
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
All rights reserved. Posted: May 15, 2008.