Judge Dennis Prince sure likes to look at life through a kaleidoscope. It's keen!
Can a well-to-do bachelor living in a Fifth Avenue high-rise bring himself to raise his two nieces and nephew without turning his life upside down? Independent Bill Davis is about to go from "carefree bachelor" to "bachelor father" in this unexpected family affair.
Following the tragic death of his brother and sister-in-law, Bill Davis (Brian Keith, Sharkey's Machine) has ensured that his two nieces and nephews were take in by his other siblings. A busy engineering consultant who spends more time on the road than in his lavish 27th-floor Manhattan apartment, Davis plainly prospers as a bachelor. He's not alone, however, since he also employs a live-in "gentleman's gentleman": Mr. Giles French (Sebastian Cabot, Miracle on 34th Street). French, a smartly attired and primly pedigreed Londoner, ensures that his busy employer is always at the top of his game, both in business and during his frequent rendezvous with females. For these two bachelors, their prosperous coexistence is a thing of perfection.
Then Buffy arrives.
With a simple knock on the door, life is upended for these two well-adjusted gentlemen. Davis's sister has arrived with six-year-old Buffy (Anissa Jones), indicating she simply can't keep her and that perhaps the well-to-do bachelor will be a better guardian. Naturally, Davis resists—yet his sister slyly exits the apartment, leaving the pigtailed, doe-eyed Buffy behind. Mr. French quickly leaps to Davis's side, appalled at the notion that he will amount to a nanny during his employer's usual extended absences. This simply will not stand.
Davis makes arrangements to have Buffy sent to Switzerland for schooling, which naturally crushes the tot's spirits and leaves her feeling completely unwanted at a time when physical and emotional nurturing is most needed. Ultimately, Davis realizes his approach is callous and recalls his fondness for his late brother. Despite his gruff exterior, Davis's inner warmth and moral uprightness win out—Buffy can stay.
And now, it's off to Peru for the overseeing of a building project. During Davis's absence, Buffy and Mr. French get along reasonably well. The blustering Britisher reluctantly adjusts to the presence of the precocious little moppet, more eager than ever for Davis to return. Then another knock on the door reveals Davis's six-year-old nephew, Jody (Johnnie Whitaker, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters), who is happy to lay eyes on his twin sister, Buffy. Jody has also come to stay. Before French can even begin to protest, in steps Davis's 15-year-old niece, Cissy (Kathy Garver). Suddenly, this tranquil bachelor's apartment has become a typical American household.
It's a family affair.
While it never garnered the same sort of pop culture status as the likes of Leave It to Beaver or My Three Sons, Family Affair was nonetheless a highly rated series, running from September 12, 1966, until September 9, 1971. It was one of the earliest shows to be broadcast entirely in color (and the familiar kaleidoscopic opening titles featuring swirling jewels were intended to punctuate that vibrance). Accompanied by Frank DeVol's suitable upbeat theme, the show promised a sense of goodness that would be suitable for family viewing (this being a welcome reprieve to those who were growing concerned about the social unrest of the latter 1960s).
The plots were simple, and the show generally steered away from any truly questionable situations. Most striking about it was the underlying sensitivity it offered in light of the three children having been tragically orphaned. Brian Keith was perfectly cast in the role of Uncle Bill Davis in that he stood as a rock of comfort and confidence in what must certainly be a traumatic moment in young children's lives (not to mention to the adolescent Cissy). While many have proclaimed that the characters of Buffy and Jody were simply too polite and well behaved to bear any resemblance to reality, the counterargument could be made that they reflected a deep sense of thankfulness that their uncle and his servant would provide them a loving, caring home in light of their desperate situation. Sure, that's a bit of a stretch for six-year-old characters in a television sitcom, yet the manner in which Uncle Bill conducts himself—and evidently restrains his reflexive responses—indicates that the scriptwriters maintained an awareness of this throughout each episode. There are glints of a sort of aching compassion that can be seen between the lines of dialogue and through the performances of Brian Keith and Sebastian Cabot.
Despite the fact that the program clearly showcases the button-cuteness of Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker, it seems to be as much about Mr. French and his struggle to adapt to the challenges of raising little ones. From the first episode, Sebastian Cabot stands to steal the show as he harrumphs and haws his way through his encounters with the precocious Buffy and endearingly innocent Jody. He plays the prim (if not uptight) gentleman's gentleman to perfection, his derby hat properly perched atop his head, his walking umbrella attending his gait in a stately manner. Some of his best scenes come when he is confronted by his peers—butlers and nannies—in the nearby park, they who titter at the notion that proud Mr. French has, too, become a nanny. It's enough to ruffle old French's vest and makes for satisfying comedy. (Incidentally, after the seventeenth episode, Cabot was taken ill and was replaced by John Williams of Dial 'M' for Murder for the succeeding nine episodes. Cabot's absence was explained by a plot twist in which Mr. French was called back to London by the Queen herself to attend to the royal household during their travels among the capitals of the Commonwealth. French's brother, Nigel, was summoned to attend to the Davises in the meantime. )
As for Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker, they were completely adorable in a likable fashion. Unlike the later Brady kids, which would overdose TV audiences with saccharine sweetness and syrupy moral goodness, these two youngsters seemed to be merely playing themselves. Their performances were genuine, as it was apparent they were working to their youthful potential as they delivered their lines (later seasons would lose this charm, sadly, as the actors grew up but their characters didn't—not much, anyway). Anissa Jones gave an edge to young Buffy, who seemed wise to the wiles of adults. Whitaker's Jody was about as pure as the driven snow, and his wide grin and perpetually smiling eyes indicated that he expected nothing less than the best from those who attended to his formative needs. Both were outgoing, inquisitive, and candid—all the things that can simplify the job of scriptwriters in need of situations for TV kids and their families.
The character of Cissy was generally sidelined and yet seemed adequately believable for it. As many youngsters reach adolescence, there can be a tendency for them to become more reserved, introspective, and uncertain of how they will mesh with the adult world. Cissy seems to recognize that she needs to quietly serve a quasi-maternal role in the Davis household. The character certainly could have presented interesting situations of her own, as most of America's youth was engaged in questioning authority and social norms during the 1960s. Of course, Family Affair never traveled down this path, and therefore the capable Kathy Garver never gained much opportunity to expand her role.
In all, Family Affair can be unexpectedly entertaining, refreshing, and relaxing. It's pleasant to see kids acting like kids (the enduring charm of Leave It to Beaver) rather than watch them snoot and snot about like insufferable ingrates. There's none of that here, and, whether it should be considered believable or not, it's effective just the same.
Longtime fans of the show will welcome MPI's release of Family Affair: Season One, a five-disc set that delivers the first 30 episodes of the show. Here is the episode breakdown:
Each episode is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame format. The source material is generally solid, though it does show some evidence of wear, mainly during the pre-credit sequences. The detail level is a bit soft at times, and the color saturation is a bit overdone (you'll enjoy a better image if you dial back your display panel's saturation). Thankfully, there are no noticeable compression artifacts to be found across the five discs. Despite the noted imperfections, these episodes still look pretty good, better than syndication broadcasts. A key benefit here is that each episode is presented in its original broadcast length, each running just under 26 minutes. The audio is presented in a very clean Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix that balances dialogue, score, and sound effects properly.
There are a couple of extras in this set (sadly, commentary by the surviving Whitaker or Garver is not among them). Kathy Garver is interviewed in a 20-minute featurette, "Family Affair: Behind the Scenes." The narrated voiceover provides some trivia and serves to set up the interview segments with Garver that intersperse her comments and anecdotes with show clips. A trim photo gallery is also on board and features production stills and images of Family Affair collectibles.
All in all, this new Family Affair: Season One set is well done—not spectacularly, mind you—and delivers a fun and enjoyable show that will take viewers back to the days when TV families were pleasant to visit. Recommended.
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• "Family Affair: Behind the Scenes"
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