Judge Christopher Kulik's father didn't always know best, but at least he didn't act superior in front of his wife.
Our review of Father Knows Best: Season Six, published May 29th, 2011, is also available.
The granddaddy of all family sitcoms.
One of the most fondly remembered television shows of the 1950s, Father Knows Best served as a model for nuclear families to follow. Technically, it's a sitcom, though it was more about the father teaching his family-among other things-values, ethics, and responsibility. However, Jim Anderson is the not the type of dad that comes home, grabs a beer, and puts a hand in his crotch while watching TV. He's patient, kind, neighborly, and never loses his temper. To him, family came first and work second.
In 1949, Father Knows Best debuted as a radio show. Five years later, it made it's way to the small screen, competing with I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Initially, it was not a success, perhaps due to the fact that CBS inanely put the family-friendly show in a 10 pm time slot. Cancellation followed, though viewer demand skyrocketed, and the show was brought back by NBC at 8:30 pm Wednesday nights. While CBS eventually got the show back, the Anderson family would charm viewers for the next six years. Now, over 50 years later, Father Knows Best: Season One comes to DVD courtesy of the folks over at the Shout! Factory.
Facts of the Case
Upper-middle class husband Jim Anderson (Robert Young, Marcus Welby, M.D.) is an insurance salesman in Springfield, Ohio. Every time he comes home, he greets his wife Margaret (Jane Wyatt, Lost Horizon) with a smile on his face. Their oldest daughter is Betty, nicknamed "Princess" (Elinor Donahue, The Andy Griffith Show), a typical 17-year-old who spends way too much time on the phone talking to boys. Their only son is 13-year-old James, nicknamed "Bud" (Billy Gray, The Day the Earth Stood Still), who is still getting through the frustrating stage of puberty. Then there is the precious Kathy, nicknamed "Kitten" (Lauren Chapin), who is only seven.
Season One contains 26 episodes, and all the titles should give you a pretty good idea on what happens over the course of the each episode:
When I finished watching several episodes, I realized that this is exactly the type of show that Pleasantville made fun of. Not to say that Jim Anderson would say "swell" all the time, though he might as well. Father Knows Best is an exceptionally clean show which maintains its light-hearted touch. It's all about simplicity and simplistic themes, as Father gives advice to his children as they are growing up in suburbia. Some may consider it a fantasy, though it's all done with professionalism and conviction.
Robert Young was the only member of the cast to make the transition from radio to television. Throughout the '30s and '40s he served largely as a bit player in B-movies. As Jim Anderson, he was warm and punctual, though he also wasn't perfect. Sometimes his ideas were half-baked, or just plain didn't work, such as leaving his kids behind for the weekend for a second honeymoon; little did he realize that the phone line would always be busy because of Betty. Other times he just plain screwed up, such as promising to take Betty out to a football game and then being seduced by a colleague for the second ticket.
You would think that the show's title would make it the ultimate example in patriarchal power, and it's refreshing to see that Margaret doesn't exactly have the brain power of a pumpkin. Sure, she is the typical mother restricted to domestic duties, though she manages to input her thoughts from time to time and be occasionally witty. And, more often than not, Jim would respect her wishes. When Bud wants to go to a baseball game without doing chores, she puts her foot down hard, and Jim actually obeys…well, for the time being, anyway.
All the kids are cookie-cutter characters, though they are all likable just the same. Betty and Bud are standard teenagers struggling with maturity, while little Kitten usually feels left out of the equation. When Betty invites a boy over to dinner, Kitten wants to as well. When dear old Dad buys Bud a motor scooter, she's hurt and then cries that she doesn't get anything.
Father Knows Best may sound like nothing more than old-fashioned, dated nonsense. Nevertheless, it's still agreeable, even if it doesn't have the spark, spunk, or sheer hilarity of I Love Lucy, which I will always consider not only the greatest sitcom of the '50s, but of all time. Many elements of Father Knows Best would carry on to future clones like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch, though the show is a little more than just a template. All in all, this is really a show for people who want to relive some nostalgic memories.
Bill Proffitt, executive producer of the Season One set, is Young's grandson. Since CBS decided not to release it, Bill decided to go to the Shout! Factory, a lesser-known company who has released boxed sets of Punky Brewster: The Complete First Season and The Dick Cavett Show, among other things. However, they must have been presented with a challenge going digital with Father Knows Best, as it certainly shows its age. Specks, scratches, and other debris are present throughout each and every episode, and the DD 1.0 audio isn't much better.
What Season One lacks in quality and presentation, though, it almost makes up for it with the bonus features. For starters, we have brand new interviews on the first disc with Elinor Donahue and Lauren Chapin, who seem eager and willing to tell stories on how they got cast and working with Robert Young. On the second disc, Proffitt provides commentary on some behind-the-scenes, color (!) footage of the show, as well as some home movies of Young and his real family.
Next up is a special episode from 1959 called "24 Hours in Tyrantland," which is available on disc three. While it was never broadcast, it was shown publicly via churches and schools. Essentially, it's about Father teaching his children on the importance of U.S. Savings Bonds. When the children decide not to purchase any, he decides to make a bet on how long they can survive in an un-American, totalitarian household. Take a guess who commissioned the producers (including Young himself) to film this episode.
Last but not least, we have on the fourth disc a pilot episode for Window on Main Street. After Young got tired of playing Jim Anderson, he decided to become Cameron Garrett Brooks, a writer who returns to his hometown of Millsburg after 25 years. I'm not sure if this show was meant to be a comedy or a drama, but it wasn't effective on either level. At best, it's an interesting curio, and it's unsurprising that the show was cancelled after one season. Young was forced to retire, until he found himself on Marcus Welby, M.D. years later.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It must be emphasized that the times mirrored by Father Knows Best don't exist anymore. And, you know what: I don't think many would complain about that, either. In some ways, the show works better today as a historical document than a situation comedy. The 1950s was a time of idealism, not revolutionary change-that wouldn't come for another decade with the Sexual Revolution and Civil Rights Movements. It's mind-boggling to think that right outside the sets were separate restrooms for whites and African-Americans. Naturally, there are no black characters seen at all in this "pure" world of white Americana.
Beyond all that, my biggest complaint with the show is simply the title. Recall that I stated that the character didn't always exhibit patriarchal power, though there was still that overall sense of superiority due to gender. In one of the very first episodes, Jim tells his wife who volunteers to help Bud with something: "No, dear, it takes a man to handle a situation like this." In other episode, Kitten asks her parents why girls play house. In response, Jim smiles and says one word: instinct. However, when Kitten then asks why boys don't play house, he changes the subject. I can hear the feminist cries now…and I don't blame them, either.
Overall, Father Knows Best is pleasant at best, but not without its faults. To some, it will be nostalgia. To others, it will be too quaint and syrupy. I'm sure some will check out the show now due to the movie version coming out this year by Paramount Pictures. Oh, and Tim Allen is taking over the role that made Robert Young a household name. Go ahead…you can say it!
The court finds Father Knows Best not guilty, but orders Young and company to take a course in women's studies. The Shout! Factory is found guilty of a less-than-stellar presentation, though are let off this one time due to the healthy selection of bonus features.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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