||FATHER KNOWS BEST
American radio and television comedy series which portrayed middle class family life in the Midwest.
203 episodes of 30 minute duration. CBS 1954-60.
Father Knows Best was, like many 1950's domestic comedies, an idealistic view of American family life. Some of its plots would be considered sexist and archaic today. But there are many fans–then and now–who still look up to the Andersons.
To understand that reasoning, compare the series with its competition during the Eisenhower Decade. At a time when sitcoms were populated with either bumbling husbands (The Trouble With Father, The Life of Riley) or wacky wives (I Love Lucy, I Married Joan), Jim and Margaret Anderson were relatively sane, reasonable parents who raised three relatively sane, reasonable children. The Andersons were a far cry from the often-bombastic show business dad Danny Thomas played so well on both Make Room For Daddy and The Danny Thomas Show. Nor were they as laid-back and indulgent as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Instead, the folks who produced and wrote the episodes simply took what could have been unmitigated treacle and added generous helpings of warmth, understanding and sound judgement (not to mention a moment in every episode that made you cry or at least shed a tear), creating plausible stories that viewers could relate to. Indeed, a “New York Times” television critic of the era declared that “Robert Young and Jane Wyatt have restored parental prestige on TV.”
Father Knows Best started as a radio programme created by writer Ed James. Robert Young was a well-known character actor in both films and several short-lived radio shows, when he agreed to play insurance agent Jim Anderson on NBC Radio in 1949. Wife Margaret was portrayed by voice over artist Jean Vander Pyl (who later gained fame as the voice of Wilma Flintstone and other cartoon characters). On radio, teenager Betty Anderson (a.k.a. “Princess”) was played by Rhoda Williams; Ted Donaldson portrayed son Bud; and young Kathy (also known to dad as “Kitten”) was voiced by Norma Jean Nillson. Funny thing was, the radio ‘Father Knows Best’ (which had a question mark at the end of the title) was more sardonic than sensible. Jim Anderson and his family lived in the fictional town of Springfield; on radio he had little patience and snapped at his children often, while Margaret was portrayed as a bit dim-witted. As for the kids, Betty was a “drama queen” teen; Bud was portrayed as a boy with not too many smarts; and Kathy often whined and pleaded for a larger allowance. It was all played for laughs.
That changed in 1953, when Young and his production partner Eugene Rodney developed a “backdoor pilot” of Father Knows Best for television, in a deal with Columbia Pictures’ TV production arm Screen Gems. Entitled Keep It In The Family, it aired on the anthology series Ford Theater. Young starred in the half-hour programme, playing a father named Tim Warren. But he and Rodney felt the actors playing the wife and three children in the original pilot were just not right, and a massive search began for a new cast (except for Young, of course). For the television role of Kathy, nearly 80 girls auditioned before cute but inexperienced actress Lauren Chapin was picked. Elinor Donahue, who had some stage and screen experience, was considered to be “just right” for teenage daughter Betty. The role of Bud was given to young Billy Gray, whom Rodney said was the only youngster able to play what he called a “teenage boy’s abstraction, not flipness.” For the role of mom Margaret, Rodney settled on actress Jane Wyatt (who was best-known to audiences at the time as co-star of the now classic 1937 film Lost Horizon opposite Ronald Colman). She initially turned down the part because she was living in New York with her family and didn’t want to go to Hollywood. Rodney refused to take “no” for an answer; he sent her a script and after reading it, Wyatt signed on.
The radio version of Father Knows Best ended just before the television version premiered on October 3rd, 1954. Airing on CBS, the network made the unusual decision of slotting the family comedy on Sunday nights at 10:00 PM. Not surprisingly, ratings were low–even though those who watched (and many critics) loved the show. That wasn’t the case with its sponsor, Kent cigarettes, which refused to back Father Knows Best beyond its first season. As a result, CBS cancelled the programme after 26 episodes.
But something unusual happened: In one of the first instances where viewers campaigned to save an endangered series, thousands of fans sent letters to CBS, urging the network to renew ‘Father’–and give it a new, earlier time slot so the whole family could watch. Television critics around the country joined in, and the din became louder. The campaign caught the attention of a top executive at the Scott Paper Company; he decided that Father Knows Best was the perfect vehicle to sell such products as ScotTowels and Cut Rite waxed paper. Scott not only picked up the show’s contract for a second season, it took the series virtually intact from CBS to NBC, which scheduled it at an earlier time (Wednesdays at 8:30 PM). The move proved to be just what the doctor ordered; ratings immediately began to climb, and they continued to rise in subsequent seasons. By 1958, CBS saw the error of its ways, and snatched Father Knows Best back from NBC, placing the show in its Monday comedy lineup. During the CBS run, ‘Father’ became a member of television’s top 20, and by the 1959-60 season was ranked the sixth most-popular programme in prime time.
Father Knows Best was filmed on one of Columbia Studio’s Hollywood sound stages with just one camera; the set was as close to a real home as possible, giving the show a realistic, professional look. There were slapstick moments, but overall the humour came from simple situations and how they were handled by the Andersons. Usually, the problem involved one of the children who (briefly) strayed down the wrong path–acting selfish, ignorant or cruel. Jim would gently show the child the error of his or her ways, and the situation would be resolved in the last few minutes of the programme.
Producer Eugene Rodney who set the tone; he edited each episode, adding the required music and (canned) laughter for maximum effect. And he demanded the show’s directors wring out the most emotion from each of the actors, noting "If I ever get a director so cynical that he can't feel it deep in his heart when a little girl places a crippled sparrow in a nest and then goes upstairs to her room and prays to God that sparrow lives--why, I'll fire him!" Most of the show’s episodes were directed by two men: William D. Russell (who helmed the first 62 episodes and later directed other Screen Gems sitcoms such as Hazel and Bewitched), and Peter Tewksbury (who directed most of the remaining episodes and won an Emmy in 1959 for the episode A Medal For Margaret). The two leading actors also won Emmys; Robert Young picked up two statues, while three went to Jane Wyatt.
By the show’s final season, rumours swirled that Robert Young would call it quits after more than a decade playing Jim Anderson. Eugene Rodney was also ready for a rest, while the other co-stars were looking forward to a life beyond Father Knows Best. In early 1960, a news release was sent out by Young and Rodney, confirming what fans had feared:
Can you imagine how demanding it is to continue to produce the same programme series, almost every week, for six years? We have been blessed in that each successive year Father Knows Best has gotten a better score from the audience research polls. But the very success struck terror in our hearts. You don't want to fall back, but at each step the fear that you will gets greater. How many fresh and amusing situations could we contrive for the Anderson family? How many times could a father demonstrate his wisdom without getting tiresome? We had reached a point after which, with each new show, our doubts about our own abilities to do it as well as we wanted to grew greater. Hence, for over a year we have wanted to stop production. And yet we could not arbitrarily walk out on it. Such an overt decision, without regard to the future telecasting of the series, would have been a disservice to our partner Screen Gems, to the sponsors that have supported us through these years, and to the thousands of viewers who have written us letters urging continuation of the series.
The final original Father Knows Best episode aired in May 1960. But CBS agreed to air the repeats in prime time (with Scott Paper as sponsor) from 1960 until 1962, ABC then picked up the repeat rights and aired the show for another year in prime time, before moving ‘Father’ to the network’s daytime lineup in 1963. The series continues to live on in syndication and home video. FKB is truly a time capsule of what we were and what we strived to be in post war America. It may be dated in many respects, and a bit too retro for today’s generation. But the moral lessons imparted by the cast and writers–respect, kindness and hard work–will never go out of style.
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