Does father know best? When Father Knows Best debuted as an NBC radio series on August 25, 1949, the question mark was part of the title; only after the series moved to CBS television on October 3, 1954 was the question mark removed. The concept of actor Robert Young and his friend Eugene Rodney, Father Knows Best was based on experiences the two men had with their own wives and children.
Robert Young, the only member of the cast to make the transition from radio to television, played Jim Anderson, a mild-mannered agent for the General Insurance Company in Springfield. Anderson lived there with his wife Margaret (Jane Wyatt), fifteen-year-old Betty (Elinor Donahue), fourteen-year-old son James Jr. (Billy Gray), and Lauren Chapin as the baby of the family, nine-year-old Kathy. Father Knows Best was a typical 1950s sitcom. Margaret was a doting housewife always clad on the perfect dress and two or three strands of pearls. A majority of Ms. Wyatt's scenes as Margaret Anderson are filmed in the kitchen where she is cooking breakfast, lunch or dinner for the family with nary a hair out of place.
Jim always came home from a day at the office looking fresh as a daisy and ready to dispense advice. Being the wonderful father that he was, Jim gave each of his children a nickname — Betty was "Princess," James Anderson Jr. was known simply as "Bud", and Kathy was "Kitten" — just in case we didn't understand how close the Anderson family really was. Princess was being raised to be just like her mom. She would be called into peel the potatoes or do the dishes. However, she could disregard her parent's wishes if she was boy crazy. She would occasionally try to go out of the house in an outfit deemed inappropriate or shirk her household chores to read a movie magazine. Bud was just a bit of an airhead. He was pretty clueless about everything going on around him, and would become the model for generations of teenage boys on television to come. Kitten was the adorable troublemaker. She could never keep a secret, which drove the plot of countless episodes of Father Knows Best.
Though Father seemed to know best, his wife and children often left him dumbfounded. Despite the fact that Margaret was stuck in the role of domestic servitude, she often had more control over the household than her husband realized. She ran the household with a quiet confidence. It is also worth noting that Jane Wyatt won three consecutive Emmys for her role as Margaret Anderson during Father Knows Best's six-year run and Robert Young took home two.
Despite the obvious sexist attitudes of Father Knows Best, it's amazing how enjoyable it is to watch the twenty-six episodes of that first season. Everything seems so untouched and innocent. Even if that wasn't the case, it makes you feel good. At the time, series star Robert Young was struggling with alcoholism but that would have never seen the light of day on television. Young and producer Eugene Rodney were always upfront about their desire to provide moral lessons throughout the series. Even if Father Knows Best had wanted to tackle more serious issues such as civil rights (Springfield was all white) or alcoholism, the show would have been ushered off the air immediately. At the time television had an all-consuming need to show calm and perfection.
The plots of Father Knows Best were extremely simple. Jim buys a motor scooter for Bud without him knowing. Margaret forbids it and insists Jim sell the scooter. Bud buys the scooter himself after Dad sold it back. The episode ends as all of the family members take turns riding it, Mom included. In another episode, after Jim lectures the kids about being good citizens, it backfires on him. And he loses his best suit in the process; pretty elementary but still fun stuff.
Jane Wyatt said, "I never vacuumed at home wearing my pearls. In fact, I never vacuumed at all. I was always working at the studio. I would have gone crazy staying at home like Margaret Anderson, and my family knew that." Most Americans know that Father Knows Best wasn't a true representation of everything that was going on in the fifties. However, the series represented the kind of nuclear family most of us wanted to be a part of. Even today, Father Knows Best stands up well as a document of a simpler time when television was used to escape the harsher realities of the outside world.
No real video restoration was done for the DVD release of Father Knows Best – Season One. As a result, the video quality fluctuates from episode to episode. Some of the episodes look a bit washed out, but when you consider these were filmed in 1954-55, that's to be expected. The audio is presented in a relatively good sounding mono. There is a slight hiss, but nothing that should affect viewing.
Shout Factory has provided a surprising amount of extras with this set. In "Daddy's Little Girls" actresses Elinor Donahue and Lauren Chapin discuss their experiences working on the series. Donahue talks about the nervousness she experienced auditioning for the role and her difficulties when she later married and became pregnant. Eugene Rodney was less than thrilled to be dealing with a pregnant woman who was supposed to be playing a teenager. Lauren Chapin admits that she got the part of Kathy more because she looked like Robert Young's youngest daughter than for her acting talent.
The most interesting special features are two extended home movies narrated by Robert Young's grandson, Bill Proffitt. The home movies were shot between the 1930s and 1970s and have a kind of "Hollywood casual" look to them. We get tours of Robert Young's homes in Tarzana and Beverly Hills. We even see Young as a pilot of his two planes. There is also rare color film of the actors rehearsing on the Father Knows Best set. Great stuff for any Hollywood historian.
Two rarely seen shows are also included on the set. "24 Hours in Tyrantland" was a special episode of Father Knows Best which never aired on television, but was done at the request of the Treasury Department to promote the purchase of U.S. savings bonds. After the kids refuse to sell bonds, Jim acts like a tyrant around the house to how lucky they are to live in a free country. The episode was originally shown to school children, civic groups, churches, etc. The other show is the pilot episode from Young's rarely seen show, Window on Main Street. Originally aired in the fall of 1961 not long after Father Knows Best left the air, the inclusion of this little piece of television history makes Father Knows Best – Season One a must-own for Robert Young fans.