My Three Sons ran from 1960 to 1972, airing on two different networks over the course of that run. It is an incredible streak, second only to The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet as television's longest running live-action family sitcom. The program aired on ABC from 1960 to 1965, and all of those episodes were produced in black and white. When the network would not commit to producing the show in color, the producers took it to CBS.
The end result of ABC’s decision to abandon a top-20 rated show rather than produce it in color would not be felt for a few years. But when My Three Sons went into syndication, the black and white era was largely forgotten. I had never seen any of these early seasons before their DVD release, and there are some big differences between the ABC and CBS years.
For one thing, there is an older brother named Mike, who attends a local college. For a young man living in a fraternity, Mike spends a lot of time at home, but occasionally is shown in the frat house. Actor Tim Considine left the show just before the move to CBS, and his character was written off as having gotten married. Like Chuck on Happy Days, Mike Douglas simply vanished afterward, never to been seen, or even spoken of, ever again.
The other major difference is the inclusion of William Frawley. The basic premise of My Three Sons is that Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) is a widower, doing his best to raise his boys. Fred Mertz… er… William Frawley, plays Steve’s father-in-law, a man with the unlikely name of Bub, who is helping Steve out. Frawley actually appeared in a few of the color episodes, but was written out due to health concerns. He was replaced with William Demarest as Uncle Charley.
This background is important, because these characters brought a completely different feel to the show than what a lot people might be familiar with. Season began in the fall of 1961, and there is a definite “Space-Age” vibe to it. The fact that Steve Douglas is an aeronautical engineer, which is treated as a pretty sexy job, is an interesting cultural marker. There are occasional references to World War II also, which at the time was far more recent history.
Some of the funniest moments here in the second season are the personality quirks exhibited by Bub and Mike. Apparently Bub’s career was in vaudeville (of all things), so there are tons of obscure references to the good old days in his conversations. On the other hand, college boy Mike Douglas is always on with some semi-Beat influenced philosophical take on whatever the family’s current travails might be.
I have watched a lot of early sixties television and film, but until I viewed My Three Sons – The Second Season, Volume One, I had never run across a couple of the slang terms exhibited here. The most common denigration the boys use is “clunky.” As in, “I don’t like her, she’s pretty clunky.” As for the adults, the most common derogatory term used by them is “salty.” Bub uses this one to great effect when he meets an older female neighbor at the grocery store and proceeds to insult her. At the end of the scene, he is heard to complain, “You’re the one getting salty here.”
For all of the period details though, the heart of the show is in the solid stories. A typical episode of the program generally goes a little deeper than most of the era. In the eighteen episodes included on the three-disc set, there are a number of different emotions on display. Everything from jealousy, confusion, anger, and outright hypocrisy is explored. All of this is done under the strict guidelines of a popular 1961 sitcom of course, but there is still a fair amount of thought provoking material at work.
As for bonus features, they are virtually nonexistent, save something called "Sponsor Spots." These consist of Fred MacMurray opening the program by mentioning that the show is sponsored by Chevrolet. The closing features the whole family mentioning Chevrolet again. They add up to a ground-breaking 30 seconds of extra footage.
In the end, I am surprised at just how much I enjoyed these early episodes. My Three Sons changed quite a bit over the course of its 12 year run, but as early as the second season it really hit its stride. Maybe that is why they won the Golden Globe for Best Television Series that year.