There's probably a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on the sociological ramifications of the changes in the mythical town of Springfield between the 1950s' Father Knows Best and its more recent incarnation (albeit animated) as the home of The Simpsons. It's also equally fascinating to see this early bulwark of network idyllic family life positing the father and mother (despite the series' title) as equally intellectually capable and non-scheming, with strong moral centers. Father Knows Best paved the way for the relatively realistic (how relatively may depend on your own personal familial dysfunctions) depiction of American family life, without the scatterbrained antics of a manic wife or the dunderheaded buffoonery of a clueless husband. For that, we can all be grateful.
Though Father Knows Best suffers from the common gloss of "fifties-ness," with a father always in a suit and a wife always perfectly coiffed and dressed beautifully (usually with a nicely pressed apron wrapped around her skirt), it nonetheless has a surprising realism and equally surprising contemporary humor at times. Robert Young as insurance salesman Jim Anderson, Jane Wyatt as his homemaker wife Margaret, and Elinor Donihue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin as their three children even here in the first season of this long-running series have a beautifully realized interplay that is at once natural and more than a little schmaltzy.
The series, which was executive produced by Young and his partner Eugene Rodney, features typical 50's dilemmas, such as son Bud having to learn to dance for a school prom, or eldest daughter Betty ("Princess") developing such a strong crush on a beau that Jim is convinced she's about to elope. Where the series shines is in its heartfelt treatment of these admittedly trivial set-ups, with some nicely understated humor along the way. "Bud's been acting so strangely lately," states Wyatt in the dancing episode. "He's been acting that way since the day he was born," counters Young.
There's also no dearth of civic lessons imparted throughout the first season which some may find a bit on the preachy side, but which are always delivered with such a consistent honesty and sincerity that it's hard to find fault with them. There are some nice twists in these morality plays from time to time, as in the episode where youngest daughter Kathy ("Kitten") breaks a window and Jim attempts to teach her personal responsibility. That is, until Jim himself gets a parking ticket he thinks is undeserved and attempts to shirk his responsbility, only to end up arguing his case before "judge for a day" high school student Bud.
Father Knows Best may seem like a relic of a bygone age, and in some ways it obviously is. But what's really wrong with that? In its loving depiction of a strong family unit that weathers the ups and downs of everyday living, it teaches lessons that are timeless and could well be learned by some of today's disintegrating family units.
For the most part the masters seem to be in generally good shape, evidently kept by the Young family for all of these years (the title sequence, culled from the syndicated version, has a bit of abrasion). There is occasional softness and poor contrast in several episodes, but nothing too distracting.
The original mono soundtracks are in good, if not spectacular, condition. The opening theme music sounds a bit boxy, and the closing credits of all episodes are cut short, perhaps to delete the network identification that was probably included in the original broadcast run.
Shout! Factory has done an excellent job in augmenting the first season with some great extras. There are sweet interviews with Lauren Chapin and Elinor Donahue, home movies of the Robert Young family (on whom the television family was based), rare color footage of on-set activities (narrated by Young's grandson), the pilot episode of Young's subsequent series Window on Main Street, and my personal favorite, a never broadcast episode developed for the U.S. Treasury department to spur sales of savings bonds, wherein Jim becomes a dictator for a day, teaching his family what life outside of the comfy confines of American democracy might be like.
Father Knows Best is simply too sweet and good-natured to invite any really jaded cynical critical opinion. Heartfelt, ethical and understated, it stands at the head of the class of 50s television Americana. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet