I've got to hand it to Danny Thomas; he won me over. Never a big fan of the famous stand-up comedian, actor and television producer (he always seemed kind of angry), I watched an episode or two of S'More Entertainment's Make Room for Daddy: Season 6 and immediately put it away. It felt flat and artificial, and quite frankly, it sat in my screener pile until I had to review it. But pulling it out again, and giving it a fresh start, I have to say I really started to like it. The acting was first-rate, particularly the two young performers playing Danny's children; the writing was quite funny, and the guests stars impressive. Even Thomas started to grow on me; I can see why the series ran for as long as it did (11 seasons), and why it's still so well remembered today.
Focusing on the home life of entertainer/singer Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), The Danny Thomas Show's (Make Room for Daddy was the title of the show the first four seasons, and subsequently in syndication) plots stick close to home, detailing the sometimes wacky happenings that befall the grumpy, often befuddled New York celebrity as he negotiates the pitfalls of married family life. His beautiful new wife, Kathy (Marjorie Lord), whom Danny married the year before when his first wife died, tries to keep Danny on track with his responsibilities as a busy father and performer, but things do get hectic, particularly with his two wise-cracking kids: 11-year-old Rusty (Rusty Hamer) and 6-year-old Linda (Angela Cartwright). Constantly bemoaning the new state of affairs in America, what with spoiled kids and easy responsibilities at home for his wife (as opposed to the tough life he and his family led in Toledo, Ohio), Danny, with the help of his understanding, gently guiding wife, always manages to see the errors of his gruff ways, coming around to the "modern" way of parenting.
Following a fairly consistent pattern, each episode features a song or two Danny sings at his home piano, and sometimes even a bit of standup at one of the clubs he works at (not at all unlike Seinfeld) in-between the situation comedy at home. Of course, the hook that audiences responded to in The Danny Thomas Show was watching this celebrity who knew all the major players in the entertainment field (who often dropped by the show) act no differently than countless other sitcom dads/schmoes who struggled to find sanity amid wacky visitors and relatives (like beloved Hans Conried's Uncle Tonoose). With an impressive roster of celebrities dropping by (this season sees Bob Hope (hysterical), Tennessee Ernie Ford (who's marvelous in a funny, touching performance), Shirley Jones, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (always underrated next to Lucy), Dinah Shore, and new semi-regular Annette Funicello), often intertwined narratively with Danny's show business career, it's not much of a stretch to see The Danny Thomas Show as an inverted form of I Love Lucy. Instead of a show focusing on Lucy's attempts to escape her apartment and insert herself into Ricky's glamorous musical career (while imposing on his celebrity friends), The Danny Thomas Show has Danny the celebrity trying to find sanctuary at his home, where his show business career often intersects (he works out of his home with no secretary or agent).
Modern audiences watching The Danny Thomas Show might be taken aback at some of the attitudes on display here, particularly Thomas' frequent threats of realistic punishment towards his kids (Danny threatens Rusty several times with his belt, even pulling it off once to make his point), Danny never actually goes through with them. As such, The Danny Thomas Show is rather fascinating as a time capsule of 1950s TV mores. Viewed strictly as a sitcom, it's undeniably funny. But there are a lot of issues important to 1950s audiences on display here, including Thomas slamming his own medium, television, for dumbing down audiences, 1950s male role models in marriage and the changing nature of authority, particularly in more modern times (Danny is constantly lamenting that things are too easy now for people), women's roles in the workforce (Kathy's foray into the workforce causes a big row with Danny), the rise of juvenile delinquency (the show comes down squarely on the "hoods are basically good if they're given music lessons" school of criminal sociology), and of course, the eternal battle of the sexes, as filtered through late 1950s anxieties (lots of A-bomb jokes amid Kathy's attempts to sexually tease her husband when she doesn't get her way in The First Anniversary).
Of course, it's important to know that The Danny Thomas Show doesn't in any way deliberately attempt to showcase these explorations; they're just part of the subtext of the episodes. Any serious intent is probably brought by us, the modern audience. Thomas and his writers no doubt were only thinking of what would amuse the audience, but still, it's kind of fun to see the tensions and anxieties of the late 1950s Cold War/Eisenhower America transferred to the domestic home front of a smash network sitcom (The Danny Thomas Show ended up fifth for the year in the Nielsen's). More importantly, The Danny Thomas Show is just plain funny, which should in no way be seen as a reductive statement. Funny, as any pro writer or performer will tell you, is hard, and The Danny Thomas Show surprised me with the skill and expertise of its comedic timing, and the sharpness of its writing. Series writers Charles Stewart, Jack Elinson, Arthur Stander, and David Adler managed to come up with dialogue and one-liners that sound quite "modern" to the ear: in other words, they're timeless. It was funny then, and it's funny fifty years later (and no doubt will be fifty years on).
The cast is first rate. Marjorie Lord, poised and a good straight man, is the necessary anchor of stability when a scene needs to be re-grounded. Angela Cartwright, almost frighteningly talented at such a young age, is a natural-born comedian, and totally unaware that she's smiling throughout her scenes, obviously enjoying all the make-believe. It's an enormously endearing quality, and the other actors immediately respond to it. Rusty Hamer, playing the wise-cracking, under-aged cynic (you can trace his character right through every smart-mouthed kid in every sitcom you ever saw, right up to Stewie on Family Guy), is, if possible, even more accomplished a comedian, with the timing of a 50-year-old veteran Borscht Belt tummler. Watch Danny Thomas when Rusty is delivering a line to somebody else, or engaged in a bit of comic banter; invariably, Thomas is just on the verge of breaking up - that's how good the kid was. As for Thomas, as I said, I was never a fan (as a kid, I always thought he was yelling way too much), but to his credit, he eventually won me over during the 32 episodes included on this set. Perfectly gruff, with expert comedic timing, Thomas functions more as a straight man rather than jokester (except when he's doing his standup routine), getting more laughs reacting to his boisterous family rather than peeling off one-liners of his own. It's a tough character to pull off (from Lord's interview, included on this disc, it sounds close to the real-life Thomas), and he does it flawlessly.
Here are the 32 (!), one-half hour episodes of the five-disc box set Make Room for Daddy: Season 6, as described on the slimcases:
Jack Benny Takes Danny's Job
Rusty, The Ward-Heeler
The First Anniversary
Terry Goes Steady
Take a Message
A Locket for Linda
Uncle Tonoose's Fling
Dinah Shore & Danny Are Rivals
The Saints Come Marching In
Lucille Ball Upsets Williams Household
Tony Bennett Gets Danny's Help
Tennessee Ernie Stays for Dinner
Bob Hope & Danny Become Directors
Gina From Italy
Shirley Jones Makes Good
Gina's First Date
Frankie Laine Sings for Gina
Kathy Leaves Danny
The Latin Lover
The Double Dinner
Danny's Big Fan
The Surprise Party
Gina for President
The Practical Joke
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.