I recently made my way through the first two seasons of the 1950s television series Father Knows Best. I borrowed the DVDs on a lark (thanks, library), planning to take in some details of mid-twentieth-century furnishings and technology. I didn’t expect to like the show, which I’d come to imagine as the model for the bland world of Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998). Laugh if you will, but I must say it: I like Father Knows Best.
Yes, Father Knows Best presents a colorless (that is, all-white) world — at least in its first two seasons.¹ And yes, Father Knows Best presents a world in which tradespeople and members of the working class are predictably quaint or wise or deferential or gruff. But Pleasantville it ain’t. Nor is it Leave It to Beaver. The Andersons — Jim (Robert Young), Margaret (Jane Wyatt), Betty (Elinor Donahue), Bud (Billy Gray), and Kathy (Lauren Chapin) — are smart and witty people. They say things that are genuinely funny, often at one another’s expense. They are far from simple and cheerful: Jim is a deeply fallible, poetry-loving father; Margaret, like Jim, is a college graduate, and she struggles with the limitations of life as a “housewife.” The kids are a handful: Betty, histrionically critical; Bud, moody and resentful; Kathy, maniacally energetic and, sometimes, destructive. The Anderson house is filled with books; its residents never (at least in the show’s first two seasons) go to church. I suspect that if Jim and Margaret’s makers had let these characters think about politics, they’d have voted for Adlai Stevenson.
What’s most surprising to me about the Anderson household is the unmistakable attraction between Jim and Margaret. Living in TV-land, they sleep separately, but one often sits on the side of the other’s bed. Away from their beds, they cannot keep their hands or lips off one another. Marriage here is far different from the chaste co-parenting of Ward and June Cleaver or Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. (And no wonder: Jane Wyatt is a looker.)
The most moving episode from these two seasons is the last episode of Season Two, “Betty’s Graduation,” directed by William D. Russell and written by Roswell Rogers. It first aired on May 30, 1956. Betty faces time’s passing and the end of high school with utter angst. She’d like her life to stay as it is: “I’d stop all the clocks. I’d padlock time,” she says. She decides to skip the graduation dance, because there’ll never be another to look forward to. Though she’s the class valedictorian, she misses the graduation rehearsal. Her parents don’t find out until they get a call from the school. And then, as Jim prepares to go out to look for her, there’s another call. It’s Betty. She’s taken a taxi and then walked to a little place along the stream in Sycamore Grove Park, her “thinking spot” whenever she had problems as a child. She’s calling from an emergency phone there. Jim and Betty reminisced about this place earlier in the episode. She used to ask him impossible questions there: “Who started God?” “How do they keep the sun from burning up the sky?”
“Oh, Father, I’m so mixed up," Betty now says. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” The taxi cost all the money she had, so Jim drives out to get her. He finds her by the stream. It looks the same, Betty tells him, but it doesn’t feel the same. It hasn’t changed, she realizes. She’s changed. Here is the dialogue that follows:
Jim: Didn’t it ever occur to you that’s exactly what life is — change? If something stopped changing, it wouldn’t be living anymore. It’s the changing that makes it stimulating, and exciting, challenging. This is nothing to be sad about. This is good.As by now you’ve guessed, Jim’s stream metaphor becomes the stuff of Betty’s valediction.
Betty: Is it?
Jim: Sure. It’s, uh — well, it’s like this stream. Look at it. Watch it. See how it flows free and fast? Like it’s laughing, dancing on the rocks. There’s excitement there. Here the water’s fresh and clear, and alive, beautiful. But look down there at it where that old log has fallen into the water, dammed it up, slowed it down, shackled it. And what happens to the water? Is it fresh and clear? Muddy and murky. There’s no laughter. Lost the excitement of discovering what’s around the next bend, and the next one after that. Stop the water completely, and it becomes stagnant. You don’t want to do that to your life, do you?
Betty: This is all very pretty, Father, but you still don’t understand how I feel.
Betty: Let’s take your pretty little stream. What happens to it when it goes where it eventually goes, into the ocean? What happens then? Gets all swallowed up, mixed up with billions of other drops of water, drops in the ocean, lost forever. Isn’t that right?
Jim: Well — just like the old days, you sitting on this bank, asking me all those darn questions.
Betty: In other words, I’m right —
Jim: Well —
Betty: — and there is no answer.
Jim: Look, let’s face it — I’m no poet, no philosopher. I’m just a guy who sells insurance. But I know you’re mixed up on one point. You think graduation is the end of the line, the point where the stream empties into the ocean. But it’s not. Graduation is back there, one of the first bends. The best part is still ahead.
Betty: How can you say that? Don’t you realize all I’m losing when I walk away from that school for the last time?
Jim: But Betty —
Betty: Things I can never, never regain.
Jim: Of course not. You don’t want to try to regain things. That spoils them. Just be grateful that you have wonderful memories. Now you want to move on, to new things. True, it’s rougher from here on, but that makes it more challenging. The reward’s greater. Look, I know that all this sounds to you just like words. I have something here that means more than anything I can say.
[He takes something from his pocket. It’s a book Kathy found in the attic, a book about a “dairy.” Jim began looking through it earlier in this episode, not knowing what it was.]
Betty: What’s that?
Jim: A book.
[He reads.] “June eighth: Last night I graduated from high school. No, not from high school, from life. I feel so lost it hurts, in the pit of my stomach. It’s all over, gone, all the things I loved, things I can never regain. Could I preserve these things by suddenly vanishing into thin air? Should I climb to the top of the steepest cliff and hurl” —
Betty: Go on.
Jim: The author never completed that sentence. The next entry explains why. [He reads.] “June ninth: Sorry we were interrupted yesterday, diary. But Jim called. We went on a picnic and had the most perfect time. We laughed over the silliest things. I can hardly wait till he calls today.”
[And Betty realizes that her mother too must have thought that she was alone in feeling this way.]
Jim: But that was on June the eighth. June the ninth was the important day.
Betty: You know, I feel like somebody just held a big mirror up to me, and suddenly I see this half-grown, awkward, gangling girl with pigtails who can’t see beyond the end of her nose.
Jim: Yeah, you’re a mess, all right.
I don’t think I’m wrong in finding this dialogue beautiful and moving (and even a bit Proustian). I’m sure my situation in life (as the father of two wonderful twenty-something children) has something to do with my tear-smeary response. But I think too that any reader or viewer willing to set aside preconceptions about 1950s television shows will find this moment surprisingly profound. Jim and Betty’s apparent agreement that individual lives travel toward an ocean in which they’re “lost forever” might be a unique moment in television comedy. I can think of nothing else like it.
[Elinor Donahue and Robert Young.]
¹ In Season Three, Margaret hires Frank Smith, a “Spanish” gardener (Natividad Vacío). In Season Five, an Indian exchange student (played by Rita Moreno) visits. In Season Six, Frank wins the chance to meet the governor at the dedication of a Springfield park, and the members of a city committee object. Jim insists that Frank represent the city. Frank does so, making a speech “in which he explains that people should emulate trees, who, no matter what variety, have all learned to grow together in harmony.”
My source for details of these later seasons: the original Screen Gems Storylines, reproduced as PDFs. The transcription of the Jim and Betty dialogue is mine.
Still to come: a post on the strangest episode from these two seasons. Stay tuned.
[Here it is: “A Woman in the House.”]