[The second of two posts on Father Knows Best.]
Real problems, for men, women, and children, are everywhere in Father Knows Best. Cheating, vandalism, sexual discrimination, rigid class distinctions, divorce, adoption, poverty, even child-abandonment and homelessness figure in the events of the show’s first two seasons. But the strangest problems of all come in what seems to me the strangest episode of those I’ve watched, “A Woman in the House.” Written by Roswell Rogers and directed by William D. Russell, it first aired on September 28, 1955. What happens:
Verg Carlson (Harry Hickox), an old friend of Jim’s, is relocating to Springfield. With him is his new wife, Jill (Mary Webster). For now, they’re staying in a hotel. Meet Jill.
Verg and Jill met at a fiesta in El Paso, when she fell from a tamale wagon into his arms. It’s his first marriage. Why it took him so long we don’t know (though it seems his mother might have had something to do with that). What we do know is that the age difference between Verg and Jill is great. Jill herself is the only character who acknowledges this difference: “You know, I think Verg has a daughter complex. That’s how he treats me most of the time, as if I were his daughter.” Then she giggles. Yes, this episode is not your father’s Father Knows Best.
The cultural differences between Jill and Verg, Jill and the Andersons, seem even greater than the age difference. Jill’s an intellectual, or an existentialist, or a beatnik, or something. Here’s some dialogue from the Anderson living room, as Jim and Margaret get acquainted with the Carlsons. Jill has picked up a book from the coffee table:
Jill: Silas Marner?Verg and Jill have no children. Jill cannot cook. Shoes give her claustrophobia, she says. She speaks in nicknames: Jimmy, Marge. As Margaret confesses to Jim at the evening’s end, even Jill’s compliments leave her feeling humiliated: “My home cooking, my home sewing, my home stupidity — a sweet, prim, dumb, little provincial wife.”
Margaret: Well, I think that one of the children is reading that for school. It’s, uh, well, it’s required reading.
Jill: No wonder they don’t learn anything. Oh, say, have you read Kafka?
Margaret: No, I don’t even know who wrote it.
Jill [Laughing wildly.] You’re priceless. Franz Kafka, he's one of my pets. Writes beautifully. You must read The Trial, you absolutely must. I think it compares with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.
Jim: That’s a book?
Jill: That’s a book. His first novel, and better than Baudelaire, I think. Of course you’ve read Baudelaire.
Margaret: No, I haven’t.
Jill: You haven’t?
Verg: Honey, everyone doesn’t have the time to read that you do.
Jill: Well, I don’t either, but I make time.
Verg: Jill loves to read. She reads things that I don’t even understand.
Jill: You don’t try. Verg is the kind who reads a story in the New Yorker and asks, “Where’s the ending?” [Laughs.] Oh, poor Verg, he wants everything spelled out for him in neon and in capital letters.
Greater difficulties develop when Verg flies off to visit his ailing (and controlling) mother and Jill stays with the Andersons. She reads and smokes, smokes and reads. Margaret refuses to let Jill help in any way, resenting yet insisting upon playing the role of gracious host. When Margaret is alone with Jim, she goes to pieces: Jill’s presence is making her miserable. Margaret even fears that she’s becoming “a repressed neurotic.”
But all shall be well. When daughter Kathy (now "Kath") needs someone to help her wash her hair and no one else is around, Jill volunteers and ends up answering Kathy’s many questions by confessing her loneliness: her mother’s dead, she says, and she has just one friend in the world, “a wonderful one, and I’m married to him.”
Kathy volunteers to be Jill’s friend; Jill runs from the bathroom crying; Kathy shares what she's learned; Margaret softens. She realizes that she’s never given Jill a chance and quickly enlists her help in mashing potatoes. By the end of the episode, Jill has been brought into the zone of domesticity — that is, the kitchen. Here she helps Betty with the dishes and smiles as she recalls her fall from the tamale wagon.
If all the Anderson women were found in the kitchen at this episode’s end, the Stepford overtones would be unbearable. But Margaret is taking time off.
[On the age difference between Verg and Jill: Harry Hickox was born in 1910. The IMDB has no information for Mary Webster. In 1957, she had the lead in the film Eighteen and Anxious. Yes, two years after her appearance on Father Knows Best, Mary Webster was playing a teenager. However old she was in this episode, she looks remarkably young, perhaps twenty-two or so. And to my eyes, Verg looks older than Harry Hickox.]
January 30, 2017: The Hollywood Reporter reports that Mary Webster (b. 1935) has died at the age of eighty-one. Thanks to Scott Lahti for sharing the news in a comment.
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