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Lassie: Lassie and the Eagle (1962)
I can't fathom why LASSIE is not more widely celebrated for being an innovative TV drama. Much of this episode consists solely of animals interacting in the wild, and the way they are integrated into the action and made to "act" is incredibly inventive. Lassie rescues an eagle that has become caught in a trap. When it comes time for Lassie to have her puppies, the eagle does her a good turn too. A very memorable fable.
Lassie: The Journey (1956)
Heartbreaking and Hope-filled
This might be the most emotional half hour of vintage television I have ever seen. Lassie appears to be gradually and irreversibly going blind due to a rare disease of the eye. Jeff skips school and brings Lassie to the (human) hospital in Capital City, determined to find a specialist who can help her. He ascends twelve flights of stairs with the seeing-impaired Lassie and sneaks into the office of the chief eye specialist at the hospital. The doctor is so impressed by Jeff's sacrificial devotion (Jeff even offers to have one of his eyes transplanted to Lassie) that he calls off all his appointments for that afternoon and operates on Lassie. Imagine a people-doctor operating on a dog!
This is one of the most memorable LASSIE episodes and is fittingly included on a recent DVD compilation of the series from Universal. Doubtless today, with all the energy devoted to improving the lives of pets, something could be done to help Lassie's condition through advanced veterinary science.
Beaver and Wally Separate
The gist of this episode is that with Wally getting older, he and Beaver must learn to go their separate ways. Wally joins the Boy Scouts and goes off on a trip with them, leaving Beaver at home to his own devices. Will he be able to survive without Wally there to guide him and tell him what to do?
The episode feels strangely patched together, as if the writers weren't quite sure where to go with this story. I'm not sure the reason for making it a windy night at the beginning.
It's worthwhile taking a look at the newspaper Ward holds in the first scene - it is labeled "Press Tribune" and has a wealth of news stories written on it with the headline "High Winds Sweep City." It bears the date - February 26 - but no year!
Another curiosity: Beaver states his age as "7 and three quarters," whereas Jerry Mathers was actually 9!
Richard Crenna in Fine Form
In this episode Jim becomes a protégé to his boss' son, a young man named Elwood. Elwood's father wants him to become an insurance salesman like Jim, but Elwood is ne'er-do-well with a flighty and irresponsible personality. He is compulsively likeable and charming, however, and he strings the Andersons along with his laughs and jokes while postponing actually getting to work. At the end, just when Jim is ready to tell Elwood to pack up and leave, Elwood shows that he is able to channel his charm to more productive ends when an irate client shows up at Jim's office and Elwood takes the case.
Elwood is played quite wonderfully by Richard Crenna, who is perhaps best remembered as squeaky-voiced teenager Walter Denton in the radio and TV versions of OUR MISS BROOKS. His flamboyant portrayal brightens this episode.
This was one of the first animal episodes on LITB, and it is a tender and touching one. Beaver always had an affinity with animals, and the creature in this case is a tiny Mexican Chihuahua, named Poncho, that has escaped from a spinster lady (played by recognizable character actress Maudie Prickett). Beaver develops an attachment to the dog and, when the owner turns up, can't bear to part with him; so he hides Poncho in his jacket and brings him to school. Beaver's concealment of Poncho is duly discovered by his teacher Miss Canfield and he is sent to the principal's office.
Ward at first sees Beaver's action as pure theft, but after Beaver is given a chance to explain himself he realizes that his action was motivated by love for the dog.
There is an extra layer to the episode. When Ward receives the phone call from the dog's owner, he waits until the following morning to tell Beaver, presumably to spare his feelings. However, this inadvertently causes Beaver to take the dog to school. If Ward had been forthright and told him the moment he found out, Beaver would have had more time to say goodbye to Poncho.
However you look at it, this early episode is pitch-perfect. It's also a plus to see the lovely Miss Canfield, Beaver's early teacher.
Progressive School for the Progressive Boy
This first season episode is full of social commentary. When Beaver mentions over the dinner table that his class is having a test the next day, Ward in a very funny scene quizzes Beaver strenuously on his arithmetic. Wally then informs Ward that it is actually an intelligence test. ("I guess they don't teach 'telligence in the second grade," says Beaver.)
Ward is overjoyed a few days later when he hears that Beaver got the highest mark in the entire school. Mrs. Rayburn, the school principal, advises Ward and June to take Beaver to meet the headmaster of an exclusive boarding school for "exceptional children." Wally assures a worried Beaver that he (Wally) would be able to visit Beaver on weekends, "just like at the penitentiary."
The school is styled a "progressive school for the progressive boy." The headmaster, Mr. Compton, explains that there is no competition of any kind at the school, and hence no baseball team, which upsets Beaver. The pupils are treated somewhat like laboratory rats in an experiment. Once back home, Beaver tells Wally that he looked at the other kids "through a glass window."
At the end, something happens that relieves June and Ward of the obligation of sending Beaver to this horrid school.
Ward and June's characterization, like many aspects of the show, is still developing. Ward is a bit of a braggart and a gloater, atypical of his later persona. Yet the episode's keen social commentary makes it truly memorable.
Mr. Compton is played by John Hoyt, who had two subsequent roles on the series - as the department store salesman in "Wally's New Suit" and the accordion salesman in "Beaver's Accordion."
Father Knows Best: Brief Holiday (1957)
Margaret Takes a Break
We all need to take time out from the daily grind once in a while and do something pleasurable and refreshing. That's exactly what Margaret does in "Brief Holiday." She is tired of catering to the children's every whim - cooking for them, fixing their clothes, feeding their pets. On the spur of the moment she decides to leave her domestic duties, take the afternoon off and go to a ritzy part of town, where she buys a hat, eats lunch at a French restaurant and has her portrait painted.
When she returns home, the entire family treats her like an oddball for acting so out of character. Jim's imagination runs wild as he wonders why Margaret suddenly ran out. Is she tired of him? Has he been an inadequate husband? Margaret for her part feels frustrated that Jim doesn't credit her simple and honest explanation for her actions. How can she make Jim understand?
This is another FKB episode with a profound and timely point. It reminds us of the importance of breaking out of our regimented lives, reconnecting with what is joyful and meaningful - in short, the importance of holiday.
The tony part of Springfield looks a little too much like a low-budget Hollywood "Parisian" set. Otherwise, an admirable episode.
Leave It to Beaver (1957)
The Greatest Family Sitcom
There were a great many family situation comedies in the 1950s and '60s: Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, My Three Sons. But LEAVE IT TO BEAVER is, by my lights, the greatest of all.
There are two reasons for this. First is the sheer quality of the production, from the superior writing to the sharp photography to the realism and chemistry of the performers, particularly the quartet who portrayed the Cleaver family (and of course Ken Osmond as the devious Eddie Haskell!) BEAVER maintained a remarkably consistent quality throughout its run; there was no marked decline, and the series quit while it was ahead. There weren't really any bad episodes, either. I could rattle off a few that were weaker than others, but the level of consistency was remarkable.
The other reason for its success is that, despite its focus on teaching moral lessons, BEAVER never lost sight of being funny, whimsical, and entertaining. The show was a pure aesthetic pleasure. The dialogue captured the way children think and speak, and as delivered by Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Rusty Stevens, and the other young performers it was frequently hilarious. BEAVER gave us a child's-eye view of the world, playing on human nature and drawing laughs from ordinary situations. I always laugh out loud at a BEAVER episode, even after seeing it dozens of times.
And so many of the episodes have stood the test of time. Who can forget Beaver and his portly pal Larry Mondello smoking coffee grounds in Ward's meerschaum pipe? Or the duo playing hooky from school and unwittingly ending up on a cowboy show on TV? Or Beaver being lured into climbing in a billboard soup cup? Plus the many rites of passage, scholastic and otherwise, that marked the lives of Beaver and Wally Cleaver as they grew up in Mayfield, USA.
To many people "Leave It to Beaver" is just a phrase conjuring up the "homogenized, squeaky clean" 1950s. Go beyond the stereotypes and reacquaint yourself with this television classic. You will be surprised at just how sharp, ironic, and funny it is.
Father Knows Best: Hard Luck Leo (1959)
The Relative Who Wouldn't Leave
In this emotionally charged episode, Jim's cousin Leonard is staying with the family while looking for a job and an apartment. Nothing seems to work out, and it soon looks as if the problem is Leonard's own fault. He is not interested in applying himself or working hard and wants the world handed to him on a silver platter. In a tense scene, Margaret informs him that his sense of entitlement is the cause of his supposed "hard luck."
Although the episode is officially titled "Hard Luck Leo," the character is always called Leonard, never Leo. He is played by recognizable character actor Arthur O'Connell (Jimmy Stewart's sidekick in ANATOMY OF A MURDER among other films). A wise person once said that FATHER KNOWS BEST always had an "edge" to it, and this episode is a good example.
One of FKB's forays into melodrama and the surreal. Jim has a strange dream in which he is giving a speech to the President on television, presenting a "formula for happiness" that he has composed; suddenly a villain invades the TV studio and steals the formula. Jim is baffled about what this dream might mean, and even more so when parts of the dream start to come true in real life.
The episode's atmosphere resembles THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which didn't debut until several months later. It has a palpably eerie flavor. I was really stunned by "Formula for Happiness" and think it represents this series at its finest.
Mystery and Morals
A number of FATHER KNOWS BEST episodes were mini mysteries. "The $500 Letter" is a good example. The Andersons receive a check for $500 from a former neighbor (a Jewish immigrant, it would seem) who wishes to repay one of them for a kind deed done to him once several years ago. The only thing is, his letter cuts off just as he is about to say which of the Andersons did the good deed. Nobody remembers who it was, but each proceeds to ransack his or her memory, showing some less commendable character traits as they do so.
At the end we find out what the good deed was and who was the Good Samaritan that performed it. Without giving anything away, I will just say that it is a lovely, surprising and heartwarming payoff. "The $500 Letter" is an outstanding moral parable from FKB.
One of FATHER's Best
To add to the other reviewer's fine summary, this is without a doubt one of the greatest episodes of the series. In it Betty goes through and overcomes an existential crisis. The poetic dialog alone places the episode on a level with dramas like TWILIGHT ZONE or ROUTE 66. Worth seeing also for the poignant character actor John Qualen as an old man whom Betty helps at the bus depot. Not to be missed.
One of the more psychologically perceptive episodes of FKB finds Margaret signing up for an English literature course at Betty's college. Jim wholly approves of Margaret's ambition to improve her mind. (So much for the myth about '50s women being relegated to the kitchen!) At first, Betty is enthusiastic too. But when mother and daughter unexpectedly end up in the very same class, Betty grows annoyed and resentful of her mother's presence there, for reasons she can't quite understand. The episode makes a point about the importance of respecting people's private spheres (private spaces, as we might say today). And it does so by way of the metaphor of Kathy and her puppet theater. This inventive touch makes the episode, raising it to the level of poetry. Watch to see what I mean.
For me, one of the most profound episodes of FATHER KNOWS BEST. Bud gets a job at a gas station to finance the new boat he wants to buy. It just so happens that Betty is sweet on the gas station's proprietor, but her affections cool when the latter seems to be severely overworking Bud. In the end it turns out that there is method behind the proprietor's apparent cruelty. All is not what it appears.
The episode has the quality of Judeo-Christian fable. There are Christ-like resonances when Bud emerges from his gas station work broken in body and spirit and covered in dirt and grease. At the end Bud and Betty are rewarded and ennobled by the actions of the proprietor. That's about all I can say without giving away the plot; you'll just have to watch this splendid episode for yourself.
This was one of the first full episodes of FATHER KNOWS BEST I ever saw. Guaranteed to make the tears flow, it also has a philosophical point to make. Betty has been absorbing some "progressive" ideas from college, one of which is that birthdays are a superstition left over from primitive society. So when her own birthday comes around the following week, she declines to join in the festivities or open the presents her family has bought for her. This particularly upsets Kathy, since she had decided to gift Betty with a valuable prize locket that she won in a contest.
Betty and Jim have a fine scene together in which Betty expounds her new philosophy. She has some cogent points to make about holidays and their attendant commercialism. Jim respects Betty's ideas and her ability to articulate them. But then he demonstrates to Betty what a life without ceremony or sentiment is like. The episode ends by affirming the importance of birthdays, holidays and other rituals in in conveying love and meaning in life. I challenge you to get through the final scene with a dry eye.
Father Knows Best: Betty's Double (1960)
Betty Goes to Hollywood
This was an intriguing premise for an episode of FATHER KNOWS BEST. Betty wins a lookalike contest due to her close resemblance to a popular movie star named Donna Stewart. The prize: a trip to Hollywood. Betty gets more than she bargained for, however, and learns a hard lesson in Hollywood about the gap between appearances and reality.
This could easily have been an hour-long story; compressed to 25 minutes it feels rushed and underdeveloped. The far-fetched nature of the plot is only accentuated by the short format. The episode does, however, show the emotional depths into which FKB dared to venture. The scene toward the end when Betty calls home in abject tears is harrowing. The scenes in Hollywood have a downright frightening edge to them.
Doppelgangers and loss of identity were common themes in the television of this era. Just a month after this episode aired, audiences got to see an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, "Mirror Image" (starring Vera Miles), dealing with the alienating effect of confronting one's double. A book could probably be written about the thematic connections between various shows of this era, both serious dramas and supposedly "light" fare like FATHER KNOWS BEST.
The episode gets five stars for daring and depth, but it deserved more time and development.
Frank (pronounced "Fronk"), the Andersons' sometime Mexican gardener, appeared in about a half dozen episodes of FATHER KNOWS BEST. As played by actor Natividad Vacio the character was always endearing, but the plots involving him eventually wore thin. This episode was a graceful way to bid farewell to the character.
I can just imagine audience members during the show's run writing in to the studio with letters expressing dismay at Frank's bachelorhood and requesting an episode where he falls in love. Sort of like when Queen Elizabeth asked Shakespeare to write a play in which Sir John Falstaff falls in love, resulting in THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.
"Cupid Knows Best" is no Shakespeare; in fact the plot is a bit hare-brained. It involves a romantic mix-up among Frank, his lady love, Betty and Jim. The episode is just barely passable, but it marks a memorable rite of passage for "Fronk."
Father Knows Best: Family Contest (1960)
The Immigrant Story
Another entry that shows the range and daring of FATHER KNOWS BEST. The Andersons are entering a family photo contest with the prize a trip to Hawaii. Kathy is excited and just sure that they will win. However, the neighborhood baker's family also decides to enter the contest. In addition to their four blond-haired children, they have a young adopted son from Korea named Toby. Toby's smile is so endearing that Kathy knows they will be a shoe-in to win the contest. In a fit of jealousy, she seeks to destroy the picture and ruin their chances.
The subtext of the episode is Americans' attitudes toward immigrants and foreigners. The episode implies that foreign-born like Toby have just as much right to the American dream. There are other layers too. The baker is a native-born American, but his wife appears to be a German immigrant. In other words, Toby's adoptive mother is an immigrant herself.
Although the plot is a bit contrived (Kathy's extreme jealousy is out of character) and the sentimentality flows freely, this is still a significant episode in the annals of FKB.
Father Knows Best: Time to Retire (1960)
In this poignant final-season episode, Jim has to bear the grim news to a fellow employee that his mandatory retirement is approaching. The employee is a beloved figure to the Andersons, known as "Uncle Arthur." He has no family of his own - the Andersons are a surrogate family to him - and he is very much attached to his work. How will he take the news?
The original audiences for FKB would undoubtedly have recognized the connections between it and the serious drama of the era, such as Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN. The character of Arthur is very much a Willy Loman-like figure, a little guy who is on the verge of being discarded by the system. There are even specific lines that resonate with SALESMAN. Arthur is played by recognizable and durable character actor Charles Ruggles.
One thing that will surprise audiences today: Arthur is 65, but this treated as if it is an extremely old age. (Ruggles was actually in his 70s.) In the end, the episode affirms that age is irrelevant in the face of human spirit and vitality. Arthur will continue to lead a full and happy life.
In response to the other review: Arthur IS aware of the company's retirement policy; as he puts it, he knew it would come sooner or later but was hoping the company would just "forget about it" for a while.
This is FATHER KNOWS BEST at its considerable best - an episode to show to anyone who thinks the series was mere "fluff."
Family Trip Gone Awry
The sixth and final season (1959-60) of FATHER KNOWS BEST opens with the Andersons heading up to Lemon Falls for an annual reunion with Margaret's side of the family. Jim and the kids don't like these obligatory get-togethers; they think they are terribly corny, and they make the mistake (as they did in an earlier episode) of saying so out loud within earshot of Margaret, even doing satirical sendups of Margaret's relatives. Margaret becomes bitter at this, as it's all too clear what her husband and children think of her family.
As the Andersons are en route to Lemon Falls, their car breaks down and Jim has to walk a couple of miles to a gas station to get help. Jim returns, having sent for help, and does his best to maintain the family's morale and improvise pastimes for them. But it looks as if the Andersons will miss the reunion, and Margaret begins to suspect that Jim is just a little bit happy about it.
This episode has all the "edge" and depth of human interaction that the series was noted for. It is also nice to see that FKB maintained its fine artistic quality and consistency of tone to the last season.
Leave It to Beaver: Beaver's Tree (1959)
Poetry on LITB
I find this one of the more poetic episodes of LITB. After learning a poem in school about trees, Beaver suddenly becomes concerned about a tree that was planted in his honor at the Cleaver's previous home. He contrives to transplant the tree into his own yard with Wally's help, and hilarity ensues.
I call the episode poetic because Beaver is clearly deeply affected by the poem and Miss Lander's explanation of it. Miss Landers also explains how to read a poem meaningfully, a lesson which Beaver has taken to heart by the end of the episode when he is called upon to recite. The episode also raises questions about ownership and having a sentimental attachment to an object. It's not hard to imagine a tree becoming almost like a person in some people's eyes.
Father Knows Best (1954)
One of the Finest Family Sitcoms
Having long been a fan of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, I recently decided to become acquainted with FATHER KNOWS BEST. I am glad I did. FATHER and BEAVER represent the best of the '50s family sitcom genre, and they do have similarities as well as significant differences. FATHER had a richer range of family relationships, since the Anderson clan had three children of widely varying ages, including two girls. Jim Anderson (Robert Young) was the model of a thoughtful, principled, self-reflective father of that era. Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt) was also a pillar of strength and virtue as the mother of the family, while the three children (Betty, Bud and Kathy) braved the struggles of childhood and adolescence under the guidance of their parents. Betty was ambitious, smart, spirited, in some ways a prototype of the independent woman. (Her look in the show also, I believe, became the model for the popular image of the "50's teenage girl.") Bud was an easygoing guy prone to mistakes due to hubris or selfishness but able to learn from those mistakes. And then there was little Kathy - impish, mischievous and cute as a kitten (which was Jim's nickname for her, in fact). Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin filled their roles perfectly; Gray in particular showed great physical flair and agility as Bud.
FATHER differed from BEAVER also in the darker tone of some of the plots, dealing with topics like business ethics and the meaning of success and focusing on the parents just as much as the children. The cinematography fit this darker tone, using light and shadow in a way reminiscent of film noir. The show was often innovative in terms of structure, with dream or fantasy sequences serving as a complement to the plot. Two episodes of this type are "Mr. Beal Meets His Match" (in which Jim Anderson meets the devil!) and "Formula for Happiness."
I could go on about this fine show, but talking is no substitute for watching - which, thanks to the DVDs from Shout Factory, it is now easy to do. If you haven't seen FATHER KNOWS BEST, treat yourself to one of the greatest family shows ever created.
Father Knows Best: Fair Exchange (1958)
Celebrating Diversity on FKB
A common misconception about the classic family sitcoms is that they reflected a "white bread" view of American life. In fact, most of the old shows had a "multicultural" episode of some sort. Here we have "Fair Exchange," a 5th-season episode of FATHER KNOWS BEST. Rita Moreno plays an exchange student from India named Chanthini whom Betty has befriended at college. Chanthini is staying as a guest for a few days at the Anderson home. Kathy at first thinks that Chanthini is an American tribal Indian, and shows up wearing a feathered headdress. The children all get a cultural lesson about Chanthini's native land. So much for "white bread" sitcoms!
Although the Andersons do everything they can to make Chanthini feel at home, a series of mutual misunderstandings and faux pas conspire to make her feel like an outsider. But all the conflicts are resolved by the end, and the episode drives home a message of tolerance and respect. Puerto-Rican-born Rita Moreno does an amazingly good job of playing an Indian. Definitely one of the more surprising episodes of FKB, and one to show to the classic sitcom naysayers in your life.
Complex Episode in the Relationship of Betty and Bud
This episode is bound to provoke much discussion. A grease-covered Bud tells his parents of how he was driving on the highway recently and helped a man change a flat tire; the man had two children, a 10-year-old boy and a pretty girl about Bud's age. The man was very grateful to Bud and promised to return him the favor sometime.
Meanwhile, Betty has become infatuated with a wealthy, popular young man at college and has invited him to come to the house. But she is ashamed of her brother Bud's appearance and lack of social graces. She repeatedly insults him and tells him to make himself scarce when her friend arrives, at one point even referring to him as a "thing." Betty's behavior towards her brother is abominable; yet Jim and Margaret simply stand there amusedly watching it without saying a word. As if all this weren't enough, the writers of the episode repeatedly subject Bud to being banged and slammed by various doors in the house, as if he were a human punching bag. Whether this was because Billy Gray genuinely enjoyed doing rough physical comedy or because the writers wanted to make Bud into a butt of every joke, I can't say.
It transpires that the young man Betty is interested in is none other than the older son of Mr. Wickett, the man whose tire Bud changed on the road. Mr. Wickett invites Bud over for dinner; Betty may come too. To compound everything horrible she has done thus far, Betty lies to Bud about the nature of the invitation, telling him that SHE is the one being invited and that he may come if HE wants to. Bud learns the truth by overhearing a phone conversation of Betty's.
Instead of being a social outcast, Bud is actually the man of the hour. This Cinderella-like reversal of fortune offers Bud the opportunity to enact revenge on his sister. Will he take it, or take the moral high road?
If you disliked Betty for her snobbishness and ambition in previous installments of the series, this episode will not change the impression.
Without revealing the conclusion, suffice to say that it emphasizes reconciliation rather than justice.
In this episode, Jim is faced with a difficult choice: attend a business dinner that may lead to his landing the presidency of a local committee, or attend a PTA presentation where his daughter Kathy will present an essay in his honor. Margaret wants Jim to chase after success. Kathy is no less counting on Jim to be there to hear her presentation. What will Jim do?
Beneath the mundane domestic situations on FATHER KNOWS BEST were profound parables of the 1950s, dealing with themes like the meaning of success and the importance of family. Another of the show's strengths was its willingness to be inventive with the sitcom structure, including the use of dream and fantasy sequences. Here we have a fantasy sequence in which Jim comes face to face with St. Peter at the pearly gates! St. Peter tells him: "We keep throwing difficult choices in your path to test you, and it's the decisions you make that shape you into what you are." That could well be the moral of this and many other episodes of FATHER KNOWS BEST.