The generation that would come to know Father Knows Best strictly by its television incarnation will often forget that its radio origin was anything but vanilla. About the only thing the two versions have in common is Robert Young, who plays the title role on both.
In its radio origins, the show’s title is sarcasm deluxe. From the opening commercials—in which Mother intones to (usually) younger daughter, “Well, your father says so, and your father knows best,” and can barely keep herself from laughing—through the final turn of the story, Jim Anderson on radio is anything but the becalmed font of wisdom his television presenters portray.
He isn’t brainless like Chester A. Riley, of course. But radio’s Jim Anderson, situated in small town America, is an urbane knucklehead. He’s just as talented as Riley at putting his foot in his mouth, but he can’t quite get it that far down his throat. His patient wife Margaret never gives the impression that, for all her husband’s clumsiness, she wants to bring an iron skillet down upon his head at any minute the way Peg Riley does. The children may cringe often as not but they’re not known to think about hiring hit men to straighten the old man out.
It makes at once for screwy comedy in its better moments and a marshmallow-malleted continuation of the situation comedy trend presenting father as an innate fool. (It’s also recorded at a pretty high volume that can be jarring if you only know the later television version, which was about as loud as a casserole baking in the oven.)
But it’s still a far different impression than the Jim Anderson television would come to know, the quietly wise father who wasn’t clueless, still didn’t seem to mind leaning upon mother without once feeling as though he were compromised, generally presided over a mostly sensible household, and would have cringed at meeting his radio antecedent. Indeed, it will become debatable whether the television version of Father Knows Best is a comedy at all, never mind whether it’s a very realistic portrait of American family life.
And those debating against will find an ally in one of the television version’s writers.
Sitcoms had turned a corner into dullsville, with more sit and less com. Writer Paul West was largely responsible for the placid, benign tone of Father Knows Best, which had begun on a rowdier note when Ed James first devised it. “It was an entirely different show at the beginning,” West recalls. “I’d heard it a few times and I didn’t like it. It was very quarrelsome, a lot of bickering.” West . . . desquabbled the script and, he says, patterned the family after his own—he had four children . . .
West recalls, “They didn’t think it had enough sharp edges. When people would say life isn’t like that, [Young] always used to say, “No, of course, but that’s how we’d like it to be.” It won awards as a comedy show, but we never thought of it as a comedy. It was a family drama. None of the shows I worked for were big ha-ha shows.”
—Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio.
Television’s Jim Anderson won’t resemble a jackass, but radio’s Jim Anderson won’t be boring.
Margaret (Jean Vander Pyl) thinks the family furniture is “frayed, faded, and feeble,” and Jim (Robert Young) thinks it’s homey and lived in just the way he likes it. But he learns the hard way that giving in from sheer exasperation doesn’t sit well, when he spies a moving van on the block—which he thinks is tied to a radio game show’s furniture-exchange stunt.
Damn right the television Jim Anderson was a little too smart to get involved in a stunt like that. More’s the pity.
Betty: Rhoda Williams. Bud: Ted Donaldson. Kathy: Norma Jean Nilsson. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Roy Bargy. Director: Writer: Ed James.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
The Great Gildersleeve: Arrested as a Car Thief (comedy; NBC, 1942)
The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny: From March Air Field (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Suspense: Drive-In (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1945)
Duffy’s Tavern: Making a Movie (comedy; CBS, 1946)
The Lucky Strike Program Starring Jack Benny: Going to the March of Dimes Benefit (comedy; NBC, 1948)
One Man’s Family: Book 82, Chapter 9—Clifford Plans a Partnership (serial; NBC, 1951)
Richard Diamond, Private Detective: The White Cow Case (crime drama; NBC, 1952)
The Jack Benny Program: The Road to Bali (comedy; CBS, 1953)
Suspense: One Man Crime Wave (mystery/thriller; CBS, 1954)