TV Ghosts of Christmases Past: Father Knows Best (1954-1960) Season 1 Episode 8: Thanksgiving Day

Having spent Thanksgiving Day with the Baxters, let’s travel across town for a different kind of Thanksgiving. Notice that I said different, not necessarily better. Whereas George Baxter was a high falutin’ fancy duds lawyer, Jim Anderson is just a low falutin’ not so fancy duds insurance salesman. He can’t afford a maid so he married Spock’s Mother to do the cooking and cleaning and looking after his own brood of little Vulcans running around and getting underfoot. Unlike Harold Baxter, these kids may come in handy doing some of the household chores and I guarantee you not a one of them will lose their skate key in the Thanksgiving dinner.

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The Wikipedia Low Down:

The series premiered October 3, 1954 on CBS where it aired Sundays at 10:00 pm (EST). Originally sponsored by Lorillard’s Kent cigarettes in its first season, Scott Paper Company became the primary sponsor when the series moved to NBC in the fall of 1955 where it aired Wednesdays at 8:30 pm (EST) for the next three seasons. Scott Paper remained as sponsor even after it moved back to CBS in September 1958 where it aired Mondays at 8:30 pm (EST) for the last two seasons, with Lever Brothers as an alternate sponsor from 1957 through 1960. A total of 203 episodes were produced, running until September 17, 1960, and appearing on all three of the television networks of the time, including prime-time repeats from September 1960 through April 1963.

As before, the character of Margaret was portrayed as a “voice of reason,” but Jim’s character was softened to that of a thoughtful father who offered sage advice whenever one (or more) of his children had a problem. Jim was a salesman and manager of the General Insurance Company in Springfield, while Margaret was a housewife. One history of the series characterized the Andersons as “truly an idealized family, the sort that viewers could relate to and emulate. “As the two eldest children aged from teen-ager to young adult, Betty (1956) and Bud (1959) graduated from high school and attended Springfield Junior College.

Some TV Leftovers to go with your Cold Turkey Sandwiches.  Sherman, set the WABAC machine for November 21, 1954.

I don’t know if Father Knows Best or not.  Too many years have passed since I originally watched the series but in the two episodes I’ve watched, I do know Father knows how to be an overbearing jackass at times.  Especially in this episode where the action begins on Thanksgiving Eve.  No, Santa Turkey does not come down the chimney the night before Thanksgiving boys and girls, mums and dads.  And there’s no Great Pumpkin either Linus, unless he’s part of that pie resting in my belly at the moment.

Jim Anderson (Robert Young) is working hard in his office when he receives a letter from daughter Cathy’s (Lauren Chapin) teacher Miss Sheffield that she has written a poem that won first prize in the fourth grade Thanksgiving Poem Contest.  Right away Jim begins having visions of Cathy becoming the next poet laureate and begins reciting Shakespeare out loud.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And his secretary arrives just in the nick of time to finish up for him.

And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:

William Shakespeare!

I’m glad Miss Thomas (Sarah Selby) showed up because about 90 percent of the viewing audience from 1954 wouldn’t have known if he was reciting Shakespeare or had memorized all the Burma Shave Road Signs in his neighborhood.  But I beat the secretary to the punch and knew Shakespearean Fanboy Jimbob was reciting from the  William Shakespeare Sonnets all along because I use Google. 

After bragging to his secretary and telling her that he might be able to persuade Kathy to give her an autographed copy, Miss. Thompson muses that she never pictured Cathy as a poet.  But Father Knows Best, and he always knew that Kathy had the potential to win a Pulitzer Prize.  

Which is just a set up to cut to Kathy wearing a football helmet and practicing the sport at home in he kitchen at which point the canned laugh track goes full speed ahead to let us know this is funny stuff. 

And from here on out, the two daughters will be addressed by their full names: Princess Betty and Kathy Kitten.  Princess and Kitten are Daddy Jim’s names for his daughters and uses them so much that by the end of the series run in 1960, he could no longer remember their given names.

Mother Spock Anderson (Jane Wyatt) (do I even have to tell you?) comes in to quiet her young rising athletic star and send her off to the store for bread and raisins.  In those days, a kid could trudge down to the local grocery store without fear of being mugged or kidnapped along the way.  In my case, when I was young, a walk to the local country store usually meant purchasing a pack of Phillip Morris Regular for my mom.  Yep, and I didn’t even need an I.D. or a note.  

Young Katherine, Quarterback Extraordinaire, heads out just as daughter Princess Betty (Elinor Donahue) comes waltzing in.  If you see enough episodes of this series you’ll notice that Princess Betty almost always waltzes wherever she’s going.  She seldom walks in like a normal person.  Maybe that’s what teenage girls did in those days.  They waltzed from classroom to classroom.  Waltzed to the Malt Shop to meet up with friends.  Waltzed to the School Dance.  The only place they didn’t waltz to was when they would hop in their boyfriend’s jalopy and head out to Lover’s Lane to make out.  After which they would sometimes be seen waltzing down to the nearest Obstetrician’s office a couple of months later.  Then again, maybe it’s just those skirts that make you think they’re waltzing their way into our lives.

As Princess Betty runs to answer the phone, Father Jim enters from the driveway still reciting Shakespeare as if it’s his second language.  Looking back, I don’t think I ever heard my father reciting Shakespeare Sonnets or anybody else’s sonnets for that matter.  But he could play a piano or organ better than  most people.  And he could be a sincere jackass a lot of times as well, so he could give Jimboy a run for the money in that department.

Mother Spock Anderson is unimpressed and asks Jim if he’s coming down with a cold.  What a cold would have to do with somebody reciting Shakespeare I’m not sure, unless they had been hitting the Scotch  to cure ailments.  

Princess Betty returns to tell everybody that the local Newspaper wants to interview Kathy Kitten.  Mother Spock Anderson says they probably just want her predictions on the weekend football games.  I thought it was a rather clever line but there’s no laugh track over top of it so I guess I’m wrong.

Bud (Billy Gray) comes racing in from outside, says something about Dad being home while heading straight for the refrigerator.  This is typical of 50’s and 60’s TV series.  Teenage boys always spend a lot of time browsing in the refrigerator as if they have hidden the latest issue of Playboy in the vegetable compartment. 

Finally, Father Jim ends the suspense and tells everybody the big surprise about Kathy Kitten winning first place in the fourth grade poetry contest.  Mother Spock Anderson and Princess Betty are genuinely impressed.  Bud?  He could care less about any event involving his two female siblings.  

But before dear old Dad can get to the explanation of why he’s home early, Bud has his own story to tell about people who come home from work unexpectedly.

Bud: Claude Messner’s father dropped in unexpectedly one day and surprised everybody.

Jim: Oh?

Bud: The painter was there and they forgot to tell him, see?  But when he walked into the hall, the painter was painting over a door on a stepladder.  Boy, I guess everybody was surprised!

Jim finally yanks the teacher’s letter out of his jacket and announces that Kathy wrote the prize winning poem of her class.  Princess Betty, who seems to know Cathy better than Father Jim, is incredulous and so is Mother Margret Spock. 

Margret: Why, she didn’t say anything about it.

Jim: Well, she’s modest.

Princess Betty (looking at the letter again incredulously in disbelief)  Kathy modest???

Bud?  He still has his mind on Claude Messner for some reason.

Bud: Claude Messner won a contest

Jim: Never mind Bud

Bud: He was the only boy at Springfield High that could hold a peanut between his toes and turn a handspring at the same time without losing it.

Dad: We are discussing the subject of poetry, not Claude Messner’s toes.

Dad, still picturing Kathy as the next Joyce Kilmer does his best to convince Bud of the significance of this earth shattering event.   I’d have rather heard more about Claude Messner’s toes.  

Love that, Bud.  He does bring a certain amount of much-needed cynicism to the old homestead.  But I’m not sure Mother Margret Spock or Princess Betty were buying it either.

Jim, being the parental mastermind decides that in order to celebrate Kathy Kitten’s award winning writing prowess, they must go out to a restaurant to celebrate Thanksgiving.  It’s an idea not met with much approval from anybody. Apparently Father hasn’t seen A Christmas Story and witnessed the disaster that eating out on the holidays brings.  Yes, I’m well aware that the movie came out in 1983 and this is 1954.  Give me a break, will you?

The 4th grade girl of the hour finally returns home, a squished loaf of bread in one arm, and raisins to build up her muscles in the other.  Dad warns Bud to act surprised.  Bud says, “You can count on me, dad!”

At first, when Daddy Dearest starts fawning all over her, Kathy Kitten is sure she’s in trouble.  Dad begins reciting Shakespeare, Kathy looks like, “What the hell is this shit?”

Finally the adoring parents and siblings tell her they know she won the poetry contest and she finally smiles but doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. “Oh, that!” she says nonchalantly.  And after Dad gives him a poke, Bud acts surprised.

So far in this episode it’s Bud 2 Father 0. I’m thoroughly convinced after having re-watched several episodes of this series, that Billy Grey was a comedic genius who was never given the credit he deserved. Instead of typecasting him, the big wigs should have given Grey his own series.

Dad continues to shower Kathy with praise, reciting more Shakespeare in the process while his daughter looks totally confused.   

He then tells her whatever she wants as a reward, she shall have.  Kathy tells him she wants a pair of spiked shoes like Bud’s and runs off to retrieve them.  No Barbie and Ken Doll for this kid.  And yes, I know it would be another five years before Mattel would introduce their plastic aspiring model to the world but I’m sure that in 1959, she still wouldn’t want either of them unless she needed Ken to play wide receiver.

Mother Anderson Spock and Princess Betty appear as if they just want to get through the day with this overbearing paternal jackass they’re attached to.

Bud departs to take a nap saying he’s all tuckered out from being so surprised. 

Jim takes the poem out and right away starts getting quite pissy because it seems Kathy signed her name Kathleen Joy Anderson when her real middle name is Louise.  And his nastiness is just beginning.  Really perturbed over the whole “Joy” bit, Father gives the poem to Princess Betty and tells her to “read it with feeling”.  Finally, 10 minutes into this episode we find out what this masterpiece of literature is all about.

As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s a great poem.  Gets to the point in the end, and is funny and whimsical to boot.  For a fourth grader, it’s grade A material and if it were my kid, I’d have been pleased as punch with it.

But not Jimbo.  He complains because Kathy wrote about an uncle sending her money who has never sent her a dime.  He then gripes because she mentions every holiday but Thanksgiving until the very end, totally missing the point that she is in fact, comparing it to those holidays.  And by this time, I always hope Mother Spock Anderson would either slap him in the kisser or subdue him with the Vulcan Nerve Pinch.  But things go from worse to worser.

Get out your hankies, because the next few moments go exactly like this:

Instead of calling this episode Thanksgiving Day they should have retitled it Father is an Overbearing Obnoxious Turkey Twit.   Seriously, was this the norm on 50’s TV?  That look of devastation on Kathy Kitten’s face when she walks in on his bullshit comments just says it all. He could have slapped her in the face and she wouldn’t have the look of devastation of a child who has just heard her father say something she won an award for was a piece of crap.

And what a great bit of acting from Lauren Chapin!  Don’t you just want to reach out, hug her, and tell her everything is okay even if your father is an asshole? That your poem was great stuff, and you should be proud to own it?

Thanksgiving Day is a disaster in the making.  Kathy doesn’t want Obnoxious Overbearing Father driving her to the TV station for obvious reasons.  As for the restaurant, Bud and Princess have made plans to spend their Thanksgiving day elsewhere. 

Father proves he’s clueless once again when he starts to admonish Bud for borrowing one of his suitcases without permission except as we find out, Bud tried more than once to ask permission and Daddy Dearest ignored him.

When Jimbo starts trying to convince Mother Margaret Spock why it’s great to not have the kids at home for Thanksgiving for a change and how it gives her a break from slaving over a hot stove all day, she doesn’t quite agree.  “I never minded that.  I always thought it was fun!”  

And I don’t think she’s lying.  On the times when I cooked on Thanksgiving, it was different than the rest of the year.  Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was also fun in many of ways.  It was something to be proud of.  When my son cooked dinner for us a year ago, he took a sense of pride in it.

Finally it’s time for Kathy Kitten to be on TV, and she is afraid to come out on stage.  Why wouldn’t she be?  Daddy Dearest has marked her poem lousy, and pretty much implied it would be an embarrassment to read it in front of a TV audience.  And believe it or not, while watching her struggle on TV, Dad is just as bad as ever.  

When Kathy stays half hidden behind the curtain, he says, “I can only see half of her on the TV.  Maybe she’ll only have to read half of the poem.”  I wanted to slug him by this point.  Kathy gets the first line of her poem out before breaking down in tears and can get no further.  But who does Dad blame for her failure?  The TV announcer.  Ugh.

The station tells the Andersons they’re sending Kathy home in a studio car.  Jim asks Margret if she would mind it so much if they didn’t go out for Thanksgiving after all.  “It just doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving,” he tells her.

Oh yeah?  And who’s fault is that Father Jackass of the year?

But finally Mr. Blockhead realizes what Kathy was trying to say in her poem and what we knew all along.  Thanksgiving is supposed to be a happy fun day for family and friends.  Sometimes you just have to listen.

Kathy comes home, barely acknowledges Father of the Year and runs into the arms of her Mother who tries to comfort her.  And only now does she tell her, “Daddy didn’t think my poem was any good.”

Papa Turkey Brains realizes the error of his ways, tells a story to Kathy about when he was in college and thought a Shakespeare poem was the worst thing he ever read and had never lived it down.  Kathy tells him he doesn’t really know much about poetry.  And in a short span of 30 seconds or less, all is forgiven.  

Except by me.  And my son.  This whole episode gave us indigestion for Thanksgiving. And I insist that Kathy Kitten was scarred for life by the whole ordeal.

Bud comes home.  Princess comes home.  The Thanksgiving meal is hamburgers for everyone.  And Kathy has taught everybody a valuable lesson that home with family is where you ought to be whether you’re carving Tom Turkey or frying up Elsie the Cow cheeseburgers.  But don’t be in an hurry to invite any Trump Supporters over if you want your dinner to go south rather quickly.

The next morning we get a quick joke about no leftover turkey but we have plenty of leftover hamburgers.  And finally, Scot Towels thanks you for tuning in.

This would not be my go to episode for Thanksgiving.  Yeah, it could have been all fuzzy and heartwarming but Father Jim casts such a pall  over the proceedings it’s as if you’ve invited the grim reaper in for a plate of stuffing.  Everybody else in the episode is charming and funny  and it is kind of fun to watch the chemistry between the rest of the actors. And my son agrees that Billy Gray as Bud was comedy gold. Does it make you feel all warm and glowing inside  while filling you with anticipation for the upcoming Christmas Holiday and make you want to trim the tree?  Not even close.  

There’s an overly long unnecessary prayer towards the end as Father Blow Hard blows some more hot air around the kitchen while Mother Spock serves up the beef.  A whole bunch of words that somehow even Charles Dickens, not known for his brevity, and his friend Tiny Tim were able to sum up in just four words.  “God Bless Us Everyone.”  Two turkeys out of four.

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