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TV History: Father Knows Best

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

"Father Knows Best" - The Picture Perfect American Family

by Hunter Thompson

1950s television focused on painting an idealistic picture of what suburban, American life should be like. Typically, a family was depicted; the father made a decent living, the mother stayed at home watching over the children and preparing meals, and the kids found themselves in messy situations usually relying on the father to clean it up. 1950s comedy "Father Knows Best" found success with a similar formula. Starting off as a radio show, "Father Knows Best" transitioned to a television show in 1954 on CBS. The Anderson family consisted of Jim, the patriarch who works as a salesman and manager at General Insurance Company, Margaret, the dutiful housewife and mother, and their three children. The premise of the show usually consisted of the family finding themselves in some kind of situation. By the conclusion of the episode, the family resolves their issues by coming together once again, with Jim delivering some form of sage advice. "Father Knows Best" was known for its depiction of an idyllic, Midwestern family and was used by sponsors as a way to teach viewers how a “good American” should be living their lives.
Other 1950s sitcoms also wove these ideals into their plot lines. "Life with Luigi" portrayed an Italian immigrant and his life in Chicago. In the episode, “The Dance”, Luigi cannot afford to buy a new blue suit for an upcoming dance. Eventually, he buys the suit on credit because he cannot pay out of pocket. This is teaching Americans living in the post-Great Depression era what to do if they find themselves in a similar situation. Luigi also shows the owner of the shop Luigi works in buying all of a shop owner’s sausage so he will take his daughter to the dance. Again, the show is trying to instill the benefits of an economy ran by big businesses in the minds of the viewers.
"Father Knows Best" also instilled appropriate American views in their programming. As Horace Newcomb said in his article, “The Opening of America”, most of the storylines originated from social discourse. The show was constantly asking, “Why should things be the way they are?” (Newcomb 119). In the Thanksgiving episode of the first season, the Anderson family finds themselves with differing plans for the holiday. While Jim wants the family to enjoy a sit-down meal together, the kids desire to spend the day with their friends, teammates and significant others. Much to the father’s dismay, the kids follow through with their plans, and the parents find themselves at home alone. Eventually, the kids “do the right thing” and return home, citing desires to spend time with their family to the excitement of their father. The episode ends, as seen in the clip, with the Andersons sitting down to a dinner of hamburgers, another American tradition. Jim says he would like to “say thanks in a rather special way”. He begins to say a prayer and we see the family bow their heads and join hands. He lists multiple reasons for why he should be thankful: the food on the table, the roof over his head, living in a country that respects their freedoms to say what they want, for making them a family, and for “giving them the greatest gift a family could know…love for each other”. “America the Beautiful” can be heard playing in the background as he says his prayer. This is an example of how television programming in the 1950s tried to instill American values in their viewers. Although the episode starts with the family apart, they eventually came back together because after realizing it was the right thing to do out of their love for each other. It talks about the importance of patriotism and being appreciative of what their country gives them such as the freedom of speech and the freedom to practice any religion that they desire to. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background also gives the episode a patriotic feel. Thanksgiving is also a traditional American holiday, so the episode also discusses how important it is to spend these holidays together as a family.
"Father Knows Best", like other 1950s shows, was intended to encourage viewers to act like “good Americans”. The family-centric sitcom interwove appropriate American ideals and stereotypes into their programming to show viewers how a typical American family should act. It took place in a Midwestern town as to not polarize any viewers and the family lived comfortably in a nice home. It sought to teach viewers how their lifestyles post-Great Depression should be by portraying relatable issues such as dealing with family problems and gender stereotypes.


This clip is an excerpt from "Thanksgiving Day," FATHER KNOWS BEST.

from Thanksgiving 50's style (1954)
Creator: Ed James, Dorothy Cooper
Distributor: YouTube (User: cromat)
Posted by Christine Becker