Greer Garson chews the scenery—all in fun, on a visit to the Anderson family in an episode of Father Knows Best. Originally broadcast November 13, 1957, it's "Kathy's Big Chance."
This is our entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s blogathon -- Big Stars on the Small Screen: In Support of National Classic Movie Day. Have a look here for more great bloggers on the subject of classic film stars and television.
Though Miss Garson plays herself, touring in their Midwest town of Springfield to promote her latest film called “Rebel Lady,” the movie is fictional. She never made such a film, but perhaps that gives her the freedom to act out such a comic and outlandish synopsis of the movie for the benefit of the Anderson’s youngest daughter. A real movie she might be actually trying to promote would require more dignity. Certainly, the studio heads would require it. Greer throws dignity out the second-floor window of Kathy’s bedroom.
Kathy, or “Kitten” as her father calls her, played by Lauren Chapin, is the youngest of the three Anderson kids. Billy Gray plays “Bud” the middle child, usually popping in and out of scenes with the funniest lines and the best comic timing.
Elinor Donahue is the lovely eldest, Betty or “Princess” as Dad calls her. Dad prefers nicknames (to the point where we may have forgotten that “Bud” is actually named for him—James Anderson, Jr.) Miss Donahue, despite the trope of Big Sister Scorn she was forced to play in so many episodes, is probably one of the best “child” actresses in the enormous landscape of television families through the decades, who handled both dramatic and comedy scenes very well.
Mother is played by Jane Wyatt, who won three consecutive Emmy awards for her role as Margaret Anderson. With her Eastern finishing school voice and manners, we may overlook that she is one of the most genuine of TV moms of the era in her relationship with husband and kids. She gets mad and says so. She is not always so understanding. She even wears jeans and a sweatshirt once in a while. She introduces herself to Greer Garson as “I’m the mother” but she’s a lot more than that on this show, if not this particular episode.
In an almost forerunner of what she would play on TV, Jane Wyatt starred as the mother of Ann Blyth in Our Very Own (1950) which we previously discussed here.
Robert Young plays Father, who actually began this role on radio in 1949, but the radio version of Jim Anderson was much more sarcastic and even mean, as radio tended to play in broader strokes for comedy. When it moved to television, Mr. Young, who had a hand in production, wanted a warmer dad and a more loving family. The show ran from 1954 to 1960, and became one of the iconic TV shows of an idealized suburban America in the 1950s.
Robert Young appeared with Greer Garson in That Forsyte Woman (1949), which we discussed in this previous post. In that film, he is a prospective lover who ardently pursues Greer, but in this TV episode he only chases her for her autograph. Young’s last film was made in 1954, and Greer Garson had also not made a film since 1954, though she had a few more in her, beginning with her turn as Eleanor Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello in 1960. Until then, these two stars, like so many classic film stars and character actors, turned to the new medium of television for work. They are middle-aged, but Young is the settled family man with the graying hair, and Greer is still glamorous, so much so that she mesmerizes the household, and is Kathy’s favorite actress.
Kathy must write an essay on the Civil War for school and has chosen to write on a new Civil War film starring Greer Garson called “Rebel Lady.” She submits her essay to a contest, the prize for the several winners chosen is to visit Miss Garson in her hotel suite for cake and ice cream, and then accompany the famous actress to the theater to see the movie with her.
Kathy imagines what this will be like, and in her daydream, Greer Garson is dressed like a queen, complete with tiara, and their la-de-da dialogue Garson delivers with deadpan charm. She tells Kathy, “You have such intellectual brains.” Another actress gushing this would be cute, but spoken with Greer Garson’s regal intonation, it’s really funny.
Roused from her reverie, Kathy has a lot of work to put in on this essay, which is the most important essay anybody ever had to write. She finishes it, sends it off, wins the prize, and then gets the measles. Even in idyllic white middle-class suburbia, life dumps on you, apparently.
Measles, back in the day, could be a nuisance, or a sick-as-a-dog but you get over it illness, or serious complications, including death, usually from pneumonia. Isolated populations with no immunity suffered cruelly, which an estimated 20 percent of people in the Hawaiian Islands in the 1850s and 40 percent in Fiji in 1875 killed by this sickness. Millions of kids the world over died from measles every year, until vaccines were produced in the 1960s.
We’re pretty sure Kathy will get over it, though. She’ll probably be on the show next week.
Kathy, with nothing left to live for now that she can’t go to Greer Garson’s hotel room and eat ice cream and cake, sends dear old dad to her hotel to sign Kathy’s glamorous studio photo of Greer. Dad, on the spot, reluctantly goes and stands in line with a bunch of clambering schoolgirls to get an autograph. Supposedly, one of those kids is played by Kathy Garver, who later got to be older sister Cissy in Family Affair (1966-1971). If you recognize her, let me know.
Just as he gets to the head of the line, Greer’s pen runs out of ink, and she is whisked away by her handlers. Poor Jim Anderson has failed Kitten. I love the line of the girl who, also denied an autograph, complains, “If that old man hadn’t hogged so much time.” Robert Young has progressed from middle-age to old man.
Back in the sickroom, older sister Elinor Donahue aka Princess is trying to amuse the fretful Kathy with a game. Kathy wants to know what’s taking Dad so long, and bitterly snaps, “Probably ran off with her.” Another good line well delivered. Yeah, there’s a few here and there even in a show with a rather too-sweet reputation.
Finally, Father returns, with Greer Garson herself in tow, and she compliments Kathy on her essay. “It was so intellectual I could hardly understand part of it.”
Then, at Kathy’s request, she puts on a boffo performance of the entire movie in five minutes. Flinging herself around the little girl’s bedroom, she mugs, she fires the opening salvo of the Civil War, she primps, she spies (her character is a spy for the Confederacy), she grabs the unsuspecting Bud, uses him for a prop as he unwittingly stands in for a Union sentry and later her husband, plants a lipstick smear on his forehead, to the gales of laughter from his parents, and finally, Greer delivers a message behind the lines to Stonewall Jackson, whom she also plays.
When it’s time for Greer to leave, Kathy says in sincere appreciation, “You’re such a good guy.”
Yeah, she is.
Remember to visit the other good guys blogging about Big Stars on the Small Screen here.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century and Hollywood Fights Fascism. Her latest book is Christmas in Classic Films. TO JOIN HER READERS' GROUP - follow this link for a free book as a thank-you for joining.