March 13, 2008 1:17 PM
The first season of “Father Knows Best” comes out on DVD April 1 from Shout Factory.
And that’s just fine with Elinor Donahue, who played the oldest daughter Betty (or “Princess”) on the 1954-60 series, which, uniquely, appeared on all three major networks over the course of its prime-time run.
The show, with its happy little nuclear family, has gotten a bum rap over the decades for being too removed from reality. But Elinor knows its strengths.
“It’s nice for people to have a little window on the past like that,” she told me over the phone recently. “It’s a sweet show and has good moral values. And good acting! Billy Gray was just superior as a kid, and Robert Young and Jane Wyatt were wonderful, and they worked so well together.”
Her performance as Betty was nothing to sneeze at, either. It’s hard to think of anyone so eternally identified with a character. But does Elinor personally identify with the outgoing, overachieving Betty Anderson? Not really. “She was kind of my alter ego, everything that I was not,” she explained. “I was shy and unsocial and quiet, and she had the moxie. So it was fun to be her.”
That initial season was a particularly memorable one for Elinor. First, she flubbed her lines during her audition and only by the grace of star Robert Young was she given a second chance. Then the show itself had performance issues. “The problem was we were on at some terrible hour, 10 o’clock Sunday night. It was really a bad spot for that kind of show,” she recalled. “We didn’t even know we had an audience. After the first season it was dropped [by CBS]. There must have been somebody out there watching, because there was this big hue and cry about putting it back on, and NBC picked us up.”
NBC had it for three seasons, then it moved back to CBS for its final two. Then it reran in CBS prime time, mind you, for two more seasons before moving to ABC for another season of prime-time reruns. Can you imagine?
Among the gems on the upcoming DVD is the episode “Sparrow in the Window,” a moving little morality tale about the importance of freedom, in which Lauren Chapin (as little sister Kathy, or "Kitten") nurses an injured bird back to health and then must return it to the wild. For Elinor, that particular show had a somewhat different significance. “The things that go on behind the scenes,” she related. “I can’t think of anything else but [this] when you mention [that episode]. They couldn’t get the bird that was in the tree to stand still, so somebody said, “Tie it to the branch.” And they did, and it pulled its foot off [trying to get away]."
The upshot? “Lauren went hysterical, of course. I was like, ‘Ewwwwww, gah, look at that. Yuck!’”
Now that sounds like a typical teenager from any era.
Elinor as she is today is interviewed in the bonus material in the four-DVD set. But the release has its own, private bonus for her: “It’s nice to be able to have my grandchildren see more of the episodes,” she said.
t/y Steve Beverly