Written by: Phil Davis. Directed by: Charles Barton.
My favorite episode! This one is a perfect mix of the silliness and sweetness that is Family Affair.
As we look in on the Davis family, Buffy is getting ready to go to dance class. French, rhapsodizing about English dancing-school girls in organdy dresses and patent leather shoes, criticizes the jeans-and-turtleneck look Buffy’s got going on.
It doesn’t seem like an ideal outfit for dancing, but in the end it doesn’t matter–Buffy gets dropped off at an empty studio, only to learn that her lesson is cancelled.
Buffy goes outside to wait for Mr French, who’s due to return in an hour.
That’s when we learn that Buffy’s dancing school is located on the set of a Dead End Kids movie.
“Fat, fat, the water rat, fifty bullets in his hat,” group leader Mike chants as the kids march down the sidewalk. Googling suggests that this is a real schoolyard rhyme, dating back to at least the 1930s.
Mike’s wardrobe also dates back to the 1930s.
Buffy takes an immediate liking to Mike and the gang. When they ask her to play, she jumps at the chance.
The producers want to make sure we understand that these kids are poor–so poor that Mike’s sister Katie is wearing a dress about three sizes too small.
Meanwhile, back at the Davis apartment…
…Jody is getting a lecture from Mr. French on the inappropriateness of “cavorting.”
No wonder Buffy finds the tenement kids’ messy, active playing so invigorating. She also gets a chance to enjoy a new snack–bread and butt-ah.
Mike’s mother lovingly flings this food to her children from the window.
There’s only one problem on the horizon: Mike makes it clear that he hates “fancy kids.” By this, apparently, he means kids who wear clothes that aren’t falling apart.
(Notice that by the 1960s, American TV had embraced “diversity” by including one African-American person in any large group scene. This person would never actually get to talk, of course.)
Play time ends when French shows up.
Having a British butler come to pick you up is pretty fancy. Luckily, the other kids don’t see Mr. French’s arrival.
French is appalled at Buffy’s dirty appearance.
At home, he sends Buffy straight to the bath tub and her clothes to the incinerator.
In the palatial Davis bathroom, Buffy daydreams about the wonderful time she had playing with Mike and friends. When Uncle Bill comes in to talk to her, she eagerly tells him about her adventures.
Having Uncle Bill present during Buffy’s bath is a little squicky by modern standards.
She wants to play with the kids again, and Bill supports her, even through French is certain to disapprove, and Mike won’t like her if she shows up in her normal “fancy clothes.”
Now, Uncle Bill could say that he makes the parenting decisions for the kids, and that Mr. French, as his employee, must accept that. He could say that Buffy should wear comfortable play clothes, and if Mike doesn’t accept her because of her clothes, he’s not a real friend.
Instead, he decides that he and Buffy should both sneak behind French’s back and pose as common folk in Mike’s neighborhood.
Uncle Bill dons his work clothes and takes Buffy to a rummage sale, where she finds a truly wretched outfit.
Of course, her original outfit was wretched, too, in it’s own way.
(Note that while she was in the dressing room, she changed her own hairstyle. Impressive.)
As they leave the rummage sale, Bill donates Buffy’s original outfit to charity. Nice gesture, but won’t that make it hard to sneak back into the apartment later? And won’t French notice an outfit is missing?
Oh, well, the important thing is that Buffy gets have fun…by beating on the backs of poor youths.
Uncle Bill also makes a new friend, Mike’s father.
Uncle Bill meets Uncle Fester!
Mr. Callahan assumes Bill is down on his luck, and Bill admits to being “between jobs.” I suppose it seems better than saying, “Funny story: I’m actually rich, but my niece likes playing with poor kids!”
Uncle Bill and Buffy even get to sample that well known slum delicacy, bread and sug-ah. (The Callahans are out of butt-ah).
At home, Bill and Buffy sneak back in, then make plans to visit the Callahans again. When they do, Bill learns that the neighbors are having a rent party for the Callahans, who can’t otherwise afford to pay their rent. The Callahans do, however, have some old dresses that their daughter Katie has outgrown, and Mr. Callahan generously offers them to Bill for Buffy.
Can this situation get any more awkward?
Yes. Yes it can.
French has tracked Bill down with urgent messages from someone in Brazil and an under-secretary of state in Washington, D.C.
“Slumming is such a good sport…sort of like polo.” sneers an understandably angry Mr. Callahan. Ouch.
And Bill has another irritated, portly gentleman to deal with at home.
Is French upset because his employer felt the need to lie and sneak around behind his back?
Not really. He’s just disappointed that he’s failed to make a “gentlewoman” out of Buffy. Bill and the kids manage to convince him that it’s behavior, not clothing, that make a gentlewoman. At least, they seem to convince him of that. I bet he’d love to throw Buffy’s rummage-sale clothes in the incinerator, though.
Bill and Buffy attend the Callahans’ rent party, and Bill calls out Mr. Callahan for his family’s reverse snobbery against fancy kids.
I would have gone with abject groveling, but Bill’s approach works with Mr. Callahan, especially when Buffy chimes in to explain how much she wanted to play with Mike and the other kids.
Everything ends well, of course. Bill finds a job for Mr. Callahan.
Jody joins the ragamuffin ranks with Buffy.
And French learns to stop worrying and love bread and sug-ah.
I’m not the only one who loves this episode–it seems to linger in the minds of people who haven’t seen Family Affair since childhood. One source of its appeal might be the strangely retrograde world in which the Callahans live. Writer Phil Davis was born in 1904, which may explain the Depression-era vibe here. (Davis certainly presents a different perspective on the working classes than the episode two weeks back did.)
Anissa Jones, whose “happy” scenes sometimes seem forced to me, does a great job conveying Buffy’s delight with her new-found world; she just beams, especially in the bathtub scene.
I can’t help wondering if Jones felt a stronger connection than usual with this script. Buffy’s dilemma as a “fancy kid” reminds me of the difficulties child actors face in being cut off from normal childhood activities.
On a shallow note, I always enjoy seeing Buffy’s hair in styles other her signature one. In this episode, we get to see it…
…in an up-do…
…and in her play-time pony-tail.
This episode also shows Family Affair‘s continued preoccupation with confronting the various cultures of the big city. (The writer emphasizes the New-York-as-melting-pot theme by having the Callahans invite Bill to an upcoming rent party for their neighbors the Goldbergs. Mr. Callahan mentions enthusiastically that blintzes will be served.)
Tim Callahan: Jackie Coogan. Mrs. Callahan: Marcia Mae Jones. Mike: Todd Baron. Miss Brown: Sandra Wirth. Woman: Lovyss Bradley. Katie: Sheila Duffy.
Coogan, of course, was a prolific child actor in the early days of film. Most memorably, he played the title role in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. His experiences led to the law that protects the earnings of child actors. Coogan’s later career as a character actor reached it’s apex when he played Uncle Fester on The Addams Family. Marcia Mae Jones began acting at a young age, also, and appeared in the Shirley Temple films Heidi and The Little Princess, William Wyler’s These Three and The Champ with Jackie Cooper (not Coogan). Wirth appeared in the Family Affair pilot.
We know that Buffy has taken ballet lessons in the past. (If her class in this episode was ballet, though, shouldn’t she have worn a leotard?)
In future episodes, Buffy will wear the outfit Uncle Bill donated to the rummage sale.