Family Affair Friday: Season 1, Episode 20, “A Helping Hand,” 2/6/1967

Welcome to another installment of Family Affair Friday! This week’s episode may not have the best script, but it does have an amazing guest star.

Written by: John McGreevey. Directed by: William D. Russell.

Synopsis

Nigel French hires a maid to help with a dinner party.

Hmm. that actress playing Adele the maid looks familiar. And those towels and that spice rack look so perfectly '60s.

Hmm. That actress playing Adele the maid looks familiar. And those towels and that spice rack look so perfectly ’60s.

He quickly discovers that she’s inept and tries to fire her, but she plays on his sympathy. He ends up covering for her mistakes–and he does it so effectively that a party guest who lives in building hires her.

This is the party guest in question. The party scenes give us an ususal angle on the Davis apartment, which is actually a pretty complex set.

This is the party guest in question. The party scenes give us an unusual angle on the Davis apartment, which is actually a pretty complex set.

French is subsequently called upon to rescue Adele from many disasters, from dog-devoured dinners to overflowing washing machines.

That casserole dish is another cute '60s piece.

That casserole dish is another cute ’60s piece. And Adele still looks familiar. Maybe she was one of those actresses who showed up on Dragnet repeatedly?

Meanwhile…doesn’t this show have some cute kids in it?

Oh, yeah, here they are. Let me just take a moment to praise Johnny Whitaker--he has such a sweet and guileless quality, especially in these early episodes.

Oh, yeah, here they are. Let me take a moment to praise Johnny Whitaker–he has such a sweet and guileless quality, especially in these early episodes.

Buffy and Jody are having some trouble building a model dam for school. Uncle Bill offers to help. His idea of helping, unfortunately, is doing the whole project by himself at work. (Actually, he admits to letting his co-workers do most of it.)

Well, dam.

Well, dam.

The teacher objects, of course.

French’s efforts to help Adele are similarly fruitless. Eventually, her employers discover her ineptitude. After they fire her, she tells off French, who regrets getting involved in the first place.

Now she's gone and I still don't know why she's so familiar. Maybe I've seen her on Bewitched. I know I've seen a similar plot on that show.

Now she’s gone and I still don’t know why she’s so familiar. Maybe I’ve seen her on Bewitched. I know I’ve seen a similar plot on that show.

Together, Uncle Bill and French decide the family motto should be “Don’t get involved.” (French wants to engrave it on his wall!)

Just then, Cissy enters the room and makes a spontaneous speech thanking Uncle Bill for his involvement, and bemoaning the lack of involvement the kids faced in Terre Haute.

Oh, Cissy. Always playing that orphan card.

Oh, Cissy…always playing that orphan card.

Her speech works, though. (It also provides a bit of foreshadowing for next week’s episode.) Uncle Bill is so moved he decides to stay home for the evening!

Now let’s watch the credits to see who played Adele.

Oh my God! That was Myrna freaking Loy?!

Oh my God! That was Myrna freaking Loy?!

Commentary: The first time I watched this episode as an adult, I really did spend the whole episode wondering how I knew the actress playing Adele. A familiar-looking guest star is a common thing on Family Affair. Usually, it just means that the actor in question made a bazillion ’60s TV guest appearances and played bit parts in dozens of movies.

Sadly, both the Adele role and the script are a waste of Loy’s talents. (Her performance is actually pretty flat, too–I think that’s one reason I didn’t immediately recognize her.) Every potentially interesting scene–from Adele’s flubs to the teacher’s reaction to the Davis dam–happens off camera. If they’d included those scenes, maybe I wouldn’t have spent all my time looking for interesting bits of set decoration.

Cute oven mitts. I think they match the dish towels.

Cute oven mitts. I think they match the dish towels.

Guest Cast

Adele: Myrna Loy. Sheila: June Vincent. Ken: Carleton Young. What to say about the beautiful Myrna Loy? She started in movies in 1925 and played exotic sirens during the silent era. In the 1930s she began playing the sophisticated comedy roles that made her famous. She is best known as Nora Charles in the Thin Man series of films. In the 1940s she starred in the charming comedies The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and in the excellent World War II aftermath drama The Best Years of Our Lives. She continued working through the 1980s, mostly in TV movies, but Family Affair was one of few TV series appearances she ever made. Loy died in 1993.

Continuity Notes

Well, of course, there’s Cissy’s violin-backed speech about the lack of caring the kids experienced in Terre Haute. Jody also mentions the old hometown.

Fun Facts

Uncle Bill’s favorite dish is curried chicken. The twins like to eat “Sloppy Sams.” French prefers to call them “Untidy Samuels!”

One episode highlight--the cute exit Uncle Bill, Jody and Buffy make from Uncle Bill's room. I wonder whose idea it was. Director William D. Russell was not usually given to whimsy.

One episode highlight–the cute exit Uncle Bill, Jody and Buffy make from Uncle Bill’s room. I wonder whose idea it was. Director William D. Russell was not usually given to such whimsy.

Notable Quotes

Adele: “I’ve learned my lesson–never listen to a man.”

This Week’s Bonus Feature

Barbie Talk (Barbie Fan Magazine), March/April 1971 (The magazine doesn’t actually note its publication year. I’m guessing 1971 based on the dolls advertised in the magazine.)

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Mr. Blandings: A Lighthearted Movie for a Somber Day

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is a cute movie.

The opening narration, describing New Yorkers’ “carefree, orderly existence,” over traffic-jam footage, is cute.

The montage of Blandings family members arriving at their new home, with narrator Melvyn Douglas mimicking their responses, is cute.

The self-referential ending is downright adorable.

Some people use the word “cute” dismissively. Once, when I tried to wangle my seven-year-old daughter into a Gymboree outfit, she cried, “I don’t want to be cute; I want to be cool!” Personally, I have a higher-than-average cuteness tolerance (witness my devotion to Family Affair).

On a day like today, which holds so many somber memories, it’s comforting to escape into a lighthearted movie like Mr. Blandings.

A moment from the Blandings filming. Director H.C. Potter, left, was best known for his work on comedies.

Movie Impressions: The movie’s opening scenes, which depict a typical morning in the Blandings’ Manhattan apartment, are mostly quiet. A claustrophobic feeling builds as Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) negotiates overstuffed closets and a crowded bathroom. By the time Jim finds out that his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) has been pricing renovations—and finds how just how pricy those renovations will be—he is ready to escape the city.

(Reviewing the movie, Time took issue with the unrealistically large set that represents a New York apartment: “You could encamp a platoon of homeless veterans in the parlor alone.” This seems to be a perennial complaint about Hollywood depictions of Manhattanites’ homes.)

Once Jim makes up his mind to buy a country house, he lets nothing stand in his way, including reason, caution, or good advice from his lawyer and best friend, Bill. He pays well over the going rate for run-down house and 50 acres of land, fails to notice a clause in the contract that reduces the property size to 35 acres, refuses to let his lawyer renegotiate the price, and then balks at having a structural engineer examine the house.

“Why is he acting so stupid?” my husband asked at this point.

I didn’t have an answer, but I do find it interesting that in the Blandings’ marriage, the husband is the emotional, impulsive one. Grant’s ebullient screen persona and Loy’s placid one work perfectly for this twist on traditional gender roles.

The Blandings end up tearing down the dilapidated house and building a new one (of course, Jim authorizes the demolition before considering the mortgage implications). The mishaps that ensue will resonate with any homeowner. (The guy who digs their well reminds me of every contractor I’ve ever known.) Loy’s paint scene is a highlight—she requests such colors as an apple red “somewhere between a healthy Winesap and an unripened Jonathan.” To the painter, this means “red.”

Adding to Jim’s distress is his growing suspicion that Bill and Muriel have feelings for each other. Critics hated this plot element, which wasn’t present in the popular novel this movie is based on.

“Eric Hodgins’ bestselling Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was a quietly hilarious account of a man’s troubles with a new house,” Time wrote in 1951. “Though Blandings was short on sex appeal, it sold more than 300,000 copies and was bought by the movies. Then Hollywood, which thinks sex is so important that it created a Production Code to keep sex out, added a triangle to the plot. The Cary Grant-Myrna Loy movie was advertised with leering posters: ‘Does Cary suspect the wolf at the door is his best friend?’”

This part of the movie does feel unnecessary. The saving grace is that it occurs late in the movie and doesn’t amount to much—Jim quickly realizes that he’s being silly. (And the scene in which a neighbor gets the wrong idea about Muriel and Bill, who are alone at the new house on a rainy night, is somewhat amusing.)

Historical Context: In 1948, American were starting to embark for the suburbs en masse. According to David Ames, professor of urban affairs and public policy and geography at the University of Delaware, “Post-World War II suburban growth was indeed monumental. From 1918 to 1940, suburbanites grew modestly from seventeen to twenty percent of the nation’s population. By 1960, however, they had doubled to account for forty percent of the nation’s total and far more than doubled in absolute numbers.”

The Blandings’ House: The Blandings built a Colonial-style house. As Douglas Brenner wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year, “(the Blandings) relationship with early-American style personified the hopes and struggles of moviegoers from coast to coast. The Blandings’ country home became so popular that Kellogg’s cereal boxes offered a cardboard cutout model, and Manhattan charity fund-raisers oversaw the construction of a full-scale Dream House knockoff on a vacant lot in Midtown.” In fact, RKO built 73 replica houses around the country and raffled them off to promote the movie.

Jim Blandings, Ad Man: On the spectrum of fictional ad men, Jim stands closer to Darrin Stephens than Don Draper. Distracted by domestic strife, he almost loses his job, until a woman comes up with the slogan that saves his bacon (or ham, in this case).

Supporting Cast Notes: Lurene Tuttle, who plays Jim’s secretary, appeared in character roles across the TV dial from the 1950s through the 1980s. She was also a prolific and talented radio performer. Her most famous radio role was another secretary—Sam Spade’s Effie. Lex Barker, who played a small role in Mr. Blandings, would break through the next year when he made his first of five Tarzan movies. Louise Beavers plays the maid in this movie; unfortunately, she rarely got the chance to play anything else.

Final Fun Fact: Blandings author Eric Hodgins wrote a long article for Life about his experiences on the movie set. Much discussion, he notes, went into determining Jim Blanding’s salary. Hodgins advocated $25,000; producers objected that “to the average moviegoer the man earning that amount has no troubles.” They pushed for $10,000, but ultimately changed it to $15,000. (For context, the average New York City family earned $5,105 in 1950.)

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