We continue our countdown of my favorite 1950s Christmas TV episodes with 1954’s “The Christmas Story” from Father Knows Best.
As I said for the previous Father Knows Best episode on the countdown, all in all, Father Knows Best was the highlight that all 1950s family sitcoms had to be judged against and most would be found very lacking. The writers of the show, like the one who wrote this one AND the earlier one on the countdown, Roswell Rogers, had a knack for making every episode really feel like a half hour film. The production quality and the script level (and the performances from the cast, with Robert Young brilliant as the titular Father who knows best, but also Jane Wyatt as his wife and the excellent Elinor Donahue as the oldest daughter and the not-quite-as-good-but-still good younger kids, Billy Gray and Lauren Chaffin). The show has been a hit on the radio, but Young felt that it was too crass and recast the show for television and dropped some of the more aggressive jokes (Jim Anderson on radio would often insult his kids as being stupid, that sort of stuff). He didn’t like that they always just went for the laughs on the radio show and he wanted the TV show to be warmer and it certainly worked, as the show was one of the most heartwarming show around.
Both Christmas episodes of the show were good, but I think that this Season 1 episode, “The Christmas Story,” was slightly better. In a lot of ways, it almost worked as a perfect encapsulation of the show as a whole. They weren’t being ironic by saying the father knows best on the show, but at the same time, Anderson wasn’t perfect, either. When he failed, though, you could tell that his heart was in the right place and perhaps, in the end, he really DID know best after all.
In this episode, Jim is angry at how over-commercialized Christmas has become, which sounds kind of hilarious, I know, nearly 70 years later. So he insists that the family cut down their own Christmas tree this year, but their car gets caught up in a snowstorm Jim was too stubborn to take seriously. The family takes refuge at a cabin. They then seemingly meet the owner of the cabin, a folksky man named Nick who loves having company for Christmas.
Soon, Nick has helped the Andersons to a good old fashioned country Christmas. If it had just ended with that, it would be interesting enough, but there’s a twist. Nick is a squatter who had broken into the house himself!
When a Park Ranger shows up, Nick quickly tries to escape (Kathy, awoken by the noise, thinks Nick is Santa Claus since he has a big sack of stolen supplies). Jim figures things out, though, and explains to the Park Ranger what the situation was and that Jim will pay for anything Nick took or whatever fine he was charged, as Nick had been more than worth the cost to the Andersons, who really did enjoy their old fashioned Christmas.
“Saccharine, with an edge” is a good description of both this episode and Father Knows Best, as a whole, and it’s why it was one of the most acclaimed sitcoms of the era and the reason I picked this one as my top Christmas 1950s TV episode.