This post is part of the Big Stars on the Small Screen Blogathon hosted by Aurora of the How Sweet It Was blog. Be sure to check out the many posts from other bloggers. I can’t wait to read them all, myself!
For those of you who may not be familiar with it, Family Affair was a sitcom that aired on CBS from 1966 to 1971. It’s the story of the three orphaned Davis children — teenager Cissy (Kathy Garver) and young twins Buffy (Anissa Jones) and Jody (Johnny Whitaker) who come to live with their bachelor uncle, civil engineer Bill Davis (Brian Keith) and Bill’s proper English gentleman’s gentleman Giles French (Sebastian Cabot).
Family Affair is far from the best sitcom of the 1960s. The storylines were never too original. The younger children, while adorable, could be a bit hammy at times. Production values weren’t always the greatest — the fake New York City skyline outside the Davises’ apartment patio, for example, and the astroturf grass and plastic flowers in Central Park, where the children often played under Mr. French’s watchful eye.
None of that matters to me, though. The show has a charm and sweetness that I really like. Of all the many TV shows featuring children who lost one or both parents, like Bachelor Father, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, and even The Andy Griffith Show, none dealt as directly and as movingly with the kids’ ongoing feelings of loss and grief the way Family Affair did throughout its five season run. For all its silly storylines and frequent corniness, Family Affair had a huge heart and a loving gentleness I can’t help admiring.
Plus, those kids really were cute, and Brian Keith’s interactions with all three of them were always wonderful, even in the later seasons when it felt like he’d mentally checked out of the show in other respects. And Sebastian Cabot was never less than perfect and amusing as the stuffy Mr. French. Watching him go from barely tolerating the children to loving them like a parent is one of the best things about the series.
Unfortunately, however, Sebastian Cabot wasn’t in today’s episode, season one’s “A Helping Hand.” For a period during the first season Cabot was ill and the wonderful John Williams (Sabrina, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief) filled in as Giles French’s brother Nigel, who takes charge of the Davis household when Giles is summoned back into temporary service by Queen Elizabeth II. Yep, he’s just that good a butler! And yet he works for Bill Davis and the three children, a much less prestigious assignment I’m sure you’d agree. That’s love!
As the episode begins, Buffy and Jody are working on a school project — building a model of McKenzie Dam. Realistically, I don’t think kindergartners would be assigned a project like that, but it works for the storyline, so let’s just go with it. Things aren’t going well — the dam won’t stay together and the children are discouraged.
They tell Uncle Bill about it when he gets home from work and he volunteers to help them out. Not that night, though — he’s throwing a dinner party, and Cissy is going to be his hostess.
Mr. French has hired a maid from an agency to help him with the party. (Giles French could’ve handled it alone, with one hand tied behind his back, but maybe that’s my preference for the “real” Mr. French coming through!) The maid, Adele Prentiss, arrives at the servants’ entrance, and who should she be but the one and only Myrna Loy!
The first time I saw this episode I did a double take. I just couldn’t believe someone I considered one of the greatest movie stars of all time would be guest starring on lowly little Family Affair. A 61-year-old actress has to pay the bills, however. And actually quite a few greats from the good old days guest starred on the show, among them Dana Andrews, Ann Sothern, Martha Hyer, and Joan Blondell.
Adele is running late and comes in full of excuses — she forgot to wind her watch so she didn’t know what time it was, plus the bus driver failed to announce her stop and she missed it. Mr. French is less than impressed, but he puts her to work. It does not go well. She melts the chilled shrimp by putting the platter next to a steaming teakettle and makes a mess while trying to whip cream.
Mr. French is not amused. “Sabotage!” he exclaims, then proceeds to tell the hapless Adele that her services are no longer required. In fact he can’t understand why the agency sent her in the first place, as incompetent as she is.
Adele admits that she lied to the agency just to get the job. She’s been out of work and this was her last hope of finding employment. She’s so pitiful and sad that Mr. French relents and allows her to stay and finish the assignment. Things go well enough that soon Bill’s neighbor offers her a job as their cook/housekeeper.
Adele accepts the position. Who cares if she doesn’t know what she’s doing? She has Mr. French right there in the building to help out, after all. She runs to him for help when the dishwasher goes haywire, covering her and her kitchen with suds…
and while he’s downstairs helping her, his scones burn and the kitchen fills with smoke.
Later Adele skips her cooking lesson with Mr. French, claiming she was too exhausted after the dishwasher incident and just had to take a rest. She helps herself to one of the two dishes of curried chicken he’s prepared, planning to serve it to her new employers for dinner.
Adele returns soon afterwards, crying. The dogs ate the curried chicken and she has nothing to serve! Mr. French wouldn’t mind if she took the dish he made for the Davises’ dinner, would he? After all, Mr. Davis is a kind man, he wouldn’t want her to lose her job. Once again, French caves in at the sight of Adele’s tears.
Meanwhile, Buffy and Jody rush to meet Uncle Bill when he comes home from work. They have some new cardboard and glue and are ready to work with him on building their model dam. Bill tells them not to worry about it. He has it covered and they can just help him with the finishing touches. The kids are puzzled, but they go along.
The next day Bill runs into his neighbor, who tells him what an absolute treasure Adele is. She makes the best curried chicken! She wishes he could’ve tasted it himself. Bill, who missed out on his favorite dish the night before and was stuck eating omelettes and frozen dinners instead, wishes he could’ve tasted it, too.
Bill brings home the model dam he and his fellow engineers made down at the office. The kids can hardly believe their eyes! They seem dubious about turning in something they didn’t work on at all, but clueless new parent Bill thinks he’s done them a big favor.
Soon both Mr. French and Bill find out that no good deed goes unpunished. First Adele storms in and returns some cookbooks to Mr. French. When he failed to help her with her bosses’ dinner party the night before, the whole thing was a disaster. She ended up serving hamburgers and spaghetti, setting the kitchen on fire, and getting fired. She’s livid that Mr. French convinced her to take the job. You just can’t rely on men!
Next, Uncle Bill gets a note from Buffy and Jody’s teacher, telling him in no uncertain terms that while it’s fine to encourage and guide your children, the work needs to be their own, not contracted out to the civil engineering firm of Davis and Associates.
Bill and Mr. French decide they’ve had enough of getting involved with other people’s problems. From now on everyone is on their own. Just then Cissy runs back into the room and tells her uncle that the kids understand why he built the model for them. It’s because he loves them and cares enough to get involved. She says she admires Mr. French for trying to help Adele, too. Too many people these days just look away from others, but not them, making a home for her and the children and really caring.
So much for their new life philosophy. Bill cancels his plans to go out for dinner, and instead says he’ll be staying home to oversee Buffy and Jody while they do the model dam project themselves. Mr. French volunteers to help. It’s a very sweet moment. That’s the thing about Family Affair — it’s a show with a lot of heart. Unfortunately, this particular episode wasn’t one with a lot of laughs to go with all that heart. It was mildly amusing at best.
As for Myrna Loy, hers seemed like a fairly thankless role, playing a somewhat unlikeable character who used Mr. French and then blamed him when things went wrong. Still, it was fun to see her at all, since her movie career was more or less over by this time and she wasn’t doing much TV either. One of the best things about watching television from the ’60s through ’80s is catching glimpses of classic movie stars on the small screen, after all, as the other Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon participants will no doubt agree!