‘My Three Sons’ (Season 1): A remarkably complex, innovative American sitcom

Escape is the only option today, I fear (if you’re lucky enough to be able to escape, I should add). So if you’re going to retreat, you should go somewhere extraordinary.

By Paul Mavis

Quite simply: the first season of My Three Sons, the long-running ABC-then-CBS sitcom starring Fred MacMurray, is one of the most unusual and innovative comedies in sitcom history—it’s a revelation to those of us who only grew up on the later color reruns. For whatever legal reason, much to the disappointment of this beloved show’s large, continued fan base, CBS/Paramount DVD releases for the series stalled out after season five. Where’s Shout! Factory, that gallant white knight of vintage TV shows in distress, when we need it?

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My Three Sons was created by Leave it To Beaver writer George Tibbles, with an assist by producer Don Fedderson (who would go on to create the equally brilliant and unfairly maligned Family Affair), in partnership with Hollywood leading man Fred MacMurray (who owned half of the series) and Chevrolet, the show’s sponsor.

MacMurray, who at one point during the early forties was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, had by 1959 settled into a solid if unremarkable leading actor career in lesser-tier westerns and adventure outings like Fair Wind to Java, The Far Horizons, and Gun for a Coward, while doing stellar, Oscar-worthy work as a supporting actor in movies like The Caine Mutiny and the soon-to-be-released The Apartment (interestingly, both of which show MacMurray as a cowardly, vile rat).

However, in 1959, out of the four movies that MacMurray had in release, a low-budget Disney live-action comedy, The Shaggy Dog, became one of the highest grossers of the year-end box office, and certainly one of the biggest hits of MacMurray’s entire career. The lesson of the success of that little Disney comedy, which looked liked so many of the sitcoms on TV at the time, couldn’t have been lost on MacMurray when the opportunity to star in My Three Sons came along that same year (TV producers had been trying to rope MacMurray for years). The economic rewards for a successful TV series at that time (particularly when you owned half of it) were potentially enormous (Lucy and Desi had bought RKO with the spare cash they had lying around), but the demands on the star’s time were equally impressive.

Faced with the prospect of shooting a full season of episodes (back when a full season meant 30-plus shows!), MacMurray, according to some reports, sought out the advice of TV’s most successful sitcom dad at the time, Robert Young, from CBS’ Father Knows Best. A harried Young clued MacMurray in on the realities of a grueling, seemingly non- stop, year-long TV shooting schedule…which must have been an eye-opener to MacMurray, a movie actor, who was used to coming on a set, shooting for a few weeks or months, and scooting off to a new location or back to his Hollywood home. In what now has famously become known as “the MacMurray Method,” MacMurray, as sharp a businessman as he was an actor, stipulated in his contract that he would only work 65 non-consecutive days out of the year on My Three Sons, so he could pursue movie offers and spend time with his family. That’s 65 days working…300 days off.

MacMurray would make himself available in the spring for a month to shoot whatever material the My Three Sons writers and producers had for him, and then take off on vacation for the summer. He would return in the fall, and finish any remaining scripts, as well as any necessary pick-up shots (for continuity), ending his commitment to My Three Sons before Thanksgiving. This rather remarkable production schedule certainly minimized the time notoriously cost-conscious MacMurray had to spend on his series, but evidently, it caused a nightmare for the writers and producers who only had MacMurray for those 65 days: if they couldn’t fashion the episodes out of the footage they had, they were SOL.

Not only did this kind of shooting eliminate “shooting in sequence” (for TV purposes, that means shooting one full, complete episode per week), it created enormous logistical problems for the producers who had to shuffle actors back and forth over intervening months to pick up the simplest shots to complete an episode (in later years, it’s possible to see the boys actually grow and shrink within the same episode). As well, the writers were often-times faced with incomplete scripts. MacMurray would be shot doing a little bit of non-specific “business” or delivering a generic monologue on a generalized subject, which the writers would then fashion into a complete script, months later.

As for the other actors, concerning MacMurray’s “Method,” well…tough. Often-times, MacMurray might spend days alone on the set, performing countless reaction shots (entirely out of context and sequence) or delivering endless, seeming unconnected lines that were to be inserted later into various episodes, all of which would then be reconfigured into footage shot months later (or before) with actors reacting to a non-existent MacMurray, who might have been golfing at that moment, or shooting one of his many subsequent Disney outings during his vacation and hiatus from the show. Of course, the “MacMurray Method” isn’t particularly novel in its creation (it is, after all, how most big-screen movies were and are shot), but its introduction to TV production methods was certainly innovative.

All of which makes the artistic accomplishments of these 36 (!) episodes of My Three Sons‘ first season all the more remarkable (to be fair, I think the “MacMurray Method” would find its fullest implementation during later seasons). I would imagine that most TV fans are more familiar with the later color episodes of My Three Sons, when the show moved to CBS (ABC refused/was unable to foot the bill for the series’ switch to color production), not only because it ran 2 years longer on CBS, but also because of endless syndicated reruns that focused solely on the color episodes.

When I was little, My Three Sons was finally winding up its long run (a hefty 12 seasons), and I remember watching the show and feeling, even then, that there was something “off,” something “empty” about the entire feel of the series, which seemed hermetically sealed from scene-to-scene (perhaps the notorious “MacMurray Method” effect?), a feeling reinforced when I catch an occasional color episode today on MeTV. Despite the ever-growing cast of the later seasons, when wives and girlfriends and new little kids were introduced with abandon, the later seasons always have a kind of lonely, still, airless feel to them.

Not so for these remarkable first season episodes, though, with the lion’s share of that credit going to Peter Tewksbury, a former director for Father Knows Best who insisted on producing and directing every single episode of this first go-around (while writing a few, too, for good measure). My Three Sons‘ basic premise follows the suburban adventures of the Douglas family, minus one very important part of the traditional American sitcom nuclear family: the mother. Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray), a former pilot and now aviation and missile engineer for the Universal Research and Development Company, has been a widower for six years.

Living in a comfortable but not ostentatious middle-class neighborhood in a comfortable, not ostentatious Midwestern suburb, Steve’s life revolves around either working long, hard hours not only at his office but often times late into the night at his bedroom drafting table (that’s “privilege” for you…), or trying to solve the problems a busy father might have raising three rambunctious, healthy American boys. First son Mike (Tim Considine, a Disney veteran who co-starred with MacMurray in the smash hit, The Shaggy Dog), the eldest son at 18, is facing the rather frightening prospect of leaving behind his comfortable high school days, where he’s a handsome and popular student, for the prospect of college, while negotiating his way through his relationship with steady girlfriend (who lives right next door, of course), Jean Pearson (Cynthia Pepper).

Second son Robbie Douglas (Don Grady), at the awkward age of 14, is trying to find his place as the middle child in this noisy group, often competing with Mike for Steve’s approval, while still reconciling himself to the fact that he’s not a boy anymore, but not yet a man, either. And finally third son, little Chip Douglas (Stanley Livingston), seven years old and full of energy, is just trying to negotiate his way around this relatively new world in general. Not at all a traditional (and clichéd) sitcom “smartass,” Chip is a genuinely funny little boy with a quirky outlook on the events that unfold in the Douglas house—a viewpoint that exasperates his older brothers at times.

Helping Steve watch over the boys is Michael Francis “Bub” O’Casey (William Frawley), Steve’s father-in-law. Grouchy, irascible Bub gave up his life running a movie theatre to come live with Steve and the boys, acting as a surrogate “mother” who cooks, cleans, attends PTA meetings and tea socials, and who provides gruff, no-nonsense (but loving) “front-line sergeant” discipline for the boys when calm, cool, collected “general” Steve is busy at work.

RELATED | More 1960s TV reviews

It’s obvious to anyone who makes the effort to actually watch these television shows from elitist douchebag Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland” time period, that there is a treasure trove of excellence in hundreds of hours of early network TV, unfairly dismissed as “junk” by critics who are either deliberately misreading these shows (usually for political reasons—guess which side?) or who literally haven’t seen them, and who just regurgitate the same clichés they’ve read in other writings, without going to the original sources. My Three Sons‘ first season fits comfortably within that trove.

Having only seen the later color episodes (incredibly, the black and white episodes were never rerun in syndication until 2017!), I never thought of My Three Sons as anything more than a pleasant, if unremarkable, suburban sitcom starring a heavy-hitting Hollywood star. But after watching these first b&w outings when Paramount released the DVDs about a dozen years ago, I was suitably impressed with these frankly exceptional episodes. Network TV series, just like movies, are a collaborative effort, but it’s obvious there’s one clear, stylistically challenging vision behind this beautifully crafted show—something that rarely happened in episodic television back then.

Tewksbury’s technique (with the aid, of course, of excellent screenplays by a roster of fine scribes) encompasses both surprisingly straight drama, as well as a predilection for comedic set-pieces that are as beautifully crafted as his drama scenes are emotionally resonant. From a purely comedic standpoint, the Lonesome George episode, where comedian George Gobel visits the Douglas house, is an excellent example of Tewksbury’s felicity with blocking his actors in a dreamy, fluid style that would do justice to a big-screen effort.

The episode’s premise is simple: George, invited to stay at the house when Steve is away, pads around the house at night, getting a snack, while Steve, unexpectedly returned home, walks around the house, as well, as both men are convinced that someone keeps missing them in the hallways and rooms of the Douglas house. Tewksbury’s blocking is scrupulously funny and precise, building the level of suspense in the episode to a fine point, with the payoff of having both men wind up in Steve’s bed (Gobel is, as always, very funny—and surprisingly good, too, in a somewhat sad scene where he contemplates his fate as a recognizable star).

There are many such funny “set piece” moments, dazzlingly designed by Tewksbury, in My Three Sons‘ first season, including Adjust or Bust, where Steve spends much of the episode trying to get home by bus, car and bicycle; Lady Engineer, where Tewksbury works out a complicated office trek for Steve as he tries to track down a pretty engineer; Mike’s Brother, where Steve has a great extended bit where he tries to park his station wagon in a crowded garage; and Domestic Trouble, where Steve closes out the episode hysterically trying to get comfortable in bed, his blanket too short for his tall frame. These first episodes of My Three Sons just don’t look like any other sitcoms that I’ve seen from this period.

In the lovely, sweet, The Croaker, where Bub revisits his childhood when he unexpectedly becomes attached to Chip’s frog, Tewksbury gives us an amazing shot of Bub trying to free the frog from behind the stove, filling the screen almost entirely in black—a big no-no for networks back then, who frowned on experimentation with their usually bland visual design. There’s an elevated level of technique, in camera movement, in editing, in scripting, as well as in the performances, that’s consistently engaging.

The comedy of misdirection is often utilized in the season’s later episodes, with typically fine results. In The Delinquent, not only is Jean mixed up about what Mike is doing with his nights (he’s building her a hi-fi set), Bub adds a layer of confusion to the mix when he assumes Robbie and Chip’s discussion of that hound Tramp’s nocturnal adventures pertain to Mike. Man in a Trenchcoat travels the same ground, while The Lostling achieves genuinely sick suspense when a mother purposefully leaves her baby in the Douglases’ car (thinking it’s hers), while the bachelors cope not only with caring for the “lost” child, but also with trying to understand why a mother would abandon a child.

Tewksbury’s visual schematic is invariably funny and scrupulously precise, as well, building up scenes that could have come over as flat or uninspired, into minor comedic gems. The Horseless Saddle is a good example, where an errant saddle travels around town in search of a horse, with Steve seeing it mysteriously “float” by his office window (after which he hears a horse neigh), the mystery of which increasingly occupies his and his partner’s thoughts as to exactly how that happened (Tewksbury organizes a funny chase pile-up, as well, complete with sped-up chipmunk voices on the soundtrack). Unite or Sink, where Robbie and Mike try to paint a neighbor’s fence with the whole neighborhood eventually butting in, reaches Seinfeld absurdist levels (in other words, it reaches the level of absurdity of many older sitcoms series creator Larry David and his writers ripped off, particularly The Abbott & Costello Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett…shows which Seinfeld discreetly, ahem…”recycled”).

An even better example of this absurdist comedy—and one of the best episodes out of the entire season—is The Sunday Drive, which focuses not on Steve but his next door neighbor, Henry Pearson (played to utter perfection by the brilliant Robert P. Lieb). Henry, overcome with an irresistible, almost mystic case of “Spring fever,” begins to recite poetry, and designs to take his wife on a romantic Sunday drive. He even goes as far as to size up her enviable rear-end for a playful swat (stopped in time by shocked daughter, Jean). Slowly, however, almost inevitably, his plan is thwarted by more and more kids piling into his station wagon, until he finally, gently, blows his stack. AJ Carothers wrote the script, and Tewksbury, with the aid of Lieb’s almost preternaturally focused slow-burn, builds this episode to memorable heights of barely-suppressed hysteria.

And while Tewksbury can deliver an expertly crafted comedic scene, he’s equally adept at more innovative moments in this first season. The delicious Countdown starts with an almost documentary-style opening showing the Douglases slowly waking up for a typical day, counterpointed by a televised countdown of a rocket launch, with the launch’s commentary synched up—and ironically commenting on—the Douglases’ movements and actions. It’s an exquisite episode, full of funny, telling moments (I love it when the commentator says there may be “some turbulence up there,” while Tewksbury focuses on a ticked-off Robbie’s head, who’s debating whether or not to get into a fight with one of his brothers).

In Brotherly Love, Tewksbury shoots these amazing close-ups of Don Grady, looking positively primitive in his hatred and rage, as he waits in the bushes to jump his brother whom he believes has stolen his girlfriend (jungle drums beat ominously on the soundtrack, but I don’t know if these have been added with the new musical tracks—yes, for copyright reasons, the original background tracks were re-recorded on the DVDs). In Raft on the River, Tewksbury manages to conjure up some genuinely frightening moments in the final scenes as Steve and Chip, increasingly worried that their backyard camping trip is going to be interrupted by some kind of violent force/criminal, gradually freak out, culminating in a truly scary image of something coming towards their clubhouse raft.

And in Spring Will Be a Little Late, working from a finely crafted script by Jack Laird, Tewksbury delivers up a strange, wonderful episode dealing with Robbie’s gradual maturing with girls, as he has an intense encounter with potential girlfriend “Pig” (Marta Kristen, who’s excellent in this scene, bringing real terror to Robbie’s eyes when she flips out), and then suffers, along with his family, with weird nightmares. These overt, Freudian dreams, full of outright rage and hatred, as well as guilt, are astonishing little vignettes. Steve, who actually daydreams his askew scenario, sees his sons as silent zombies, sitting at the breakfast table in an arranged parody of the very sitcoms in which My Three Sons belongs. Chip dreams of his father, shot from menacing low angles, throwing him out of his safe, suburban home (and chaining the door shut), while Mike’s (the most disturbing of the group) sees Steve chained up while Mike, filled with seething anger, calls over and over again for Steve to be devoured by unseen animals (“He’s on his knees!” “We’ve got him!”). It’s a disturbing moment, echoed later during Mike’s waking hours when he hears those words again in his head when he finds himself again at odds with his father—a moment of pure Oedipal hatred directed at a beloved sitcom dad, and a most rare occurrence in early 1960s TV.

A small masterpiece this season is Small Adventure, a beautifully bizarre episode, split into two distinct parts. Steve, staying in a hotel room in another city, awakes to a coming storm. Feeling a bit lost and lonely, Steve talks himself into phoning home (for no reason than to hear his family’s voices) after he discovers, in a rather bizarre Kafkaesque moment of suspended personal reality, that he doesn’t “exist” with the hotel; he’s been mistaken with another guest (yep…The Sopranos‘ “Kevin Finnerty” was a big My Three Sons fan, too, apparently). Worried that something may have happened at home over the past few days—with no way for the family to leave a message for “Steve Douglas” when he doesn’t exist with the hotel—Steve calls home.

And it’s a good thing that he does, because his vague premonition that something could be wrong at home is spectacularly close to the truth: Tramp, digging at a local quarry pit, has brought home an old, unstable stick of dynamite. The dynamite quickly becomes enmeshed into the fabric of the busy Douglas home’s chores, where it narrowly escapes being trod-on, smashed, and various other calamities that would surely blow the entire neighborhood block to kingdom come. In a moment of sheer poetry unlike anything I’ve seen from this time period on TV, as the storm passes from Steve’s location (and we realize that the boom we heard on the soundtrack was not the dynamite blowing up his house), the thunder reaches the Douglas house, with Steve finally able to get some sleep, secure in the knowledge that his family is safe…and totally unaware of how close they came to getting blown sky high. When Tewksbury allows Tramp the dog, dynamite stick firmly in his jaws, to come into extreme close-up frame, and look directly at the camera, and us, as if to say, “See what’s going to happen, TV viewers? Get ready…,” that’s a moment of startling, lucid genius.

Outside of the cinematic innovations he brings to these 36 episodes, as well as his extended, exquisite comedy scenes, director Peter Tewksbury shows an assured hand on the straightforward drama that routinely pops up here, too. Frequently in My Three Sons, Steve gets a chance to discuss the boys’ actions in various situations (the results of which invariably cause friction and even bigger problems), and MacMurray’s quiet authority is given an equally quiet, straight-ahead framework when called for by Tewksbury. It’s a realistic framework, considering how often TV sitcoms from this period are dismissed as fantasy fluff.

The Douglas boys, never falling into sitcom cliché “types,” behave like ordinary American boys: they fight, they bicker, they have fun together, they become self-absorbed in their own problems, they put off doing their chores, they complain when things don’t go their way (I love it when Steve lays it out for a complaining Mike, who’s embarrassed by Bub’s behavior, detailing how insensitive and ungrateful Mike is being, considering how much Bub has given up to be there for the boys). In several episodes, it’s clear that Steve wants to talk to the boys and give them good advice about their troubles, but the boys aren’t really listening; they’re wrapped up in their own world with Steve realizing they’re going to have to solve their own problems (Steve does this several times, as well, not listening to the boys when they’re trying to tell him something important). Sounds just like today, doesn’t it (contrastingly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, on a vintage TV sitcom from this era, the believable, raw emotion of Steve shouting at Bub to “shut up!” in Brotherly Love—MacMurray gets to show a flash of his expert “rat bastard” temper here, as Frawley believably looks shook up at the reprimand).

Steve is certainly no perfect 50s/60s father. Soap-Box Derby, written by John McGreevey, cleverly cross-cuts between Steve’s and Robbie’s efforts at their “jobs.” Steve is brought in at the last minute to salvage a failing missile assignment, while Robbie, on the spur of the moment, decides to design his own derby racer to get the attention of a girl. Against our expectations, Steve, believably, is messing up at work. So much for all the social critics and “TV historians” that keep insisting that 50s and 60s television was a desert of unrealistic, fantasy suburbs filled with perfect little families, headed up by never-fail dads (the only thing outweighing these critics’ self-hatred is their jealousy).

Expanding on that theme, Other People’s Houses, again written by McGreevey, shows a chillingly sterile view of suburban loneliness when the Douglas house—full of rambunctious, battling, arguing boys messing up the premises—is contrasted with a friend’s perfectly appointed, ruthlessly organized, spic-and-span clean house, complete with a “Harriet Craig” mother/housewife who restlessly roams from room to room, straightening and cleaning objects that don’t need straightening and cleaning, and an absent, overachieving salesman father who simply cannot communicate with his son or wife. It’s a bleak, dark view of suburban 1960s life—one that no doubt would please liberal critics who love to find examples of America pop culture disparaging traditional middle class life. Of course those same critics would miss the obvious point of the episode: that sterile house, that dysfunctional family, is only the flipside of the bright, warm, loving, chaotic, messy Douglas household…and those existed back then, too. For a sitcom that’s often referred to disparagingly as “Disneyesque” (a vague, facile pejorative, at best), My Three Sons‘s first season is a most remarkably complex American sitcom.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

3 thoughts on “‘My Three Sons’ (Season 1): A remarkably complex, innovative American sitcom”

  1. Thanks for your take on this show. Thanks to MeTV, I’ve finally seen most if not all of the series 360+ episodes. I like your take on the politics of it all too. I’ve seen the Sunday drive episode a couple times but didn’t remember Robert P. Lieb in it. He had a good role as Officer Flaherty in TZ’s “Night of the Meek”, and I think he was great as George & Steve Baxter’s long-suffering brother-in-law on HAZEL.

    Like

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