We thank our mothers for all they have done for us, but we should also thank the women who 'raised' us: those mothers we watched on TV all day. Join ClassicFlix as we honor these fine females with our premiere awards celebration for distinguished achievement in vintage television motherhood in the first annual Mommies.
Outstanding Achievement in Overcoming Adversity: Alice Mitchell in 'Man of the House' (Dennis the Menace) - At the beginning, we get a stark reminder of how different the Screen Gems Dennis Mitchell is from his comic counterpart. His dad Henry tells ailing wife Alice he can cancel his business trip to take care of her. In the comic books and strips, Henry fled from Dennis as soon as he could book the Howard Johnson's reservations. Plus, if we know anything from watching classic television, it's that men plan business trips months in advance and do anything to make them. If Henry stays home, what will become of all the Whoopee cushions and joy buzzers Dennis has been saving all year?
Fortunately, Alice insists her hubby go on his vague 'business trip,' claiming she just has a cold and a headache. The remainder of 'Man of the House' is perhaps meant to be proof of the damage unsupervised Dennis can cause, but it's more a tribute to the indomitable spirit of a mother's courageous battle with a cold...and a headache...for a day. One might scoff at this condition -- most mothers I have known had headaches until their kids went to college -- but Alice fights many obstacles while stricken.
Her strategy is to delegate the mundane household duties to Dennis while she relaxes upstairs in bed. Some wacky things happen -- Dennis feeds his neighborhood pals the contents of the fridge, he and Margaret have a washing machine mishap, and Mr. Wilson burns the curtains while ironing them (We've all done that last one, right?). Through it all, Alice remains calm, lounging in her room and trusting her son to keep a promise to take care of her. She does come down the stairs to get rid of a peddler, but she refuses to let it break her.
Alice's biggest obstacle comes in the form of the maid she orders to help out. Calling this woman a battle ax is an insult to delicate, refined battle axes everywhere. The hired help takes one look at the staircase and protests that she isn't about to climb up there.
She makes a snooty remark or two, but Alice keeps her composure and somehow survives the day, maintaining her motherly demeanor until that night, when Dennis drives her over the edge by plugging in the television set, thus blowing a fuse and taking out all the electricity in the house. She scolds Dennis for trying to use the tube, which she tells him is broken. We can only assume the cold and headache are warping her judgment, because who wouldn't expect a school-age boy to want to watch television?
It's not Alice's finest moment, but after defeating peddlers, sassy maids, and a cold, we can give her the benefit of the doubt. Mrs. Mitchell has proven even at less than 100%--possibly as low as 90%--she can handle any challenge. Just in case she can't, Henry rushes back home at the end of the episode, anyway. I guess his hotel ran out of water balloons.
Excellence in Setting the Household Straight: Donna Stone in 'Ideal Wife' (The Donna Reed Show) - When Donna's dinner party is disrupted because husband Alex is called away for a dubious medical emergency, she must sit with her guests and suffer the indignity of being told how great she is. Boy, I can certainly identify with the misery of others pointing out how perfect you are. The thing that really sets her off is being called 'sweet' one too many times. Oh, the beasts that torment her!
Donna's also tired of everyone walking all over her and ignoring her polite requests. Daughter Mary won't make her bed, and son Jeff won't clean the yard and wash the car. I really DO identify with kids not listening to you. Even Hilldale Cleaners deliveryman Mac forgets her dress and plays the old 'Well, I'd have to make a long trip all the way back' routine when she calls him on it. Mac's played by the great Sid Tomack, who I keep expecting to say, 'What a revoltin' development this is,' at being told he has to go back to the office.
Perhaps worst of all, Donna has been looking forward to a local production of Death of a Salesman for weeks, but when she and Alex are set to attend the final performance he wants to go to a colleague's dinner party to see film of a gall bladder operation. Now that I think about it, Alex may have a point; I'll bet whatever amateur thespian group they have in Hilldale does more damage to Arthur Miller than Dr. Stone's friend does to that gall bladder.
The point is everyone takes Donna for granted and realizes that since she is so calm and friendly they can get away with things without fear of reprisal. So when Donna snaps and--gasp--asks that they do what they are supposed to do, they act like she's Godzilla...or that grumpy maid Alice Mitchell hired. She raises her voice and even taps her toes when son Jeff tries to brush her off again. I'd like to say the Stones realize they've been taking advantage of Mom, but in reality they gather and talk about what a monster Donna has become.
Everyone's overreaction is so pointed that poor Donna regrets asserting herself. When Mac returns with the dress, he shows the keen psychological insight that makes him a cleaning company deliveryman, pointing out that Donna is not being herself. This strikes a chord with her, and she decides to go back to being the sweet angel who has to ask ten times before someone washes the dishes.
Nothing against Mac, but it's alarming that Donna Stone can't discuss her feelings with her actual family and has to be diagnosed by the guy who picks up her literal dirty laundry. If the show didn't go on for 250 more episodes, I'd say there was trouble brewing in the Stone household. TV Time does not recognize the reversal that occurs in the latter part of the episode, instead choosing to pay tribute to the glorious five minutes in which this iconic mother demands people pay her a little respect.
Outstanding Achievement in Telling It Like It Is: June Cleaver in 'Wally's Haircomb' (Leave It to Beaver) - The good news is Wally gets a haircut on his own. The bad news is he returns with a crazy 'do piled up in the wrong places, flat in the wrong places, and slick all over. After investigating a persistent rumor, though, TV Time can confirm it is NOT true OPEC was formed when a visiting Middle Eastern dignitary happened to catch this episode on ABC.
June is horrified and wants to tell her son how awful he looks with his 'jelly roll' haircut, but husband Ward reminds her boys indulge in fads all the time and Wally probably fits right in with the other kids. In fact, Wally mentions that Eddie already has the same hairstyle, and, oh, what a shame it is we don't see that!
June is a simmering cauldron of rage, dying to tell Wally to go back to his old style. Is she afraid Wally will be embarrassed by his peers? Not really. Is she upset because Wally gives up the swim team for fear of having to alter his non-aerodynamic coiffure? A little bit, but that's not the big problem. No, listen to what she tells Ward: 'What are people going to think of us when they see him on the street?'
After Ward's 'subtle' approach fails to move their son, June decides she's had enough and takes matters into her own hands. Well, not quite; she switches from begging Ward to tell Wally to get a haircut to begging the principal to tell Wally to get a haircut. When this strategy fails, Beaver imitates the style, and that's it. She blows her own immaculate top, comes right out and tells Wally, 'I'm not having you go out in the public street embarrassing your father and me with that -- with that hideous head.'
Wally is stunned his haircut could embarrass anyone, but when June explains it, he realizes how bad it is and agrees to change. Being told your parents think you look like a creep tends to have an effect. Wally claims it's too bad Eddie Haskell doesn't have parents who care enough to yell at him, but as I see it, Eddie is the real winner. After all, actor Ken Osmond goes the whole episode without being seen on camera in that ridiculous mane, proving Eddie really is the smartest one on the show.
Best Musical Number: Laura Petrie in 'Someone Has to Play Cleopatra' (The Dick Van Dyke Show) - If it seems odd honoring a mother for an episode in which her son never appears consider the fact I often find it easy to forget Richie exists. Besides, Laura doesn't need to show us she's a great mom. She conveys this in the time-honored tradition of communicating with a calypso song.
Showbiz pro Rob is roped into organizing a community fundraiser, and while various people offer their talents--I'll never forgive Rob for interrupting Millie Helper right as Jerry is getting her to do her Wallace Beery imitation -- they decide to go with more of a song-and-dance event. During rehearsal at the Petrie household, Mary Tyler Moore's Laura cuts loose with verses about Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet before letting us know what's really important:
'In my suburbia, housewife-urbia
I'm busy as a bee
I drive the kids to school, dig a swimming pool
Work just like a fool
Husband, what a help he is
He plays the golf, and I'm teed off'
This brilliant verse (the song was penned by cast member Morey Amsterdam) is a perfect encapsulation of the stereotype of a classic TV mother's life. (Well, almost perfect; I have yet to see the episode of Father Knows Best in which Jim makes Margaret go in the backyard and dig a swimming pool.) Laura sells the material with gusto, her groovy dance moves complementing the lyrics.
It's hard imagining anything in the actual revue topping that (I bet it blows away Hilldale's Death of a Salesman), but the group tries anyway, moving on to rehearsing a Cleopatra sketch involving jealous husbands, a surprising character, and Bob Crane. Despite all that excitement, Laura Petrie steals the show and runs away with this Mommy Award. Richie presumably plugs his ears and puts his pillow around his head, trying in vain to fall asleep while the half of New Rochelle parties all night in the living room.
Special Honor for Sustained Achievement in Delegation of Motherhood: Dorothy 'Missy' Baxter, (Hazel) - There is certainly a place for the kind of domineering, ubiquitous supermom who controls all aspects of her children's lives, but most mortal women need a little down time to recharge their batteries and do things like, say, arrange flowers. A periodic recharging of the batteries gives a mother the vigor she needs to do all the things in her household her housekeeper doesn't do.
We at TV Time recognize that Dorothy 'Missy' Baxter is an expert at delegation not merely in any single episode, but throughout the entire run of Hazel. Accordingly, we are pleased to bestow upon her a Lifetime Achievement award. Mrs. B cinches the honor before the series' fifth and final season with her decision to accompany Mr. B to the Middle East without their son Harold -- the ultimate act of delegation.
Clearly Dorothy Baxter is confident enough in her skills as a mother to leave her child behind, thousands of miles away, to be raised by her maid (her in-laws are there, too, but let's face it, it's Hazel in charge). One can only imagine how refreshed and ready to arrange flowers Dorothy will be when she gets back!
This Mother's Day holiday, let's take the time to salute all of these Mommy Award-winning television mothers for showing us the way and for helping make us what we are today. We can only hope all of you are fortunate enough to know mothers who loved you enough to abandon you for a spouse's international business trip of indefinite length of time.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.