Livin’ the Dream: Watching My Three Sons

Whoa, a month has flown by without an update–inexcusable! Except I was exhausted, uninspired, and livin’ in the dream in Utah for a few weeks. And by livin’ the dream, I mean I was helping my grandma clean and organize, visiting cemeteries, listening to my brother rattle off our family tree back to the seventeenth century by heart (…seriously), frequenting thrift stores, and making myself stay up until 11:41 P.M. every night to watch My Three Sons. Like I said, inexcusable. Except in my book, when you have the chance to watch My Three Sons, it is inexcusable to not drop everything else and grab that chance and never let go, Jack.

Unless they’re the color episodes featuring some demon masquerading as a child named Dodie. Then you go right ahead and let go.

But we’ll talk about Dodie later. Right now let’s focus on why I felt compelled to stay up to watch this 50-year-old show, just as I felt compelled to forego sleeping in on my summer vacations as a child to sit in front of the television at 8 A.M. to watch the reruns of the black-and-white episodes on TVLand. (I was a healthy and balanced child. Promise.)

First things first: the toe-tapping theme song. Literally. 

I dare you to listen to this theme song and not have it stuck in your head…forever. No, really. It will be stuck in your head forever. Because it is just that delightfully insidious. It is also known in some circles as the bomb diggity. Really.

Do do do doooooo, do do do dooooo, do do do dooooo

I told ya.

Ain’t no estrogen ’round here…

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My Three Sons premiered on ABC in September 1960. Unlike some of the other sitcoms of the era, the all-male Douglas household was loud and messy. It was a more realistic portrayal of suburban life than some of its contemporaries, where children’s rooms were often in near-pristine condition. And Grandpa Bub (William Frawley) did not clean that adorable little house in Bryant Park (far superior to the North Hollywood home the family occupied in later seasons) in high heels and pearls. (Uncle Charley, on the other hand…Just kidding!) He did, however, gripe (good-naturedly) about having to repeatedly clean up after those boys and that rascal of a dog, Tramp. Oh, Tramp. No other TV dog compares to you. (And your autograph is adorable.)

Now for those of you watching in black and white…

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The first five seasons of My Three Sons aired on ABC in black and white. They featured William Frawley as Bub and Tim Considine as oldest brother Mike. These are undoubtedly my favorite episodes. The personalities of Mike, Robbie, and Chip blended well. Bub was an endearing curmudgeon. The love interests of widower Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) were minimal and short-lived. The focus instead was on his three sons, their lives and mischief, and how their Dad and Bub helped them learn and grow. Plus, there’s just something about watching a show in black and white as opposed to color that I find inherently more enjoyable.

When ABC deemed the show too costly to produce in color at the end of the fifth season, the show moved to CBS. The end of the black and white episodes also marked the departure of William Frawley, who was declared too ill to work and thus too costly to insure, and Tim Considine, whose request to be able to work behind the scenes on the show as well as act was denied. Considine’s character Mike got married, moved away, and was sadly rarely mentioned in later seasons. I wish he would have been allowed to stay. I wish it hadn’t been so expensive to insure William Frawley. But he wasn’t and it was and so instead of canceling the show outright, the show changed.

…this one is in Technicolor!

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Enter Bub’s brother Uncle Charley (William Demarest) to assume Bub’s housekeeping duties and neighbor Ernie (Barry Livingston, real-life brother of Chip aka Stanley Livingston) to fill the void left by Mike and become the adopted third son, keeping the title of the show intact. Uncle Charley is just a much of an endearing curmudgeon as Bub, and Ernie assumes the duty of being the little cute one, now that Chip is entering his teen years. Steve and Uncle Charley still help the boys solve their problems. They still live in Bryant Park. The house is still messy. A few seasons later, Robbie marries a girl named Katie, and they subsequently have three sons of their own. (Take that, Bradys!) But the show is still watchable, enjoyable even.

And then the show’s creators decided that it wasn’t good enough that the three sons grew up and got married. Longtime widower Steve needed to get married, too. I guess they were possessed or something.

She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Jr. 

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It was painful to upload that picture. If I ever run out of storage space on this blog, it is the first thing to go.

Now, why did Steve have to get married? I hate the premise in life and on (some) television that a character needs to get married. Has to get married.

Okay, so he gets married to someone who he doesn’t even seem all that crazy about…but there has to be a kid, too? I understand that perhaps the show’s creators felt that they needed to fulfill the “cute” factor once Ernie entered puberty. But in no universe could Dodie be honestly described as “cute.” I’m sorry, but that is the truth. She wasn’t cute, but she was an annoying little brat whose dresses were inappropriately short. What were the show’s creators thinking? They weren’t, apparently.

The episodes introducing Barbara and Dodie began to air toward the end of my stay in Utah, and I found myself checking my phone often to see if the twenty-two minutes had yet come to an end. The episodes go by so slowly. The plots are threadbare and pointless. I began to make a list of things I’d rather do than watch episodes revolving around Barbara and/or Dodie. Item number one on the list: ANYTHING!!

Meanwhile, Robbie leaves for business in Peru or something. And Chip elopes. And Ernie’s voice is still cracking. And Mike…wait, who’s Mike? This is sadly no longer the same show I fell in love with. And it’s not difficult to understand why it was eventually cancelled after twelve seasons.

But My Three Sons remains one of my most-beloved shows. Steve Douglas is one of my favorite TV Dads. He was kind and fair and understanding, with a good sense of humor. I love the disorderly Douglas household. I love how they all ate at that small, circular table together, digesting Bub’s oatmeal without complaint (sometimes). I love how they bickered and fought and helped each other. I love how, corny as it may be, a lesson was learned at the end of each episode–the most recurring lesson being that this was a unique family who loved each other, muddy shoes and dirty hands and all.

Even an infuriatingly annoying little girl in a dress so short it shows her underwear couldn’t erase that lesson.

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

My introduction to Billy Wilder’s film noir classic was not as a requirement for a film class or an interest in one of the main actors or even an interest in the genre of film noir. It was Gilmore Girls.

(Of course.)

Lorelai has injured her back while making a dress for Rory to wear to her school dance, and when her mother, Emily, arrives the night of the dance to take pictures of Rory, she discovers Lorelai’s injury and insists on spending the evening overseeing her injury. Flipping through the television channels, Emily stumbles upon Double Indemnity.

“Oh, look–Barbara Stanwyck. I just love Barbara Stanwyck,” she says.

“Oh yeah, she’s good,” agrees Lorelai.

“She had that wonderful voice — that husky, deep voice. I just love that voice.”

“You know Mom, you have kind of a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice.”

“Oh, I do not.”

“I mean it. You could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Dad if you’d really wanted to.”

But like most Gilmore Girls pop culture references, I didn’t recognize or fully understand the reference until I’d seen the episode three or four or three times four times.

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(Are you singing the My Three Sons theme song in your head right now? ‘Cos once you start, you just can’t stop. Just try it. Dare you.)

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of Fred MacMurray, I instantly think of Steve Douglas, widowed father of Mike, Robbie, and Chip (and later Ernie…but I don’t really want to talk about that right now).  Steve Douglas–and by extension, at least in my mind as a child, Fred MacMurray–was a kind, understanding, and fair father.

And when I don’t see MacMurray as Douglas, I see him as Wilson Daniels, a mailman who hates dogs and father to Moochie and Wilby, who happens to turn into a dog–a shaggy one, to be precise.

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Moochie? Moochie! MOOCHIE!

Slightly more erratic than Steve Douglas but still a good and decent man.

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And then I see MacMurray in Alice Adams as Arthur Russell, the kind and wealthy man Katharine Hepburn’s Alice Adams falls in love with.

Always kind. Always decent. Always trustworthy. There was no way he was ever, ever, EVER plotting to kill anybody to get the insurance money.

That, of course, is exactly what he does in Double Indemnity. 

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The film opens with Walter Neff (MacMurray) hobbling to his office to record a “confession” for his fellow employee, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). He is obviously in pain. He dictates into the Dictaphone, “I did it for the money. I did it for the girl. I didn’t get the money. I didn’t get the girl. Pretty, isn’t it?”

Somehow, you instantly get the idea that this isn’t going to end too well for Walter. Yet, as the film is told in flashback, you’re (or at least I was) on the edge of your seat, anxious to see how the plot unfolds and whether Walter and Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) will actually get away with their devious plan. The suspense of the film is perfectly complemented and augmented by the taut soundtrack, sharp and concise dialogue, the ingenious use of light and shadow, and Fred MacMurray’s dispassionate voice-over narration. (It would be kind of cool if he could narrate my life every day. Just sayin’.)

Neff, like my childhood memories of MacMurray, is at first portrayed (from his perspective, mind) as a respected, honest, and successful insurance salesman. Then, how is he driven to commit murder? Two words: Barbara Stanwyck. And five more: In a (hideous) blonde wig. From the moment Neff sees Phyllis, he is overcome with desire for her, and thus is willing to be roped into her plan to murder her absentee husband to cash in an insurance policy Neff will (not really) sell him. They work together to meticulously plan every detail of how they will carry out the plot…and whether they’re successful, well, you’ll have to watch and see for yourself. It is so worth it.

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“We’re both rotten.”

“Only you’re a little more rotten.” 

According to Robert Osborne’s introduction to the film, one of the major obstacles to the film being made was in fact the casting. Each of the principal players–MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson–were initially resistant for different reasons. Robinson at first refused because his role was a supporting one, not a lead. MacMurray and Stanwyck (who had previously worked together in Remember the Night, which I was going to write about at Christmastime but admittedly was too lazy to do so) both had concerns about playing cold-hearted murderers. Wilder encouraged both to accept the challenge, and as a result, they produced two of the finest performances of their long and illustrious careers.

It’s a near-perfect film. Actually, it just might be perfect. I can’t think of anything wrong with it–except perhaps for Stanwyck’s truly hideous and often distracting blonde wig, which does suit her character in a way. It is well-written, the performances pull you in from the moment the film starts and don’t let you go until the words “The End” fade onto the screen, and the soundtrack and photography perfectly mirror the dark plot.

Oh, and Emily Gilmore does kind of have a Barbara Stanwyck-y voice. And she totally could have gotten Fred MacMurray to off Richard Gilmore if she had so desired.