by Cary O'Dell
Made in 1959, by Screen Gems productions in cooperation with the Treasury Department, "Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland" featured the full cast of the hit, beloved television series, "Father Knows Best," including patriarch Robert Young, his wife, played by Jane Wyatt, and their three children, enacted by Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray and Lauren Chapin. The program (though this film was never broadcast, indeed never meant to be broadcast, for the sake of readability and understanding, I will refer to is as an "episode" or "program" for the purposes of this article) was created for showing to youth groups, clubs, church organizations and other places where the young and impressionable might be likely to congregate. It was intended as a tool for promoting the sale of savings bonds.
Like the unaired pilot for "I Love Lucy" or a few of the music videos of Madonna, " "Tyrantland" is a part of TV history which has been far more discussed than it has ever been viewed. Almost every recap of the long-running series "Father Knows Best" makes some mention of this unaired, specially-produced program. And both media writers and American historians have amply sited the program in their textbooks and footnotes as an example of 1950s America paranoia and propaganda.
Several years ago, when I served as the archives director for the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, I was able, through the generosity of the US Department of the Treasury, to obtain a 3/4" videotape copy of the film for the Museum's television archives. To this day, I consider it one of the most interesting titles we were ever able to add that collection. Upon viewing it, it proved to be a fascinating artifact of a distinct time in recent American history.
In 1959 and shortly after, in the deep frost of the cold war, we can almost imagine the surprise of children and teens sitting down in a gymnasium or church basement and expecting to see another dull movie--perhaps on personal hygiene or something like that--only to be welcomed by the familiar faces of one of their favorite TV shows. And the kids would be further thrilled when they found out that this wasn't even a rerun! No, this a was show made just for them.
In retrospect, the family of "Father Knows Best" were the perfect messengers for a film like "Twenty-Four Hours in Tyrantland." Though sitcom suburbia of the era was populated by many white, middle class, and perfectly intact nuclear families (the Cleavers, the Nelsons, etc.), it isn't surprising that the family of "Father Knows Best," the Andersons, got the nod from the US government for this public service endeavor. As their exceedingly common last name suggests, the Andersons were--at least in TV terms--the most typically American family on the tube at the time, and there was no slow-witted son (ala the Beaver) or smarmy neighbor boy (ala Eddie Haskell) and no encroaching rock and roll attitude (like in the Nelsons) to take way from the strong, moral qualities that this make- believe family represented and embodied.
But, unlike the weekly broadcast episodes of "Father Knows Best," the point of this episode was not to entertain. No, the purpose of "Tyrantland" was to save America from certain, inevitable communist rule via the sale of US savings bonds. The program's sales pitch is a deadly serious and heavy-handed one. Its themes and morals are thickly applied, and now comes across quite quaint, if not downright silly. In short, "Tyrantland" has not aged well. But, it should be said, the film, perhaps due to the strong convictions and seriousness of everyone involved in its making, has not completely de-evolved into a laugh out loud, camp classic like "Duck and Cover" or "Reefer Madness" or other antiquated morality tales. Nevertheless, "Tyrantland" remains a powerful reflector of a profound national mood.
NEXT: PART TWO: A BIG DECISION
Cary O'Dell, formerly of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Illinois, is currently with the Discovery Channel in Bethesda, Maryland and writes frequently on television.
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