The Ten Best THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW Episodes of Season Four

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday (…on a Wednesday)! This week, we had to switch the order of our posts so that we could discuss the first three seasons of The Danny Thomas Show, which aired on ABC under the title of Make Room For Daddy (1953-1956). Now, we’re finally moving on to the part of the series’ run that is presently being shown — the show is currently airing on COZI TV as of this writing — and therefore available for full coverage: Seasons Four through Eleven (1956-1964), which all debuted under the newly christened The Danny Thomas Show title, the first of these years (1956-’57) on ABC, and the rest on CBS.

The Danny Thomas Show stars DANNY THOMAS as Danny Williams, SHERRY JACKSON as Terry Williams, and RUSTY HAMER as Rusty Williams. With AMANDA RANDOLPH as Louise, BENNY LESSY as Benny, and MARY WICKES as Liz.

We begin weekly coverage of The Danny Thomas Show with the most unique season of its entire run: the only one where Danny is without a wife. As the last year on ABC but the first under a new title, Four has a sense of transition, and for many decades, it wasn’t seen in syndication, largely due to rights issues, but some surmise that Thomas didn’t want any reminders of Margaret or the fact that Danny had an actual on-camera wife prior to Kathy. Speaking of Kathy, she debuts in Four’s final four episodes, capping off a round of off-camera auditioning only partially illustrated on the show. Meanwhile, this year is also the first where director Sheldon Leonard is officially credited as a producer, recognized for holding a level of control that would supersede the string of “story consultants” dropping in to nominally act as head writer, including Arthur Stander (I Married Joan, It’s Always Jan, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante), who began at the top of Four and would last until Seven (marking the longest tenure). We’ll come to find that the Stander years are best — with Five and Six, in particular, the peak — but that’s for a variety of reasons, only one of which is a quality that all his seasons share: a sense of realism, the feeling that these characters are actual people. Which means, even though they’re not as well-defined or used to motivate story in the same way that Lucy‘s or Dick Van Dyke‘s characters are, their suggested humanity is enough to warrant emotional investment and keep us interested. Otherwise, each of these years is different — Four, especially, for while Five has a solid dramatic tension that stems from the new blended family, this season has a situation all its own: Danny, the nightclub singer/comic who’s always had trouble balancing his duties as entertainer and father, is now a widower with two kids to raise by himself. This is essentially the culmination of the premise that defined the show as Shavelson established and explored it in the Jean Hagen years, because now Danny’s struggle to maintain these two important parts of his life is even more embedded into the sustaining circumstance with greater stakes and an inevitable result: the home life becomes more dominant, both for the character and the show.

Of course, the home life was always dominant, even in the Margaret era — there really was no question, look at the original title — yet with Hagen’s departure necessitating a season of widowerhood, this year’s staff (Stander, Henry Garson, Bill Manhoff) and Leonard (who won an Emmy for his directorial work this year) have no choice but to further minimize Danny’s work while scripts cater to the new scenario, build up the remaining regular cast members — including two of the most talented child actors in ’50s TV, the sincere Sherry Jackson and the instinctively funny Rusty Hamer — and, eventually, start to create the momentum necessary to give Danny a new wife, which this show believes is essential to its identity. Ironically, though, when Marjorie Lord joins the cast, Five will drop the idea that Danny’s worlds are in conflict; it doesn’t need that anymore, for after a whole season (Four) of honoring the home, and with a new situation (the blended family) that also demands attention, all that Danny’s work now provides is the chance for weekly musical numbers and guest stars… both of which the show decides are going to exist wherever Danny happens to be, premise or no premise. Yet, if Five drops the work vs. home construct, Four is, again, the transitional year that acknowledges what the series was initially built to be, while tipping the narrative scales so far that premise-eradication is the next logical step, and we don’t fault the series for doing so, as actually, it ends up freeing the show for funnier stories… As for Four, one of the things that makes it easier for Danny to be homebound is that Thomas himself got into an accident over the summer where he broke his ankle and had limited mobility. This had to be written into the first batch of scripts, and thus, the first part of the season not only wants Danny to be home to address the new mother-less situation (which is talked around, not about), it HAS to keep him home because of his ankle. Now, some fans get excited about the continuity this ankle provides, but that’s overstated; the only real serialization happens in the final Kathy arc, which is exciting because Lord has better chemistry with Thomas than Hagen did, and in these first shows, she feels like his equal, not his subordinate (as she’ll increasingly prove to be).

Thanks to their chemistry and a narrative sense of purpose, Four’s last few episodes are tight and focused, and we root for the inevitable outcome. Also, the Kathy shows (where the writing team of Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart temporarily took over “story consultant” duties for Stander, who quit to do another series for his wife Janis Paige only to come back before Five when their marriage busted) end up funnier than the rest of Four, predicting the rowdier, more laugh-seeking, and generally happier style of writing that will come to define the series in its next few years (when it jumped networks, took over Lucy’s slot, and therefore had to be more like Lucy). Prior to that, Four is tonally akin to the Margaret years, which had humor, but were equally concerned with dramatic scenarios and emotional moments that vacillated between being genuine and cloying. I think this year gets away with being even more sentimental and dramatic though because of the missing mother… but, frankly, we appreciate the show for indulging this believable human sentiment for a respectable amount of time, so it’s mostly earned. Nevertheless, the show improves as it becomes funnier, and when picking episodes here, while I prize the authenticity that many of these scripts suggest, the sitcom genre requires laughs… Fortunately, hahas and heart aren’t mutually exclusive, and the season has another recurring player on hand to help deliver both: Mary Wickes as Danny’s press agent, Liz, who appears in over half the year’s episodes — acting as a proxy mother who can assist with the kids, and also keep Danny’s work life reinforced in story. She’ll be phased out after Season Five, but Wickes is a wonderful presence — I was so impressed with her time on this show that I dedicated a whole Wildcard post to it years ago — and she, along with Benny Lessy, give the scripts some of the theatricality that it needs to keep itself peppy in this liminal, sad time. I wish she made more appearances ahead, but, hey, with a new wife (and a new kid), the show quickly becomes quite busy, and this year dutifully sets the table for all the great things to come. So, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s finest.

 

01) Episode 92: “The Nelson Eddy Show” (Aired: 10/08/56)

Danny picks his temporary replacement at the club.

Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

The year’s sophomore excursion, this is the first script to consciously write for Danny’s broken ankle — after a glum premiere that had to establish the new mother-less situation — by having him choose his temporary replacement at the club. I wanted to highlight it here because it’s an example of a guest star-driven show, where the series crafts a script to showcase a special talent. But it’s better than most because its comedy stems from Danny’s insecurity, as he intentionally chooses Nelson Eddy as his replacement, thinking that Eddy will bomb.

02) Episode 94: “Be A Pal To Your Son” (Aired: 10/22/56)

Danny tries being his son’s “pal.”

Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

We’ve seen the “Be A Pal” idea used on I Love Lucy with husbands, but this time it’s about fathers and sons — an appropriate subject matter given the enhanced focus on Danny’s parenting skills now that he’s a single dad. Yet not only is this a Victory In Premise for the show at this point in its run, it’s also written with a lot of laughs, particularly in the fantasy sequence where Danny imagines what evil could befall Rusty if his father isn’t also his pal. So, this is one of the funniest offerings on this list. (And, guess what, Lucy fans: Phil Ober guests.)

03) Episode 104: “Liz’s Boyfriend” (Aired: 12/31/56)

Danny fears Liz’s boyfriend is only interested in pitching him material.

Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

You may remember this show from when I shared it six years ago in honor of Mary Wickes; it’s the only story in the entire run built around Liz, as she finds that her new beau is only with her to get to Danny. If it seems like a familiar premise, that’s because the same idea was used a few years later with Sally Rogers on Dick Van Dyke, which is evoked here not just through the plot, but also through Richard Deacon, who guest stars as one of several men recruited to bolster Liz’s confidence in the wake of her breakup. This atypical entry is memorable for its treatment of Wickes, one of the selling points of the season — worthy of any spotlight.

04) Episode 106: “Danny’s Date” (Aired: 01/14/57)

The kids object when Danny brings home a date.

Written by Jack Elinson & Charles Stewart | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Now that we’re in the second half of the year, this is the first time Danny is allowed to actually date, and naturally, that’s an emotionally difficult prospect for his kids. When I shared this episode here several years ago, I noted that I was impressed by the truthfulness with which this story was handled. That’s still the case, and I also enjoy both the appearance of Beaver‘s Barbara Billingsley as said date and the genuine work of Mary Wickes, who lays into the kids for not letting their father move on and find the happiness he deserves. It’s real stuff.

05) Episode 111: “Danny’s Fiancée” (Aired: 02/21/57)

Danny thinks he’s found a new wife, but his kids think otherwise.

Written by Laurence Marks | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

With a similar story — only now Danny’s more committed to the idea of finding a new wife — this outing balances some emotional sincerity in its first half with more sitcom-styled hijinks in the latter, as the kids scheme to get rid of the intruder by pretending that their father is an abusive drunk. (It’s funnier than it reads.) It’s broader and less honest than most of Four, but it better resembles future seasons, and it also has a different purpose than the above: this time the story is not about the kids letting Danny move on, it’s about Danny not rushing into anything foolish, as his paramour is quickly proven to be the wrong woman for him.

06) Episode 113: “Uncle Tonoose Pays A Visit” (Aired: 03/07/57)

Uncle Tonoose drops by with the perfect new wife for Danny.

Written by Arthur Stander | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Danny’s Lebanese Uncle Tonoose, played by the great Hans Conried and introduced at the end of Three, is one of the series’ iconic figures, even though he’s larger than life and tends to occur in entries that forsake the show’s trademark believability for easy laughs. Accordingly, his appearances, which increase in the Lord years, are hit and miss, with most of them covering similar ground — he usually comes with some cockamamie idea that nobody likes and Danny has to muster up the strength to tell him. Well, that template is applied to this year’s circumstances, as he arrives with a wife for Danny. “Strong like bull” starts here; it’s fun.

07) Episode 117: “Danny Meets Kathy” (Aired: 04/04/57)

Danny clashes with a nurse who’s come to care for Rusty.

Written by Henry Garson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Danny Meets Kathy” was shared years before on this blog in our Wickes tribute post, but really, it’s a showcase for Marjorie Lord, the future Mrs. Williams, who makes her debut in this, the first of four consecutive entries that culminate in the proposal that enables The Danny Thomas Show to enter Season Five with a new leading lady. Of these four, this is undoubtedly the best, not only because it benefits from the inaugural spark of electricity that comes from both the show and the audience realizing that Danny has found his new match — which is thrilling, especially after a season that was occasionally funereal about his romantic future — but also because this initial iteration of Kathy is feistier than what’s to come; she’s someone who can go toe to toe with Danny, yet still has a chemistry with him that’s, well, more believable than what he had with her predecessor. Sadly, never before is their dynamic allowed to be so charged, but that doesn’t matter to this outing, which is stirring because it suggests infinite possibilities. A piece of TV history.

08) Episode 118: “Men Are Men” (Aired: 04/11/57)

Danny and Rusty both have trouble with women.

Written by Henry Garson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

In the second of this initial Kathy tetralogy, the series continues to show how Danny and Kathy are developing feelings for each other, but it does something more important: it purposely has Rusty fall for Kathy too, which is smart, because if Rusty likes her, that’s a clue to the audience that we should like her as well. Beyond that, this one boasts a wonderfully fun narrative that uses Rusty’s relationship with a girl his age to mirror the burgeoning romance between Danny and Kathy, as the two conflicts intersect and feed off each other comedically, making for a well-told story that accomplishes a lot without being too obvious about it.

09) Episode 119: “Little Miss Moppet” (Aired: 04/18/57)

Kathy’s daughter tries to break up Kathy’s romance with Danny.

Written by Henry Garson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

One of the great things about Kathy’s inclusion is that she brings with her a little girl, who allows the series to keep telling stories for young kids as well as growing teens. This installment introduces said little girl, Linda, but she’s not yet played by Angela Cartwright, a much more likable performer than the moppet hired to propel this story, which has the child purposely acting up in a scheme to break up the adults’ relationship. It’s emotionally believable — Terry and Rusty did the same a few weeks back — but it’s mostly notable for what it establishes.

10) Episode 120: “Danny’s Proposal” (Aired: 04/25/57)

Danny’s kids try to push him into proposing marriage to Kathy.

Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

The finale is the moment to which the entire year, and especially the Kathy episodes, have been building, and while we’ve expected this all along and the story itself is unable to really keep from being predictable, it’s still an important, smartly made entry that again helps us invest in the core relationship by having the kids champion it. And let’s note, the memorable proposal scene will become even more memorable in future years when viewed in flashback, sparking the idea for several additional plots (when there’s a debate about who proposed to whom).

 

Other notable entries that merit mention include: “The Diary,” a parenting show that has a cute fantasy, “The School Teacher,” which is used to spotlight Monica Lewis’ singing but actually houses some fine chemistry-laden scenes between her and Danny, and “My Friend Harry,” an amusing show that gives a lot of time to Danny’s friend Harry Ruby. I also like the ideas for both “Problem Father” and “Den Mother,” which use Four’s circumstance well. Also, “Christmas And Clowns” is overly sentimental, but it leaves an impression.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Danny Thomas Show goes to…

“Danny Meets Kathy”

 

 

Come back next week for more Danny Thomas and a new Wildcard Wednesday!

4 thoughts on “The Ten Best THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW Episodes of Season Four

  1. I noticed that the episode air dates switched from Monday to Thursday about mid-season, and I found out that happened between the episodes of Mon., Feb. 4, and Thu., Feb. 14. Do you know why this may have been done (I think mid-season time slot changes were rare at this time.) and if it helped the show’s ratings? CBS picked up the show the next year and had it on Mondays for the rest of its run, so it held Lucy’s time slot well.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, ABC was hoping to make a hit of the drama WIRE SERVICE, which it believed would play better in the 7:30-8:30 hour. Neither THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW nor the preceding BOLD JOURNEY were primary considerations in this swap.

      If this helped DANNY THOMAS’ ratings, it wasn’t enough to make a difference — the axe finally fell, after two years of the show being on the figurative chopping block. It really almost ended when Hagen left.

      Once the show moved to CBS and ranked #2 for the year, Thomas was prone to saying that he had been #107 on ABC. That may be hyperbolic, but it gives us a general idea of how unpopular it was on the earlier network.

  2. Hi. Just discovered your blog re-directing me from SITCOMSONLINE! There is a mistake you’ve made, though. The show was titled “Make Room For Daddy” for the first 4(!) seasons on ABC, then when it switched networks in Fall 1957 CBS titled it “The Danny Thomas Show”. Check out” theclassictvarchive” for confirmation. P.S. Absolutely LOVE your details and writing.

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