With a breadwinner dad, a homemaker mom, and squeaky-clean kids, the 1950s television family has achieved near mythological status as a model of what real families "ought" to be. Yet feature films of the period often portrayed families in trouble, with parents and children in conflict over appropriate values and behaviors. Why were these representations of family apparently so far apart?
Nina Leibman analyzes many feature films and dozens of TV situation comedy episodes from 1954 to 1963 to find surprising commonalities in their representations of the family. Redefining the comedy as a family melodrama, she compares film and television depictions of familial power, gender roles, and economic attitudes. Leibman's explorations reveal how themes of guilt, deceit, manipulation, anxiety, and disfunctionality that obviously characterize such movies as Rebel without a Cause, A Summer Place, and Splendor in the Grass also crop up in such TV shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show, and My Three Sons.
Drawing on interviews with many of the participants of these productions, archival documents, and trade journals, Leibman sets her discussion within a larger institutional history of 1950s film and television. Her discussions shed new light not only on the reasons for both media's near obsession with family life but also on changes in American society as it reconfigured itself in the postwar era.