30 October 2007 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
'Life with Father' meets the Brady Bunch.
Only one episode of 'Anderson and Company' was ever made. This was meant as the pilot episode for a weekly series, but NBC rejected it, so no further episodes were produced ... although I'm told that some further scripts had already been written before the pilot was nobbled. NBC aired this episode precisely once, near the end of the 1968/69 TV season when summer replacements were the order of the day.
'Anderson and Company' has never (to my knowledge) been transmitted in Britain; I saw it at a screening in London in 1971, while working for a British television producer who occasionally purchased the UK syndication rights to Yank television programmes. A 20th Century-Fox rep screened this one-off episode for us, aware that there was no follow-up series yet hoping that my employer might convince the BBC (or even ITV) that this failed pilot (with a much larger production budget than most British series) might be worth thirty minutes of air time on UK television.
In 1969, Fred Gwynne was trying to escape the spectre of Herman Munster and 'Car 54, Where Are You?', and was hoping to star in a weekly series as unlike those two sitcoms as possible. 'Anderson and Company' was nominally a comedy, but (based on the evidence of the first and only episode) it wasn't trying very hard to be funny; it was more of a character study. Jean Holloway, the creator of this series (any relation to Holloway Prison?), had clearly borrowed very heavily from Clarence Day's memoir 'Life with Father' (adapted into a mega-hit Broadway play) and possibly also from the Gilbreth family's memoir 'Cheaper by the Dozen'. However, both of those best-selling books were about the family lives of real people; 'Anderson and Company' purported to depict a similar family but (again, based on the evidence of the only episode) it simply wasn't as believable, with the characters clearly being fictional creations.
It's 1900 or thereabouts, and Marshall Anderson (Gwynne) is the sole owner of one of New York City's most prominent and prosperous department stores. He's also the paterfamilias of a large family: a wife named Augusta and eight boys and girls, all with forenames beginning with the letter A. (I wonder if Jean Holloway nicked this detail from Ambrose Bierce, whose many siblings all had names beginning with "A".)
Because this is 1900, when the husband is unquestionably the ruler of the roost, Anderson naturally expects his wife and children to obey his every whim. If the series had been played that way, it's possible that hip liberated audiences in 1969 might have appreciated it on its own terms. But somebody decided that Gwynne's character had to be sympathetic, so what we end up with here is one more dumb sitcom in which poor old Dad thinks he ought to be the boss but he's constantly being outsmarted or otherwise confounded by his wife and kiddywinks who are allegedly adorable. Gwynne plays Marshall Anderson as cold and unemotional, which is probably appropriate for this character's time and social status ... but we're meant to like him, so his cold front has to be undermined with sub-'Brady Bunch' shenanigans. Actually, Fred Gwynne conveyed more human warmth as animated corpse Herman Munster than he did in this role.
Here's the 'plot', such as it is, of the pilot episode: while Papa Anderson is minding the store, Mama Anderson is taking her brood -- all in matching outfits, like so many Von Trapp children -- somewhere on the streetcar when she realises that she needs some trivial item ... a handkerchief, I think it was. (I can't remember for certain, more than 35 years on from the screening, and I can't even read my own handwriting in some of these old notes I wrote at the time.) Her husband's store is too far away, but a competitor's department store -- Altman's (an actual department store, unlike Anderson's) -- is nearby, so she simply detours her huge brood into Altman's and she buys the hankerchief, or whatever it was. A gripping scenario, aye?
Unbelievably, somebody deems it noteworthy that Mrs Anderson might make a purchase in Altman's instead of in her husband's store. When this 'gossip' gets back to Mr Anderson, he decides to make a big show of not caring about it ... to the point where he greets strangers in the street by tipping his hat and saying 'Altman's'. When he squires his brood to church for Sunday services, he even goes up into the steeple (this is done on the cheap, with a rostrum-camera set-up of a still photo, and a voice-over) where he intones 'Altman's'.
On the positive side, somebody spent a lot of money on the budget for this pilot, lovingly recreating the bustles and high-button shoes of the period. But the results remain unconvincing. The exterior scenes are clearly shot on a studio backlot instead of real streets: we see a 1900-era tram trundling through the streets ... but the streets are sparkling clean, in an era when many men chewed tobacco and most vehicles were horse-drawn. All the actors (except the younger Anderson children) have perfect orthodontia, and it's clear that the women aren't very tightly corseted. I don't recall spotting a single black person in New York City either ... at least, not in the New York City recreated here. And the Anderson family don't seem to have any servants; an extremely unrealistic situation for an upper-class family of that period.
British-born American character actress Renie Riano, whom I've always liked, is briefly pleasant as one of the neighbours; I don't think she would have been a member of the regular cast if this pilot had been picked up. Most fatally of all, Abby Dalton is utterly uninteresting as Anderson's wife. Since you'll likely never see this pilot, and since the 'series' never got as far as a second episode, I shan't even bother rating this thing.