I had almost forgotten that this is Mother's Day until my brother reminded me by telling us that he's cooking supper on Sunday (which I dread because I'm better on the barbecue than he is). As usual I was planning on doing a Mother's Day tribute, but with my recent decision to do videos on the weekend I thought I'd do it a little differently this time around – instead of photos, post videos. But videos of what? What would be my inspiration?
Fortunately succour was at hand. My friend Valerie has three kids, one of whom is getting married this month. Val, whose birthday is on May 9th – Mother's Day this year – is slightly freaking. Actually she posted on her Facebook page, "The word MOTHER IN-LAW is starting to freak me out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" And there it was – inspiration. The supposedly dark side of mothering...The Mother-In-Law.
Mothers-in-law have, on the whole, a negative reputation. For the most part this is courtesy of stand-up comics who usually make their mothers-in law the butt of their jokes. Mothers-in-law in these jokes are inevitably antagonistic to their sons-in law (usually – in more recent shows like Everybody Loves Raymond it's the wife who is targeted by the mother-in-law venom) for not being good enough for their little baby. Mothers-in-law are inevitably seen as interfering with the lives of the next generation on the grounds that "mother knows best."
Our first example comes from this school of mothers-in-law. It's probably inevitable that Ralph Kramden would have an antagonistic relationship with his mother-in-law. Played her by Ethel Owen, Mrs. Gibson doesn't give Ralph any respect at all, not about his weight, his lack of money or his status as the head of the household. This clip, from Mrs. Gibson's second appearance in a Honeymooners piece (her first was in a story that was done on the original Jackie Gleason Show called "The Great Jewel Robbery") contains the great moment when Ralph comes into the apartment and just stares at her with undisguised antagonism. Later in this episode, in a clip that I'm not embedding, we see her entire attitude change when she thinks that Ralph has struck it rich. She not only become respectful she's downright fawning, to the point of telling her daughter to "be quiet" when Alice tries to reign in Ralph's spending. Mrs. Gibson (she's never given a first name) was played by Ethel Owen in five episodes of the original Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners. Years later the character appeared in a colour Honeymooners segment of the 1960s Jackie Gleason Show. In this episode she was played by Pert Kelton in one of her final acting roles. Kelton had originally played Alice Kramden in the first seasons of the Jackie Gleason Show, when the show was seen on the Dumont network.
In a similar style to the relationship between Ralph Kramden and Alice's mother is the relationship between Fred Flintstone and his mother-in-law Mrs. Pearl Slaghoople. Their interactions are almost entirely verbal, since an animated character – particularly a character from the Hanna-Barbera stable of limited animation – can't really sell an attitude based solely on a facial expression in the way that an actor like Jackie Gleason is able to. However, like Mrs. Gibson, Mrs. Slaghoople is entirely disdainful of her son-in-law even though Fred is probably a better provider than Ralph Kramden is (of course they're living in Bedrock not metropolitan New York). Pearl Slaghoople is voiced by Verna Felton, who is probably best known to Old Time Radio fans for playing Dennis Day's mother on the various incarnations of The Jack Benny Program. She even played Dennis's mother on TV, heaping the same sort of abuse on Mr. Benny as she did on her animated son-in-law.
Of course it isn't just men who are the victims of mothers-in-laws. Consider Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. Marie rules not by insult and intimidation but by making every member of her family feel guilty for even breathing. Her biggest target is her daughter-in-law Debra who at least tries to fight back (but will never win), and her sons Raymond and Robert who just roll over and accept it. In this clip we see that Ray gets along fine with his mother-in-law, but Debra and Marie? Just watch Debra try to call Marie Mom? Marie takes shots from the moment she appears in the scene, and when Debra finally gets the word out Marie turns into the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Beautiful understanding of the character from Doris Robertrs.
Of course when it came to "troublesome" mothers-in-law, no one came close to Darrin Stevens. When he said that his mother-in-law was a witch he wasn't exaggerating. Endora almost never had a good word for her son-in-law, including his real name. In fact, according to the Wikipedia article on Bewitched, Endora only ever called Darrin by his correct name eight times. A favourite was "Dum-Dum." Like many of TV mothers-in-law she didn't think her daughter's husband was good enough for her daughter, but unlike most of them she made a significant and active effort to break up their relationship, whether by bringing in one of Samantha's old boyfriends or by some other complicated scheme. Her antipathy to Darrin ran deeper than just that he wasn't good enough for him. Put into real world terms, it was as like a wealthy woman marrying a man in the middle class, although this wasn't the only dimension to it. Samantha wasn't just a child of privilege, she was someone with a special ability that Darrin refused to allow her to use. It is so typically a 1960s situation that is seen in numerous other shows. If you were to remake Bewitched today and Darrin were to order Samantha not to use her powers, not only would she tell him where to get off, she'd probably take him there, and most of the women viewers would applaud. But in the days when the firm of McMahon & Tate was competing against Sterling Cooper, women like Samantha Stevens and Betty Draper were dutiful wives and suffered in silence.
Most mothers-in-law on TV shows were treated fairly enough. Ricky Ricardo got along well with Lucy's mother, while Lucy's biggest problem with Senora Ricardo was the language barrier. Jed Clampett's mother-in-law moved to California with him (but he was a widower), and even Tim Taylor got along famously with his wife's mother on Home Improvement. I don't think that the "harridan" mother-in-law was ever really as common on TV as we thought it was, and it's probably a thing of the past... unless it's really really funny.