[24 January 2011]
In the decade it was on the air, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made piecemeal of almost two hundred really bad movies, the host and his two robot sidekicks adding an additional audio track of sarcastic commentary and other irreverence. But another mainstay of the show was the bevy of short films that the crew riffed on. Not every episode featured a short, but the shorts remain popular enough today to have been collected more than once for the home video market.
The majority of these shorts were chosen from the slew of self-improvement films produced in America during the 1950s, ostensibly to be shown to junior high and high school students. These “mental hygiene” shorts stressed ideals like obedience, cleanliness, temperance and other traditional “family values” associated with middle America after World War II.
The schlock and awe of these shorts alone makes them ripe for the MST3K treatment, but one short in particular stands out. “A Date with Your Family”, produced in 1950, is an instructional film depicting exactly how to conduct oneself for a most pleasant evening meal. The social angst and oppression pulsates off the film in nearly palpable waves, assisted in no short order by the narration of Hugh Beaumont. Beaumont is, of course, most well known for his depiction as the wise head of the Cleaver clan on that staple of Americana TV, Leave It to Beaver. For this short’s purposes, the benign yet firm voice of this uber-paterfamilias brooks no backsass from any smart-alecks who may be looking to ruin their family’s charming dinner by having an opinion or an original idea.
Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy (as Tom Servo), and Trace Beaulieu (as Crow T. Robot) send this short up with evident glee. It is also interesting to note here that when this episode of MST3K first aired, it was the summer of 1994, the same year the Republican Party began its eventual take-over of the U.S. Congress with its “Contract with America”. This platform called for major cutbacks on welfare and other social reform and sought to return America to its original “family values”. These values were ridiculous enough in 1950, much more so in 1994.
But they do make for prime comedy material.