The Swiss Family Robinson

May 29, 1743 was the date of birth of Johann David Wyss (d. 1818), known solely today, if at all, for a single literary effort, The Swiss Family Robinson, published in German in 1812, translated into English in 1814. If you’re going to be known for one book, it’s pretty hilarious for it only to be a conceptual tweak of a much better book, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, as this one is. There’s something kind of Hollywood about the poverty of a thought process that goes “A guy named Robinson gets stranded on an island…but this time it’s with his whole family!” Still, whether he intended to or not, by making that alteration Wyss introduced a lot of interesting new elements to the premise. Instead of it being about solitude and oneness with nature and metaphysical rumination, it was now pure adventure, pure story, and the man at the center now had people to protect and order to keep. It was now a microcosm of society. It’s not a surprise to learn that Jules Verne loved the book; it’s almost like a template for his own imaginative outings. Owen Wister was inspired by the book in a different way; his first literary success was a parody of it.

When I was a small kid, there were two existing screen versions. The most visible one was the 1960 Disney movie with John Mills, Dorothy Maguire, James MacArthur, Tommy Kirk, and Kevin Corcoran. Of course, this version had pirates. One of them was played by Sessue Hayakawa! Previously there had been an RKO adaptation in 1940, with Thomas MItchell, Edna Best, Tim Holt, Freddie Bartholomew, and Bobby Quillan, with narration by Orson Welles, but I never saw that one.

Then, in 1975, the climax! Irwin Allen, producer of two of my favorite movies The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, adapted The Swiss Family Robinson as a TV series! The funny thing is…he had already done that a decade earlier after a fashion. His show Lost in Space had actually been based on a book called The Space Family Robinson. Just as Forbidden Planet was The Tempest on a faraway world, Lost in Space stranded a family named Robinson on the other side of the galaxy. But of course there were other recent precedents to interest a kid of my age (ten) about the debut of this series (besides knowing the book). After all, Gilligan’s Island had the same concept. And I’d seen Buñuel’s 1954 film version of Robinson Crusoe at a local kid’s matinee. Allen’s show starred Martin Milner of Adam-12 as the dad, with Cameron Mitchell (whom I then knew from The High Chaparral) as another castaway. A young pre-Mad About You Helen Hunt was an orphaned girl; the Robinson boys were played by Willie Aames (about to become a star on Eight is Enough) and Eric Olson, who had previously been a regular on Apple’s Way (a show by Waltons’ creator Earl Hammer that had also featured Ronny Cox and Kristy McNichol). The mom on the show was played by Pat Delaney, who had co-starred in two TV pilots that weren’t picked up, A Guide to the Married Man (1969), and the Arte Johnson sitcom Call Holme (1972). Mostly she was a jobbing guest star on shows like Love American Style, although she had also appeared in horror and sci fi movies like Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1967), Mars Needs Women (1968, tv version), and Creature of Destruction (1968).

Hey, how about a hammock for the audience? We need a nap, too!

Having already made Lost in Space, it was interesting that Allen felt the need to go back to the source at this stage. A 1974 Canadian TV version may have raised his hackles (or, conversely, proved the concept’s effiicacy). And the concept of the story is not unlike that of his first two disaster films — folks stranded as a result of a natural disaster, in this case a storm and shipwreck — and that was the prism through which we all looked at this series when it debuted. But of course, the storm is only at the beginning. Subsequent typhoons did occur from time to time, bringing danger to the Robinson’s vulnerable treehouse (their island was located in the tsunami prone East Indies I believe) but for the most part, a show like this is largely about construction projects and gathering food, hunting, planting gardens, and so on. Not exactly lightning in a bottle! Every so often, strangers (like pirates or local natives) may arrive, bringing adventure with them, but for the most part, there’s little you can do to keep a show like this going without falling into repetition or resorting to the implausible or absurd. Further, Allen’s show was scheduled in a highly competitive Sunday evening slot, though I certainly was a devotee. But it only lasted the one 20-episode season, which ended in spring 1976.

Still, The Swiss Family Robinson was what you might call a respectable failure, which is more than you could say about Allen’s subsequent ones. The show’s early cancellation didn’t tarnish his name, which was still riding high. But he would spend the capital of his esteem soon enough, however, in fact just a few months later, with the TV movies Flood (1976) and Fire (1977) and from there on in, it was all cheese, all the time.