Gilligan, Mr. Howell and Good Manners


“Good manners have much to do with the emotions. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them.” ~ Amy Vanderbilt

The other day, my wife got a new Kindle Fire. While exploring the new gadget, she came across an app with old TV shows. We watched “Gilligan’s Island.”

Say what you will about the vacuous premise that shows like “Gilligan’s Island” fulfill for millions, but don’t forget that real writers, with real life experiences, make real money to write this stuff. Their life lessons, like any other writers, are their inspiration. Behind the scenes there are some smart people crafting TV shows that sell products.

We watched the episode in which a primitive family arrives at the island. The twenty-something daughter decides that Gilligan is her man. The standard, clumsy, shenanigans ensue up to wedding time. The islanders, dressed in grass skirts and face paint, arrive for the ceremony ready to proceed with the nuptials.  Mr. Howell, the pompous millionaire, arrives, sees the setup, and says, “There’s something missing here.” He exits and arrives back moments later with a top hat that he slips on the head of the father of the bride.

Like it or not, Mr. Howell’s message of proper attire for the right occasion is important. Not knowing any other way of life, he and many other people recognize the simple elegance of good manners of which proper attire is a part. Do you remember Jerry Maguire, with his newfound wisdom, telling the employer who just fired him, “these fish have manners?”  He implies the cynical business world is void of human decency. Good manners are important. Jerry found out the hard way.  Mr. Howell, we assume, never suffered the hard way.

In one of the great etiquette blunders in recent history, the NCAA champion Northwestern University womens’ lacrosse team showed up at the White House — some wearing flip-flops — in 2005 to meet President Bush. For all I know, it might be improper to just say the words, flip-flops, in that place. Consider the division in this country that that incident inspired. The girls needed a Mr. Howell to save them from a blunder.

I’m all for children learning their independence but should they be ashamed of good behavior?  Countless times I’ve had to counsel my sons to change into more appropriate clothing on the way out the door to school events (sports banquets, honors ceremonies) where t-shirts, hoodies and shorts are not appropriate. Their perceived improvement is usually dark dress pants, a button down shirt, old athletic shoes and a darker hoodie. I suppose wearing flip-flops to the White House, or dirty athletic shoes to awards ceremonies, is a middle finger to everything formal and proper.

Men like Mr. Howell and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham in “Downton Abbey,” are raised to be proper. They don’t know any other way. The girls in the flip-flops, some say, didn’t know any other way. The phrase, “you can take the man out of the neighborhood, but you can’t take the neighborhood out of the man” applies in this case.  It’s a two way street. The girls want us to believe they did not come from privilege.  If you are attending Northwestern University on a lacrosse scholarship, it is likely you come from, minimally, a middle class home. You know better. They dressed down to practice their adolescent “independence.” Their mothers taught them better.

Mr. Howell’s gesture at the wedding holds a fundamental truth: nice apparel, good manners and proper etiquette are not for the benefit of the subjects. They are for the benefit of the observers; the audience wants a show, so give them a good show. Then the audience is inspired to participate in the elegant event. It is an ancient romantic ideal.

A comedy writer’s mother taught that writer many years ago the importance of good manners.

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