The Love of Johnny Johnson

“I don’t give a hoot for your dumb old Johnny Johnson!”

(a recap by Will Kaiser)

Title: The Love of Johnny Johnson

Airdate: October 9, 1974

Written by Gerry Day

Directed by William F. Claxton

SUMMARY IN A NUTSHELL: Laura falls in love with an age-inappropriate idiot, but he only has eyes for uptight priss Mary.

RECAP: We open on a wagon driving into town (no Mustache Man this time) to some very laid-back “light jazz” on a trumpet. Seriously, it’s like Herb Alpert on valium. 

Apparently this song has a name and a following. It’s called “Do You Love Me?” and was written by David Rose (no, not that one). Rose wrote practically all the music for this show, including the theme. He also wrote the campy 20th-Century classic “The Stripper.” 

David Rose with his one-time wife Judy Garland

The other David Rose

We’ll hear “Do You Love Me?” again later in the series; it’s a nice enough piece, but to my ear the style doesn’t quite fit. It’s a little seventies-loungey for Little House. Would be great on Love Boat, though.

Anyways, the wagon is dropping kids off at school. The children are all out playing in the yard, and amongst them is a tall, goony-looking young man with red hair who’s dressed like Little Boy Blue. 

He’s practicing lassooing (lassoing?) whilst Laura stares at him worshipfully. 

Hard to tell where this one’s going, huh?

Laura’s reverie is interrupted by the hideous kid from “Country Girls.” He must no longer think she’s a snipe because he picks her to be on his team for whatever game they’re playing.

Then a tubby little guy says, “What about me?” and another kid (later identified as Harry Baker) says, “You’re too fat to run.” (Fat Joke #3.)

Apart from the poor fat kid, everybody seems to be having fun. Mary and Christy are see-sawing, and Laura’s group nearly bowls over Nellie as they race around wildly. (“I can’t believe Laura would run with fat-shamers,” said my daughter Olive.)

Miss Beadle comes out a-ringing her handbell and the kids head into school. Mary has a weird frozen smile on her face as she walks in, and the tall goony-looking kid looks at her. 

When he looks back, Laura has her gopher fangs bared in a loving grin. She’s every bit the “tiny girl [who] looked as if she might fit in my purse – and could chew her way out if she had to” Alison Arngrim describes in Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.

The goony-looking kid says hi and adds in a sexist “compliment,” “You run pretty good for a girl.” The music begins to echo the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

It appears he’s a new student, for once he’s inside, Miss Beadle grills him just like she did Laura and Mary on their first day. He says his name is Johnny Johnson. Beadle’s a probing interviewer, peppering him with questions like “Is that your formal name?” and “Why don’t you look at this book?” 

While he’s being interrogated, Laura stares at him, Mary looks around obliviously, and both Willie and Kid Hideous sit slack-jawed. 

Willie whispers to Laura that the newcomer looks like a scarecrow. He’s not wrong, though if you can believe what the Internet says about people’s heights, Mitch Vogel was only five-foot-eight. I guess when everyone else in your class is four-foot-two it’s easy to seem tall.

Miss Beadle bizarrely tells this big goon to take a seat in the front row next to a tiny Oliver Twist lookalike. (As it turns out, the latter is Clay Greenbush, brother to [Rachel] Lindsay and Sidney.)

When Johnny sits down, the kid does this:

Enjoy the laugh, because it’s the only one you’ll encounter in this story. (“He looks like the inbred kid from Midsommar,” said my stepson Roman.) 

Beadle invites the poor fat kid (PFK) to stand up and read aloud from our old favorite, Dicky Bird Land. It’s worth noting PFK, Johnny and Kid Hideous, though unrelated, all have intense red hair and freckles. 

WILL: There are a lot of redheads in Walnut Grove considering the population. Do you think there’s a Scottish milkman who visits the wives while the men are working?

DAGNY: I bet Reverend Alden was redheaded before he went gray. 

Miss Beadle calls on Laura next, but she’s so blissed-out from staring at Johnny she misses the command. She reads quite fluidly for someone who couldn’t spell cat three weeks ago. She finishes with a flourish and returns to her seat, grinning at Johnny the whole time.

After school, Laura and Mary essentially compete to see who can be more annoying. Laura complains about being tired, insists on a side trip to the local “Sweetheart Tree,” and dilly-dallies generally, while Mary bitches about Laura’s lollygaggery and sneers at the lovers who carved their initials into the tree.

OLIVE: I’m on Team Mary.

ROMAN: I’m on neither. Team Carrie.

Johnny Johnson appears behind them, and Laura cries out in a supremely irritating voice, “Why, it’s Johnny Johnson!” No self-awareness whatsoever.

They’re all walking in the same direction (Johnny going as far as “the Morgan turnoff”) so Laura grabs him by the hand and drags him along. As they walk, she has a very animated one-sided conversation with him (Melissa Gilbert overdoing it a touch) while Mary lags behind. But Johnny only has eyes for Mary, and soon he gets her to tell him about her dream of being a teacher.

Playing to her own strengths, Laura suggests the three of them see who can throw a rock the farthest. But her plan backfires because Mary doesn’t even really try, and then Johnny gets to mansplain rock-throwing to her. We’re only eight minutes in, but it’s really terribly obvious where this is all going. 

Anyways, by the end of the walk Laura is mad. “Oh my God, Johnny’s not wearing shoes!” said Olive.

That night, Laura and Mary have mended fences and are dancing in the common room to Pa’s fake fiddling. (Michael Landon is my favorite fake fiddle player of all time, but even he is not up to his usual standard this week.) 

When the tune finishes, Carrie slurps, with some effort, “More . . . music . . . Papa!” Pa obliges with a lullaby version of “Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum,” better known as the Little House on the Prairie End Credits Music. Ma takes Carrie off to bed, but Laura follows her to ask a bunch of questions about how she and Pa knew they were in love. Caroline tells her Charles was so shy she had to ask him out for their first date. Significantly, when she did he replied, “Don’t mind if I do.”

We get another first in the following scene, when Laura and Mary have their first “Be quiet and go to sleep” argument in bed. Laura wants to talk about Johnny Johnson, and Mary doesn’t:

LAURA: I think he’s the best-looking boy in the whole school.

MARY: That’s not saying much.

(“It really isn’t, if the competition is Willie Oleson and the Midsommar kid,” said Roman.)

I asked why the girls wear nightcaps and Caroline doesn’t, and Dagny and Olive said it’s because Ma braids her hair before bed and so doesn’t have to worry about tangling it in her sleep. 

Laura pretends she has to go to the bathroom so she can go outside and ask Pa the same questions she asked Ma while he smokes. Charles makes an obnoxious joke about how he accepted Caroline’s date invitation out of pity and then “hoped to Heaven she was a good cook.” (“This one’s like everything that’s bad about Little House in a single episode,” said Dagny). Then he sees a falling star, but gives Laura his wish because she missed it.

After the commercial break, we return to the school, where Mary, Nellie and Christy are finalists in a spelling bee. In the audience, Johnny beams every time Mary spells a word right while Laura continues staring at him.

Christy gets eliminated on puzzle, then Nellie screws up whistle. (“You can tell Beadle’s thrilled Nellie lost,” said Dagny.)

Mary wins the contest, for which Miss Beadle says she’ll be awarded a gold star. I wondered if stars actually were used as student rewards at the time; my findings were inconclusive. (Self-adhering stickers weren’t invented until 1935, but the adhesive postage stamp had been around in the U.S. since 1847, so I guess it’s possible some version of sticky stars were used as incentives by 1871.)

The first U.S. postage stamp

Miss Beadle, who apparently isn’t above fudging her timesheet, decides to let the kids go home early. Johnny starts to rush out, but Beadle says it’s his turn to clean the chalkboards. “She just wants to look at his butt,” said Olive . . . and there’s something in the Bead’s expression that suggests she may be right. 

The Bead’s gotta have it

(It’s not so funny, though. I had a geometry teacher in high school who was notorious for having the girls with the best butts write on the board.)

Speaking of creepy, this is where we discussed the age gap between Johnny, Mary and Laura. By this point in the series, Melissa Gilbert was ten and Melissa Sue Anderson had just turned twelve. Mitch Vogel was eighteen, which is a big gap, but of course sensibilities were different in the Nineteenth Century, when unions between older men and young women and girls were common, and women were considered spinsters if not married by their mid-twenties. (The average age for an American woman to marry in the 1870s was 21, and according to one source, “the age of consent in the United States varied between ten and sixteen, depending on the state and year.” Yeek.) 

It’s also worth noting the age difference between Gilbert and Vogel is exactly the same gap as between her and her future TV husband Dean Butler too. Nevertheless, we were all relieved when later on it’s revealed that Johnny Johnson the character is only supposed to be fifteen.

Anyways, Laura also stays behind to stare at Johnny, but speaking of butts, Beadle essentially tells her not let the door hit hers on the way out. Once outside, though, Laura tells Mary she’s forgotten something and must go back. Mary calls her a “flutterbudget” – apparently a real term of endearment in the Ingalls house.

The Bead hasn’t yet made her move on Johnny when Laura comes back. Laura quickly and breathlessly invites Johnny to go fishing with her “on Cattail Lake.” (There is a Cattail Lake in Minnesota, but it’s nowhere near Walnut Grove.) 

The real Cattail Lake, Dakota County, Minnesota

She runs out, only to run back in again immediately and ask if he’ll come. “Don’t mind if I do,” he replies, which Laura takes for the blessing of the love gods. Oh, Johnny, you stupid, stupid idiot.

Back at the Little House, frisky Charles sneaks up to give Caroline a kiss. I was starting to think Karen Grassle was cured of her British accent, but it comes back when she says “You gave me a start, sneaking up on me like that.” She sounds almost Cockney, in fact – Gorblimey you gimme a start!

Charles replies, “The Book of Etiquette says when you’re kissed by a man, you’re supposed to kiss him back.” I realize it’s the pre-#MeToo seventies, but good grief. 

As a matter of fact, I looked up what the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness (published Boston, 1860) had to say about kissing:

Do not make any display of affection for even your dearest friend; kissing in public, or embracing, are in bad taste. Walking with arms encircling waists, or such demonstrative tokens of love, are marks of low breeding.

Florence Hartley, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness (1860)

What a fun time that must have been! But evidently Caroline thinks her own yard is private enough, because she embraces Charles and plants one on him. Laura comes running home and thanks Pa because her wish came true. When Caroline looks at him questioningly, he says, “Well, don’t look at me, she’s your daughter,” and Michael Landon’s voice cracks! I’m surprised they didn’t dub it over.

The next morning in the common room, Caroline and Charles collaborate on a shopping list: kerosene, navy beans, flour, salt, tea, white sugar. How about just write down Buy everything? We have four kids in our house with our eldest now home from college, so that’s what I usually do. 

Laura packs a big lunch in her pail, including a pile of oatmeal cookies, then rushes out to more mock-Tchaikovsky. When she reaches Cattail Lake, Johnny arrives, still shoeless. He’s like, “Where’s Mary?” but Laura grabs his hand and literally forces him to fish. 

They catch some fish, which Johnny spikes on a stick for carrying convenience. It’s rather graphic by today’s standards. 

Owie

Johnny admires Laura’s lack of squeamishness, saying she “ain’t nothin’ like the other girls.” Not quite the words of love she was hoping for, so she starts rhapsodizing about how the sounds of the country are like music to her. It’s a pretty enough speech, but when she turns back to Johnny he’s pulled his cap down over his face and gone to sleep, his filthy horrible feet sticking up in the air. 

Later, Johnny wakes up, divvies up the fish and asks if Laura has any more cookies. “You ate ’em all,” she says. (“Men,” said Dags.) Laura offers Johnny some more fish, but he says he doesn’t need any more because “it’s just my pa and me.” Then, when they’re saying goodbye, he starts talking about Mary again. Jack the dog follows him until Laura calls him back; at least somebody likes him.

When Laura gets back to the house, she talks to Pa again. He’s out in the yard building a high chair for Carrie. Laura says Ma told her when they were courting it was like they “could tell each other’s thoughts.” He laughs and says, “Well, as much as any man can read any woman’s thoughts, I guess.” He tells Laura there are three kinds of women: smart, “sweet and gentle,” and “full of vinegar.” He says Caroline is a combination of all three, though I’m not sure about the vinegar, since she mostly just mutters under her breath when she’s mad. 

Laura asks what he liked best about Ma, and he says, “She knew when to be quiet and not ask a bunch of silly questions while a man was working.” That’s really nice, Charles. I was going to say you can tell a man wrote this one, but looking Gerry Day up I find she was a woman! Her given name was Gerald – according to Wikipedia “due to Southern family naming traditions” (whatever that means).

Then Laura asks whether Pa ever carved Ma’s initials on a sweetheart tree, and he says he doesn’t think so. It seems bizarre they don’t mention the obvious, that he carved their initials into the mantelpiece we see every freaking week on this show! 

Later, down by the creek, Charles and Caroline unpack Laura’s sudden curiosity in matters romantic. Charles is smoking his pipe in the daytime, which is unusual.

They talk a bit about how Laura probably has a crush on somebody. Then we get this exchange:

CAROLINE: Well, Charles, I can remember chasing somebody when I was younger than Laura is.

CHARLES: I can remember slowing down so you could catch me.

This seemed weird to me, since I had it in my head Charles was from New York and didn’t know Caroline (who grew up in Wisconsin) when they were children. In fact, Charles did wind up in Wisconsin (via Illinois) in the early 1850s, by which time he would have been about fifteen and Caroline about ten, so her memory of being “younger than Laura is” when they started courting is theoretically possible (if icky). It’s not clear when they actually met, but they got married in 1860, when she was nineteen and he was 24. (Thanks, Laura Ingalls Wilder A-Z!)

Charles and Caroline IRL (Charles kind of has David Lynch hair here, doesn’t he?)

After the commercial break, Mary and Ma are working with some kind of decorative rope or something at the table. (Okay, Dagny informed me they’re making what’s known as a “rag rug.”) Mary says, “You know, I thought what Reverend Alden told us about the missions in China was interesting. I hope he tells us more next Sunday.” Whatever, suck-up. 

A finished rag rug

I’d point out Caroline previously threw a shit fit when Charles was working on the Sabbath, and yet here she is rug-making herself.

Speaking of Charles, he’s outside working on something that looks like a lobster pot. “Pa should have a crazy new money-making scheme every week,” said Roman. “This week he’s trying to catch lobsters in Minnesota.”

Laura is gathering eggs when she sees a certain big blue barefooted galoot wandering across their field. “It’s Johnny Johnson!” she squeals, then runs inside to comb her hair (which looked fine to begin with). When she comes back out, Johnny’s petting Jack again; “Jack loves JJ,” said Roman. 

Johnny flatters Laura’s fishing abilities, then says he’s come to their place because he wants Mary to tutor him in reading. “Fine with me!” says Charles (the big dope). Laura watches Johnny go up to the house with concern. You know, I remember from my own youth how when interested in somebody, one often befriends their best friend or sibling first. They usually figure it out, though.

The next morning, Caroline and Mary are getting breakfast ready. Mmmmmm-mmmmmmm, Monday’s breakfast is mush. “Mind the mush, please, Mary,” says Caroline, and Carrie slurps what sounds like “Mush Mary” but what the IMDb TV subtitles translate as “Mush meat, Mary.” Ha! 

Then Ma puts a bib on Carrie – why do they even bother? 

Laura says she wants to fetch the water from the creek even though it’s Mary’s turn. But when she gets there, she just sits by the water chewing her lip while Jack licks the back of her head. (Maybe she’s got mush on it?)

Back in the Little House, Pa spends some time transferring milk from one container to another (bucket to jug to pitcher to cup – you can tell he doesn’t do the washing up). Apparently he’s reminiscing about his own schooldays. “Now, my favorite subject was recess,” he says. (“His favorite subject was racist?” said Dagny.) He’s telling some stupid stories about school when Laura comes in soaking wet and says she fell in the creek. It’s all a scheme so she can wear her nice blue dress Ma made her. “You’re not to get it torn playing any rough-and-tumble games, promise?” says Ma Britishly. Laura also puts blue ribbons in her hair; presumably she’s deduced blue is Johnny’s favorite, since the only outfit he owns is that color. 

That day, the kids are having recess. Johnny’s still not wearing shoes – I can’t believe Miss Beadle would allow that in school, actually. Anyways, Caroline shows up unexpectedly. (“Johnny should fall in love with Ma,” said Dagny. “It would make more sense.”)

Caroline sits down on the steps to talk to Beadle. I can see them being friends; they have the same uptight personality. 

The Bead, who has her finger on the pulse, lays it out for Caroline: Laura loves Johnny but Johnny loves Mary. Sounding vaguely British again, Caroline says first love is like heat rash, “quickly come and quickly gone.” Not quite a Wildean epigram for the ages, but pretty good for her, I guess.

She thanks Miss Beadle and departs. “Quickly come and quickly gone . . . sounds like an old boyfriend of mine,” says Miss Beadle wistfully to herself. Just kidding.

Actually, Beadle immediately has to break up a scuffle between Johnny and Harry Baker, a nasty little kid who’s half his size. The dispute starts because the kid shot at a squirrel with his slingshot – which upset Mary. 

As Miss Beadle arrests them, Laura rounds on her sister. “Now see what you’ve done? You’ve got ’em both in trouble. Why didn’t you just grab the slingshot instead of squealing for Johnny to take notice and come to your rescue?” Mary – and you do have to feel for her a bit – finds this criticism preposterous, saying, “I don’t give a hoot for your dumb old Johnny Johnson!” Strong words for her.

I know how she feels!

The girls head homewards in angry silence to a plodding version of the theme tune. Johnny calls out to Laura, then basically says he just wants to talk to Mary. Laura hangs back, making an excuse about being too “tuckered” to keep up. (“They should play ‘Old Dan Tucker,’” said Dags.)

Speaking of which, where is Mr. Edwards? Did he get his own place, or is he on a bender, or just hiding in the hayloft until this whole Johnny Johnson business blows over?

Johnny runs barefoot on the gravel road to catch up with Mary. “Look at those sharp rocks!” said Olive. “Is he even human?”

We then get a moment of pathos, as Laura gets home, stares angrily in the mirror (I love when people on TV do that) and pulls her ribbons out. (“I would wear ribbons every day if I lived then,” said Olive. “Nellie does,” I said.)

Later, Mary and Carrie are having a funny argument where Mary’s trying to teach her letters and all she wants to do is draw. “Why do you always have to spoil everything anyway!” Laura explodes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Mary, which is maybe a tad disingenuous by this point. Laura says all she wants to do these days is “play teacher” to impress Johnny. Mary protests, but Laura cuts her off, furiously yelling, “Shut up! You just shut up!” 

Poor Carrie

Enter Ma, who’s shocked by this rudeness. She wants to determine whose fault the argument is . . . in my personal view a losing strategy for any parent to take. Some disagree, I know. Karen Grassle decides to become Canadian for this scene, saying, “Laura, I want you to hear your sister oot!” Fortunately Laura runs off before we get into any she-said/she-said bullshit. 

Ma follows her and gets to the heart of the matter. She tells Laura that she and Charles also had “our share of heartaches . . . when we were your age.” Ma, I think drawing parallels between Laura/Johnny and Caroline/Charles is not helpful at this point. She continues with a long blathering speech about how life equals pain and nobody ever really grows up and half a dozen other half-baked concepts. It isn’t very coherent. 

Laura says she just wants Johnny to like her. “Honey,” Caroline responds (Dags: “Is she Dolly Parton now?”), “one of the biggest mistakes that people make is trying to change themselves so that somebody else will like them.” “I remember he liked me best the first day, [when] he said I was a pretty good runner!” says Laura, who’s obviously learned nothing. “Good!” Ma replies, though I’m not sure what’s good, since all Laura’s comment shows is no advice can penetrate her thick skull.

OLIVE: Laura knows he likes Mary, why does she go on like this?

WILL: She should just wait till Mary goes blind, then she can steer all the ugly guys to her.

OLIVE: No, Mary gets the catch even after that.

WILL: You’d rate Adam higher than Manly?

OLIVE: Definitely.

Afterwards, Caroline briefs Charles on the situation. He becomes angry at the notion Johnny’s been sniffing around Mary. “You know what a fella’s like when he’s fifteen years old?” he says. Caroline responds sarcastically that she has no idea and Charles should enlighten her, but rather than go into masturbation and other messy topics he leaves to feed the cow.

The next day at school, Johnny surprises Laura by inviting her to meet him by the Sweetheart Tree after school. He really is an utter fucking dolt if he doesn’t know the score by this time.

But when she does meet him, he immediately stands in front of the tree to hide what he’s been carving. Why did he even ask her there? It’s not clear, since he hems and haws and declines to get to the point. Finally, he gives her some vague compliments about how she understands him better than other girls. “You’re different, Laura,” he says. (“Your teeth are so sharp and brown,” said Olive.)

She asks to see what he’s carved on the tree, and he stands aside to reveal this:

He asks how Laura thinks Mary will like it, but she runs away.  

That night at the dinner table, everyone’s mood is miserable. Charles and Caroline break the silence with this idiotic exchange:

CHARLES: Caroline, you sure have a way with buffalofish.

CAROLINE: Never did understand where they got so many funny names for fish. . . . Buffalofish, catfish . . . even butterfish!

CHARLES: Well, I can tell you where they got the name bullhead. Now, that’s the stubbornest fish I ever did try to catch.

(These are all real fish, though I couldn’t confirm the name bullhead has anything to do with the fish’s alleged personality.)

The bigmouth buffalo

The conversation comes to a screeching halt after this, but at least Carrie seems to be enjoying herself.

DAGNY: You can tell she really loves Michael Landon.

OLIVE: Who wouldn’t?

Then Mary plays with fire when she starts complaining how “that numbskull Johnny Johnson” carved Johnny loves Mary on the Sweetheart Tree. That isn’t actually what he wrote, but whatever. “Willie’s right,” she says. “He looks like a scarecrow!” This seems a weird quote to revisit, especially since she wasn’t even listening when Willie whispered it to Laura in the first place. But who knows, maybe he’s been saying it every day since then. Knowing him, he probably has.

Laura jumps up and explodes again, saying “You’re the numbskull!” and running out. This episode is really extremely repetitive. 

Caroline starts to follow, but Charles decides it’s time for the man of the house to take charge. “Sometimes when you lose one man it helps to talk to another,” he says gravely. This makes no sense, but it’s in character. It’s the same self-absorption that led him to butt in as surrogate father when not-Jodie Foster’s dad died a couple episodes back.

Caroline lets him go. She seems as sick of this whole storyline as we are by this point.

I feel your pain, Grassle.

Charles sits down at the creek with Laura and falsely suggests that Johnny will someday love her. He once again compares her and Johnny to himself and Caroline (stating definitively he was fifteen and Ma eleven when they met). 

When they’ve finished the conversation Laura feels better, the end. “That’s it?” screamed everybody in our house. Yep, that’s it. Bum-Bum-Ba-Dum!

THE VERDICT: The first bad episode, this one’s very tedious. It’s really just all setup and no story, with situations repeated several times over and a weak resolution. The cast members do their best, though.

Oh, one final thing: Hope you’re all getting your vaccinations. I got mine a month ago – Johnson & Johnson, or, as Olive called it, “THE JOHNNY JOHNSON VACCINE!”

UP NEXT: If I Should Wake Before I Die

Published by willkaiser

I live in the Upper Midwest. My name's not really Will Kaiser, but he and I have essentially the same personality.

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