Shout! Factory // 1959 // 800 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // March 23rd, 2011
Helllooooo, Mr. Wilson!
As a youngster, few things made me happier than annoying my parents. That's nothing unique for a kid, but everyone has their own way of doing it. At the time, my way was through television, a trifecta of programs that proved incredibly effective in driving adults crazy, by their own shows no less. These were, in order of effectiveness, Lassie, the Blondie films, and our series presented here: Dennis the Menace. Now, all these years later, Shout! Factory offers me the opportunity to revisit my history of aggravating people in Dennis the Menace: Season One and I have only one thing to say: my poor folks!
From the outside, everything seems perfect at 625 Elm St in Wichita, Kansas. A white picket fence, a successful husband, a beautiful family; it's the American Dream. But things are a lot more sinister when you look up close. Inside that pristine suburban paradise sits Dennis Mitchell (Jay North, Zebra in the Kitchen), a powder keg of mischief and the bane of all retirees along the block. His father, Henry (Herbert Anderson, I Bury the Living), and his mother, Alice (Gloria Henry, Lightning Guns), love him to death, but when he comes outside to help, neighbor George Wilson (Joseph Kearns, Our Miss Brooks) goes running for his nerve tonic...oh, Dennis!
The show is better than I expected it to be, but that might have as much to do with the late hours spent watching a few of these episodes than it does their actual quality. Dennis the Menace is a sweet but stupid relic from a whitewashed age of television. Dennis is the bad seed version of Beaver Cleaver (and a more realistic kid), but this and Leave It to Beaver share the same sentimental morality that often makes watching these shows today a tiring series of eye-rollers.
Each episode plays out almost identically. First, the show starts with a gag pulled straight from one of Hank Ketchum's original comics (or at least it appears so; I never really read that stupid strip). After the opening titles, we find out that Dennis wants to do something, but isn't allowed. He complains but no dice, so instead, he heads outside to help one of the neighbors do some random thing. They get frustrated and yell, Dennis tries to make it better, makes it worse, and then gets sent home. In the end, he normally gets to do what he wanted to from the start. Makes you wonder why he went outside in the first place, but that's where all the zaniness resides. How could he ruin a garden, a grocery store, and a grandfather clock in one afternoon if he's sitting around while his mother sweeps the floor?
Eventually, the plots of the episodes get extremely repetitive and fairly annoying, but the show is far from a total loss. Much that I could not understand as a preteen watching this show becomes very clear to me now. Most significant, Mr. Wilson is a drug fiend; honestly, a shocking thing to see in a show from '59. Readers may think I'm being stupid, but I've been around the block enough to know that when a man born in around 1885 talks about brewing his own "nerve tonic," he's really mixing his own codeine syrup. Worse than that is his willingness to scam a five-year-old out of a $600 coin for two dollars and then laugh in his face about it. George Wilson was a disgusting man and I'm sure the adult Dennis Mitchell was deeply scarred by his experiences with his neighbor.
For what it's worth, the performances are consistent and perfectly fine. Jay North clearly was directed to do no more than yell all his lines; he does this. Herbert Anderson does nothing special as Henry Mitchell, but is the spitting image of Ketchum's drawn character. Gloria Henry is the only one of the bunch with any charm, but her role is limited to shaking her head at her son and cleaning up his messes; her role is as thankless as her character's. I remembered Joseph Kearns fondly from the old days, but I don't often like him at this point. Aside from the crippling drug addiction, he wavers between kindly and villainous, and most importantly, mugs for the camera constantly. He's more annoyance than anything. If you're expecting to find a healthy dose of Margaret (Jeannie Russell), you'll have to wait for later seasons; she only appears in five episodes on this set. Finally, watch out for an almost pre-speech Ron Howard (Happy Days) as one of Dennis's friends. As far as considering the rest of the supporting child roles on the show goes, don't bother.
All 32 episodes of the 1959-1960 season of Dennis the Menace are presented uncut by Shout! Factory over five discs. That the show looks this good after all these years is surprising, but there is some inconsistency episode to episode. Some look near-pristine, while others are littered with grain and damage. None of it is unwatchable, and based on the label's track record, all of it looks as good as it possibly could. The sound is more consistent but, overall, not as good. It's a tinny mono mix that is a little loud in the vocals, but for its age, it's perfectly acceptable. The first four discs contain seven episodes each, while the fifth only houses four, but also contains the extras, which are all interesting. Two interviews featuring Gloria Henry and Jeannie Russell, one a standard DVD talk and the other an older radio interview, are both energetic and varied. A discussion with Jay North would have been nice, but you take what you can get. We continue with a series of advertisements for some nasty-looking chocolate milk abomination featuring the cast members. Finally, we have a bonus episode of The Donna Reed Show, called "Donna Decorates," which guest stars North and Joseph Kearns. I never watched it, so I don't know the general quality of the series, but this is one terrible piece of programming. It makes Dennis the Menace look like Arrested Development.
Fans of classic television and kids looking to annoy their folks have much to look forward to with Dennis the Menace: Season One. It's harmless programming that could even be amusing here and there taken on a per episode basis. Watching 32 of them in the span of four days, however, is considerably more taxing; this is an activity I cannot recommend.
Oh, go home, Dennis!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 800 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode