Shout! Factory // 1961 // 915 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge P.S. Colbert // November 6th, 2011
The twister of a boy, Dennis Mitchell (Jay North, Maya), returns for another season of rambunctious adventures and sidesplitting mishaps.
Because I was taking on a case in progress, I felt it would be remiss not to be mindful of precedence, and so I pored over the very instructive and insightful writing done previously by my esteemed colleague, the honorable Judge Daryl Loomis. Among his many astute observations were two unassailable points: Dennis the Menace "is a sweet but stupid relic from a whitewashed age of television," and "each episode plays out almost identically...if you're a fan you know exactly what you'll get."
True enough. For the first four discs of this five-disc collection, Season Three hums along on auto-pilot, tracking the cow-licked eight year old in sneakers, striped T-shirt, and baggy overalls (with the ever-present sling-shot in his back pocket) as he spreads merry mayhem through the neighborhood, most often impacting his best friend and next door neighbor, "Good ol' Mr. Wilson" (Joseph Kearns, Our Miss Brooks).
A big change comes with "Dennis and the Dodger," the first episode of the set's final disc. Things begin innocently enough, with Martha Wilson (Sylvia Field, The Exalted Flapper) stopping in at Quigley's market to buy ingredients for her husband's infamous "nerve tonic," explaining that he will be leaving later that day to "settle an estate" in Ohio. Mr. Wilson didn't think it possible to make it through the Spring without his precious restorative in tow.
Of course, the tragic truth of the matter was that Mr. Kearns had died of a cerebral hemorrhage on February 17, 1962, (five days after his fifty-fifth birthday) before the season's last eight episodes were made.
Sidebar: I must take issue with a conclusion made by Judge Loomis in his summation of Season One, and reiterated in his summation of Season Two. George Wilson's "nerve tonic" was actually an addictive substance (perhaps codeine), more responsible than anything else (namely Dennis) for his fits of hyperactive, bug-eyed hysteria. Let the record reflect that the only ingredients substantiated here are 10 lbs of Sulfur and a gallon of Blackstrap Molasses, a combination that could reasonably be expected to induce rather strange behaviors when imbibed.
Working quickly to plug the hole left by Mr. Kearns' sudden departure, the showrunners brought up two of the season's recurring characters to pinch hit for the absent Mr. Wilson. In "Dennis and the Dodger," it's grocer Quigley (Willard Waterman, The Great Gildersleeve) and in "Dennis' Lovesick Friend," it's Wilson's Uncle Ned (Edward Everett Horton, Arsenic and Old Lace). While these comic veterans no doubt distinguished themselves admirably, their employment could only be seen as a stopgap measure. After all, the crux of the series was the relationship between Dennis and his long-suffering next door neighbor, was it not?
But who could bring the requisite mix of (controlled) fury and fussiness to the mix?
Enter Gale Gordon (The 'Burbs) as John Wilson, brother of George -- author of literary articles for the National Journal Magazine -- in town to visit his sister-in-law for an unspecified but presumably extended period of time.
And thus, arguably, the happiest accident in sitcom recasting history had occurred!
While Gordon didn't necessarily resemble Kearns physically, (the difference between the former's stentorian baritone and the latter's nasal whine couldn't be more pronounced), the two had co-starred together in the classic Our Miss Brooks, and both were certified masters of the comic slow burn, carrying themselves with ectomorphic and slightly effete grace.
Who else but Gale Gordon could get away with reporting the (accidental) shiner he'd received from Dennis was "just lovely," and further elaborating that "it's turned from black to a delightful shade of purple with delicate fuchsia overtones," delivering the lines with the proper mix of gravity, indignation, and split-second comic timing?
In other developments, the third season explores some darker subjects. Dennis must confront a bully in one episode, and in another submits to a hazing initiation from a gang of local toughs called the Scorpions. (Don't look now, but here comes the 1960s!) Okay, neither of these developments terrified me, but you should have seen how the grown-ups on the show carried on. Doctor, a bracing spoonful of nerve tonic all around!
Special guest stars this season included legendary Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, ex-Mousketeer Cheryl Holdridge, John Astin (The Addams Family), Harvey Korman (Blazing Saddles), and Jean Stapleton (All In The Family).
Sadly, this is the first of the series' sets to come without any extras, including subtitles for the hearing impaired. Aside from these omissions, Shout! Factory has once again assembled a collection of episodes that (with some minor exceptions) look and sound remarkable, reinforcing my opinion that black and white footage, when properly cared for, ages better than color.
Yes, Dennis the Menace is silly, contrived, and continually wallows in -- as Judge Loomis states -- "sentimental morality that often makes watching these shows today a tiring series of eye-rollers."
Then again, I found myself welcoming each successive installment with its saccharine sweetness and utterly harmless slate of non-problems, for I've had more than enough of today's Reality TV.
Sentimental morality? I'll take that over the complete absence of morality on such current favorites as Toddlers And Tiaras and Keeping Up With The Kardashians any day of the week.
Gimme the kind of place where an eight-year-old boy living in white picket-fenced suburbia can find a Billy goat (wearing a derby hat and playing the bugle) on short notice in order to join an exclusive club. Gimme the kind of place where a doctor making a house call listens to your heartbeat with a stethoscope and takes your temperature before determining that you're just fine, explaining "These mild hallucinations occur quite often. We don't know exactly why." before going on to prescribe nothing more than "rest and the proper nutrition."
Gimme the calm, soothing breezes of Anytown, America.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 915 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated