Our Judge Dennis Prince has tried to model his family after the Cleavers but still hasn't figured out how to live in black-and-white.
Our review of Leave It To Beaver: The Complete Series, published June 23rd, 2010, is also available.
In this time when the American family is under perpetual attack, it's no wonder that many among us wax nostalgic for the simplicity and sensibility of Leave It To Beaver. With smiles on their faces and warmth in their hearts, the Cleavers offer perspective and priority that many modern-day viewers will readily embrace amid today's wobbly and weakening family unit. Interestingly enough, this classic program from 1957 delivered its clear and uncomplicated message by deferring to the real family experts: the kids.
"I think I'd like to be a garbage collector when I grow up. You don't have to wash your hands all the time, and nobody cares how you smell."
Silly but sensible. Playful yet precocious. As seen through the eyes of two young boys, the world appears to be one part intimidation, one part fascination, one part consternation, and one part just all that extra junk ya' have ta' learn as a kid or a grownup's gonna start hollerin' at ya.
Facts of the Case
The Cleavers have made their home in a cozy neighborhood within the quaint town of Mayfield. The four-gable exterior of their house at 485 Grant Avenue exudes a pleasant air of suburban bliss, the manicured yard and friendly walkway offering no sign of unrest. Inside, though, there's plenty of crisis and calamity to go around, that is, the sort that generally afflicts an inquisitive 7-year-old boy, his 12-year-old brother, and their two not-so-tireless parents. Young Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (Jerry Mathers) and his older brother Wally (Tony Dow) always seem to be up to their elbows in something, whether they're secretively raising alligators in their bathroom, losing the vacationing neighbor's cat, or generally messin' things up like only a kid can. Parents June (Barbara Billingsley) and Ward (Hugh Beaumont) can only furrow their brows while dishing out scowls and a scolding—that is, when they're not stifling a snicker or fighting back a tear at their boys' genuine attempts to make sense of grown-ups in the world around them.
No doubt about it, Leave It To Beaver is timeless television at its very best. Created by radio comedy writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (responsible for Amos and Andy), the show was deliberately written to stand out among other TV family shows of the Fifties. Rather than relegate the child characters to the periphery while the adults connived and cavorted about, here the story revolved squarely around Wally and "the Beav," providing a compelling kid's-eye view of growing up amid big people and their confounding inconsistencies. And, rather than burden the Cleaver boys with grand and far-reaching predicaments, their challenges (and, ultimately, the challenges of Ward and June) revolved around less completed yet no less daunting situations close to home: what's a kid to do when the 2nd grade teacher sends home a note ("Beaver Gets 'Spelled") or how can a guy expect to survive a visit from out-of-touch Aunt Martha ("Beaver's Short Pants"). When not in the midst of their own sibling rivalries, Wally and the Beaver are often trying to contain the clamor and chaos brought on by their unpredictable pals, Larry Mondello (Rusty Stevens) or Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond).
Premiering on October 4, 1957, Leave It To Beaver ran for a total of six seasons, totaling up an impressive 234 episodes (plus one pilot episode). While it never ascended to the coveted top twenty-five television ratings band, it did manage to charm viewers during its entire original broadcast run and ultimately become elevated to iconic status through its ensuing forty-plus years in syndication. Thanks to its fresh and uncontrived approach to the everyday perils of boyhood (and, later, teen-dom), Leave It To Beaver remains at the pinnacle of family-centered television. During its original run, the show provided a blueprint for even-mannered parenting, offering a look inside the erratic-but-endearing thought processes of youngsters while depicting Ward and June as well-intentioned but often ill-equipped to appropriately respond to the shenanigans of Wally and the Beaver. And therein lies the show's enduring appeal: it works because of its—now get this—reliance upon realism in telling its stories. That's right—the show painted its characters in a more realistic way than others of its day (or especially in our day). The boys' exploits often go from bad to worse to unmanageable through their natural actions and reactions in attempting to avoid trouble and keep from getting hollered at by Dad. Ward typically grunts and grumps his way through each ordeal yet frequently learns he's jumped to hasty conclusions despite his zeal to raise his boys with a sense of honesty, decency, and responsibility. June, meanwhile, keeps the home in balance, maintaining a well-feathered nest where all four can safely and securely navigate the perils that perpetually challenge the family unit. And this is the inherent realism that Connelly and Mosher intended: the Cleavers were the perfect example of family imperfection. The boys weren't perfect and, truly, the parents never expected them to be. The parents weren't perfect yet the boys always knew Mom and Dad were doing what they thought was best. It's this mutual acceptance, forgiveness, and a well-timed dose of kitchen sink sermonizing that has given the show its ability to endure the generations.
Beyond its uncomplicated and unpretentious delivery, Leave It To Beaver succeeded thanks to the excellent actors portraying well-developed characters. Long-time supporting actor and ordained minister Hugh Beaumont (The Mole People) as Ward Cleaver emerged as the quintessential TV Dad that is still highly revered for his matter-of-fact delivery of high standards mixed with an appropriate amount of humbling self-deprecation. Beaumont, incidentally, was ranked #28 in TV Guide's list of the "50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time" (arguably, a lower-than-deserved ranking).
Barbara Billingsley was everyone's favorite "Kool-Aid mom," always busying herself in the kitchen yet rarely to be seen outside of a nicely pressed dress, pearls, and heels. She warmly empathized with her "three boys" (which includes the sometimes childish Ward) yet was fully capable of delivering a cool confrontation when pushed to her limits. Her cheerful style, dry wit, and overall warm countenance made her the Mom most kids would love to be greeted by after another trying day in the Chalkboard Jungle.
Tony Dow thankfully found his way into the role of Wally Cleaver, a last-minute replacement for Paul Sullivan from the pilot episode. At the start of the series, Dow still retained a nice dose of young-boy innocence yet can simultaneously deliver plenty of big brother bossiness and berating to keep his little brother in line. Dow convincingly portrayed Wally as the slightly more enlightened brother who tried to make sense of Mom and Dad's rules and regulations while alternately attempted to explain the actions of the goofy kid who shared his bedroom. Dow transitioned into his later teenage years well, evolving Wally convincingly enough that, although he emerged decidedly more mature, still fumbled with his migration to young adulthood.
Jerry Mathers, as the Beaver, nailed the role of being "just a kid" when he arrived at the audition in his Cub Scout uniform and fidgeted while running lines. When Connelly and Mosher asked what his trouble was, he indicated that he hoped to finish the audition in time to make his Pack meeting. As others had noted, Jerry Mathers was the Beaver in that what we saw on the TV screen was just Jerry being himself. Truly, he's at his cutest during this first season as his attempts to tame diction add to the comedic punch of his little boy musings. Although he'd ultimately outgrow his cherub-like adorableness, he, too transitioned into his teenage years skillfully, keeping a realistic tone to his portrayal of those inevitably clumsy years.
As for the supporting actors, each seemed to be perfectly hand-picked to maintain the realistic setting of the show. Most notable of the first season are the slightly pudgy and somewhat unkempt Robert "Rusty" Stevens who was the perfect embodiment of the usually grubby and often gluttonous Larry Mondello. Frank Bank brought a realism to the role of Clarence "Lumpy" Rutherford, one-time foe and eventual hapless friend to Wally. And, of course, Ken Osmond brought creepy authenticity to the two-faced Eddie Haskell, whose insincere overtures to adults were about as unnerving as his grating verbal assaults on younger kids.
Sprinkle this cast with additionally well-delivered roles by Richard Deacon (Fred Rutherford, Ward's co-worker), Diane Brewster (Miss Canfield, Beaver's 2nd grade teacher), Majel Barrett (Mrs. Gwen Rutherford), and Madge Blake (Mrs. Margaret Mondello), and it all adds up to a believable community of Mayfield.
Now, this long-awaited boxed set, Leave It To Beaver—The Complete First Season, offers the chance to become reunited with the Cleavers and the rest in these 39 uncut episodes. Unlike the syndicated versions, these episodes run a full 26 minutes, as originally aired in 1957 and 1958. Here's what you'll find on the three flipper discs in this set:
Disc One, Side A:
Disc One, Side B:
Disc Two, Side A:
Disc Two, Side B:
Disc Three, Side A:
Disc Three, Side B:
There's really not a dud in the lot here as each show is well written and well intentioned from the outset. Still, situations generally get out of hand and the first season delivers some still-hilarious exploits (with top honors going to "The Haircut").
As for the delivery itself, Leave It To Beaver—The Complete First Season arrives via the previously-mentioned three flipper discs, each housed in a slimline keepcase and tucked neatly into an outer sleeve. Each episode is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame format in glorious black-and-white. While it's great to see these presented uncut, the picture quality is a little less than was expected. Brightness and contrast are well managed but there is a steady level of grain that keeps this from being a premium presentation. If asked to make a tradeoff (and given Universal's track record of apathetic authoring), most fans would elect for uncut over visually restored. The audio is presented in a well-balanced Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix.
The only extra in this set is the original pilot episode that featured not Hugh Beaumont and Tony Dow but, rather, Casey Adams and Paul Sullivan, respectively. Barbara Billingsley, interestingly, appears with her 'do turned down while Jerry Mathers appeared just as he does in the show's regular run. It's especially fun to see how much Beaumont and Dow contributed to the core chemistry, something clearly not present with Adams and Sullivan in the mix. On each disc menu, you'll find a thumbnailed screen capture and generous synopsis for each episode but beware spoilers (especially regrettable is the image that accompanies "The Haircut"). Sadly, there are no interviews (past or present), commentaries, or original network material. Hopefully, future season releases will rectify these glaring omissions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, there's been much praise for the show's "realism" here yet the series has largely been scoffed at for its unreal sugary sweetness. That was the expectation going into this particular screening but, truth be told, the show deftly reveals the "warts" of family life in each and every episode. Ward often comes off a overly gruff, parentally insistent, and even insensitive to the plight of his boys (see "Party Invitation"). Ultimately, he realizes his transgressions and isn't afraid to apologize directly to Wally or the Beaver. While it seems implausible that June could always look so nicely dressed and cleanly coifed while performing routine household chores, the former fashion model (Billingsley) makes it look very believable and much more comforting to the family than if she were to loaf around the home in a housecoat and rollers. Wally and the Beaver remain entirely convincing in their roles as two brothers who alternately argue and make amends under the guiding hand of participating parents. Yes, each show delivered a strong moral message and pleasant resolution but so what? Perhaps the only thing complicated about today's familial situation is the fact that some families have allowed unnecessary complication to make a muddled mess of their home lives. It's for that reason, perhaps, that Leave It To Beaver has been a perennial favorite and welcome respite amidst the turmoil of too many of today's households.
Leave It To Beaver is the sort of welcome programming deserved by today's overburdened, underappreciated family. It's genuinely funny and makes for an ideal opportunity to gather the gang and enjoy a healthy and hearty laugh together. Chances are, after watching one episode, your family will ask to watch another and another and another.
Absolutely, positively not guilty. No more 'splaining necessary.
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