Leave It to Beaver: The Complete Series (DVD Review)28 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark
$199.99 37-DVD set
Stars Jerry Mathers, Barbara Billingsley, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow.
Series creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher had nine children between them, and whenever one of the kids did or said something amusing or provocative, out came a handy notebook for future reference. This must be one reason why, after half-a-century, the 234 “Beaver” episodes (first aired on CBS for one season, then over to ABC for the rest) still ring so true — or at least do to anyone who grew up as a ’50s/’60s suburban white-guy on tree-lined streets, as I did.
The show was and is so well written that it almost certainly helped thousands of youngsters to develop their senses of irony — the kind that comes from observing an adult world through youthful eyes. Premiering the same day Sputnik went into orbit and ending just before the March on Washington, it knew the things that more conventional family sitcoms did — like, say, that kids don’t like vegetables. But week in and week out, it also got into privileged material that no other series touched.
It knew that no guy who ever carried a briefcase to school could be cool. It was onto the numbing literalness some people brought to delivering oral book reports in class. And with supporting character Eddie Haskell (played with perverse zest by Ken Osmond), it brilliantly conceived a character that everyone knew but had never before seen on TV: the adolescent parental suck-up who had no redeeming qualities. And taking it further in a way that was also unusual or even unique, it made certain that we knew that the parents knew what a suck-up he was.
The rest of the casting was equally impeccable. In a revealing extra included on this set’s bonus disc, we see a pilot episode in which Jerry Mathers (Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver) and Barbara Billingsley (mother June) are featured. But familiar character actor Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter) is tightly wired and otherwise all wrong as Cleaver patriarch Ward, eventually played by the irreplaceable Hugh Beaumont as a calming influence. And the teenager who plays Beaver’s older brother Wally in the pilot is nondescript and with none of the warmth that subsequently cast Tony Dow had.
But many months passed between the time the pilot was shot and the series was sold, and when it came time to shoot, the first “Wally” stood over six feet tall. This and a million other anecdotes get spun on the extra disc’s outstanding talking-heads documentary, filmed long after Beaumont’s death, in which enthusiastic participants Billingsley, Mathers and Dow make it obvious that they still like and see each other. And it clears up why mother June always wore those pearls around the house. Billingsley had been a thin fashion model and had a couple indentations around her neckline, which the pearls were intended to camouflage. By the way, no one ever talks about how good she looks in them, but let’s not go there. This is June.
After years of demonstrating how many ways there are for a kid to get in trouble (playing hooky, smoking a pipe, hatching myriad plots to buy a bike, getting on the wrong bus, ordering an expensive accordion by mail, prank-calling Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale on the phone, getting trapped in a large steaming coffee cup at the top of an advertising billboard), Mathers’ voice started to change. Common wisdom has it that the series started to decline a little once Beaver was fighting pimples, but you don’t have to look too hard on the later discs (there are 37 here) to get some laughs. In one late episode, Beaver gets into trouble for wearing a sweatshirt to school in an era of strict dress codes (this happened to me — though the design on my own shirt was much blander). And very late in the series comes one of its best: Beaver cribs his oral book report on The Three Musketeers from watching a telecast of the WARPED 1939 Don Ameche/Ritz Brothers movie version, which used to air a lot in the early ’60s (another detail gotten right).
If you watch the pilot — which also features future series regulars Richard Deacon and Diane Brewster in roles different from what they later played — see if you can recognize one of two Beaver-badgering older kids on bikes. Can you imagine being able to say you were on a “Beaver” episode and are still a member of Spinal Tap? Yes, it’s Harry Shearer.