Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I've heard about Mister Peepers almost forever but it was one of those television shows that appeared only in TV history books. One look at Wally Cox and we know what Robinson Peepers' character is like; the school-based sitcom ran for three years, won Cox an Emmy and remained a legend.
The copyright to the surviving kinescopes of the series appeart to belong to the University of California, or at least that's what the packaging says. The disc set carries logos for the UCLA Film and Television Archive, SFM Entertainment and is distributed by S'More Entertainment. Four discs hold 26 episodes.
Mister Peepers might be the generic template for a television situation comedy. Our hero Robinson Peepers is a meek and unassuming man too polite to talk back,and easily taken advantage of by pushy people. The moment he appears as Jefferson High's new Science teacher, the nurse assumes he's a student and he's too obliging to correct her when she orders him about. The existing science teacher is a preening creep afraid of competition, who tries to keep Peepers from doing anything but sitting (Peepers' new classroom isn't built yet). Peepers finds himself ignored, pushed aside, bullied and patronized by his distracted principal Mr. Bascom (Gage Clark) and other members of the faculty. The catch is that Peepers is actually a take-charge guy in his own quiet way. He's clever and resourceful, and although he goes through a number of humiliations per episode, he always comes out on top.
The typical episode begins with a sustained sight gag and then moves on to show Peepers having to deal with a school problem of one kind or another. In one show he can't seem to hang onto his first paycheck, which is a month overdue - he's been eating ketchup sandwiches in the interim. In another he has the problem of a female student who falls madly in love with him. He hasn't the nerve to explain the problem to either her or her parents, and she gets the idea that he loves her too.
Most of the faculty are nice people. The dotty Marion Lorne (one of Alfred Hitchcock's more famous mad moms from Strangers on a Train) misinterprets everything she sees but is essentially benign. The younger female faculty think Peepers is a doll; music appreciation teacher Norma Crane is very friendly. Actress Patricia Benoit was to take over the part later, and eventually married Cox. Teacher Harvey Weskitt was a long-running role for Tony Randall. Weskitt marries Marge (Georgann Johnson) and remains best friends with Peepers throughout the series.
Jack Warden took on the coach role eventually, although he first appears as a taxi driver when Peepers goes to Chicago to attend Weskitt's bachelor party. Arthur O'Connell and Reta Shaw would make later appearances; Walter Matthau plays the coach in the show's pilot.
Mister Peepers was the creation of writer/director David Swift, and the show bears his consistently gentle touch. Peepers is introduced in the first episode with a little rhyme of the kind found in Dr. Seuss books. From then on the show's theme tune (it sounds like a circus piece on a calliope) segues to Cox saying something direct and friendly, often as simple as "Hello, I'm Mr. Peepers!" Peepers is continually being ambushed by inanimate objects like water faucets and sticky doors, yet he never loses his composure. We end up rooting for him in the end.
The show never settles for dumb situations. Peepers' problems are real - he wants to be a good teacher and he likes recognition. In one episode an assistant principal tries to punish a student too harshly, and when Peepers protests, he's fired. Peepers quietly accepts this injustice, but is saved by the return of Mr. Bascom: "We can't lose Peepers, he's our best teacher!" The bad assistant principal somehow gets shipped across town in a steamer trunk.
What's most relaxing about the show is the ease with which Swift paints a picture of an early 1950s that's basically decent and humane. David Swift admired the paintings of Norman Rockwell and liked presenting pleasant stories about nice people. Most of the people Peepers deals with are honest and friendly. This attitude must have contrasted mightily with the rat race behind the scenes; the Golden Age of Television was no picnic, what with the frantic deadlines, stiff competition and the threat of the blacklist. 1
S'More Entertainment's four-disc DVD set of Mister Peepers states proudly that the show has never been released on home video, and we soon see the reason why. It was recorded only with Kinescopes filmed from a TV monitor. The quality of Kinescopes range from pretty good to terrible, and the episodes seen here are not the best. Some of the early shows are very bad for audio, making us wish that the discs had closed captions or English subtitles. It's possible that the transfer sources were actually dupes of old kinescopes.
But most of the shows are reasonable, considering how weak the original audio signal must have been. The picture varies as well, sometimes within shows; if these kinescopes were actually used for re-runs they must have looked pretty terrible. It makes us appreciate the wisdom of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz all the more - they shot I Love Lucy on film from the very beginning.
The four DVDs come in a double-width keep case with anchors for six discs. S'more has added a slow menu system that lists the 26 shows only by air date, with no episode log to figure out when actors swapped out in roles. Extras include the Pilot Episode and a brief Wally Cox appearance on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. The photo gallery appears to be frozen frames from the videos (boo!) and "Mister Peepers' Family Tree" is a short series of text pages. The trivia game just asks questions from information given on the package text: "Why did Wally Cox stop being Marlon Brando's roommate?" A Wally Cox bio re-plows the same facts and an interview with Dom Deluise isn't very good either, to be honest. But the shows are terrific. The Mister Peepers disc set will still be an entertaining archive of one of the best of the early TV sitcoms.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mister Peepers rates:
TV Shows: Excellent
Video: Fair -
Sound: Fair, sometimes Poor
Supplements: Pilot Episode, Dom DeLuise interview, Wally Cox Bio, Cox guest spot on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, text extras.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2005
1. Savant spent a couple of afternoons with David Swift in 1998, as reported in an old Savant article. He talked about a Norman Rockwell museum in Massachusetts that he loved, as well as his time working for Walt Disney. Because the quality of his work was so high, Swift was one of the few outside producer-directors that Disney left alone. Swift also wrote comedy gags alongside Tex Avery!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson