Movie: Nostalgia for a simpler life is one of those things that many people seem to consider as they get older. The mass marketed sales pitches for the newest, shiniest, most modern gizmos gives way to the comfort of youth and that's one of the reasons why television shows from our younger years like The Andy Griffith Show have long fared well in syndication. Today's review is on a similar show, Leave It To Beaver: Complete First Season, a show where things like "family values" weren't the target of scorn and distain as they have become over the years. The show was set in a small town of Mayfield in the contemporary 1950's and 60's. The Soviet Union had just launched the world's first artificial satellite (Sputnik) and the USA was recovering from the McCarthy years with a booming economy. The social revolution of the later 1960's had yet to arrive and people largely "knew their place" with the understanding that making waves made you an outsider (typically a "bad thing"). Television was in its infancy and not every household had a set (compared to now when virtually every residence, no matter how poor, has at least one and usually several sets of varying sizes). Networks were openly dominated by advertisers and content was often "adjusted" to meet their needs to sell all sorts of products to a wide eyed audience. Leave It To Beaver was centered on a nuclear family of a stern but caring father, Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont), a loving wife and homemaker June (Barbara Billingsley), a 12 year old son Wally (Tony Dow), and the mischievous 7 year old Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver (Jerry Mathers).
Beaver was the nickname of the younger son since he had large buck teeth and his brother had troubles saying his name when Theodore was born. The name stuck and Beaver's own speech impediments made for a large part of the humor of the show. He was cute but could always be counted on to explore things like only a boy could do and the results were often hilarious. Especially in the first couple of seasons, the show's writers milked out the cute factor for all it was worth, relying on the comic timing of the cast to pull off the jokes. One of the most frequent observations of the Cleaver household was how "perfect" it was; dad never screamed and beat the kids when they screwed up, mom never threw things or acted out of character, and the kids were as "real" as kids could be. While certainly an exaggerated version of the trouble boys get into, the plots for the half hour long show never went too far in what they did from what others might try in the real world.
Having bought a few pets through mail when I was younger, the alligator tale from Captain Jack seemed pretty straightforward to me (laws changed at some point so it became much more difficult to buy monkeys, alligators, and other exotic pets by mail). Having lived with sibling rivalry myself, the plot from Wally's Job where Beaver takes over painting the garbage cans from a discontented Wally was all too real (although the show version was funnier). The pressures of school and parental expectations in shows like Beaver Gets Spelled (short for expelled) and Music Lesson were handled very much like they were taken from real life where Beaver fears the contents of a teacher's note in the former and the potential loss of love of his folks when his music career is cut short by a complete lack of talent in the latter.
Such were the general stories of the show; most relating far too well to real life boyhood misadventures and easy pickings for writers to explore. In this first season, especially the first three quarters of the season, the focus was almost always on the trouble Beaver and Wally got into. As the series progressed, the secondary characters began taking larger roles. The largest role for such a character would, of course, be Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond). He was the bothersome troll that was Wally's best friend and Beaver's biggest pain in the neck. Around parents, he was a sweet, complimentary teenager (too much so and they all saw through his act) but around the kids, he was the chief instigator of trouble and mischief. He always had an angle and he could be counted on to do or say the wrong thing under all circumstances. If ever the Norse God of Mischief Loki had an earthbound vessel, it was Eddie. The positive thing about Eddie was that he lent an air of authenticity to the show too. As the characters became more developed, he often stole the show with his witticisms and comments about life in general. Further, without Eddie, Wally and Beaver wouldn't have gotten into half the trouble they found themselves in.
The first season had so many solid shows about growing up and the exploits kids got into that it'd be impossible for me to select out which were the better in terms of content. Having discussed the show many times over the last 40 or so years, I've noticed that different episodes touch people in different ways, based on their own experiences in life but the first two or three seasons were full of classics. Unlike the aforementioned Andy Griffith Show though, Leave It To Beaver started off strong and finished up weak while good old Andy got better each season (until Andy left the series). If you want to see a slice of pure nostalgia in the original uncut form though, this boxed set will truly appeal to you. For the record, the initial set of shows had Hugh Beaumont narrating the opener and I don't believe there was any evidence of cuts, edits, or alterations with each episode lasting about 26 minutes long. A cursory check of syndicated versions ranged from a ghastly 21 minutes to 23 minutes but even there you can expect a variety of edits to make room for commercials. The only thing missing that I can recall would be the sponsor spots with the cast hawking stuff but perhaps later season sets will have those available. Here's a breakdown of the episodes, their original airdates, and their production order for those of you interested (the titles alone are generally enough to jog one's memory about what took place in the episodes):
Leave It To Beaver: Season One
1) Beaver Gets 'Spelled' 4 October 1957 903A
2) Captain Jack 11 October 1957 901A
3) The Black Eye 18 October 1957 902A
4) The Haircut 25 October 1957 908A
5) New Neighbors 1 November 1957 907A
6) Brotherly Love 8 November 1957 909A
7) Water, Anyone? 15 November 1957 904A
8) Beaver's Crush 22 November 1957 913A
9) The Clubhouse 29 November 1957 911A
10) Wally's Girl Trouble 6 December 1957 905A
11) Beaver's Short Pants 13 December 1957 912A
12) The Perfume Salesmen 27 December 1957 910A
13) Voodoo Magic 3 January 1958 914A
14) Part Time Genius 10 January 1958 906A
15) Party Invitation 17 January 1958 916A
16) Lumpy Rutherford 24 January 1958 917A
17) The Paper Route 31 January 1958 915A
18) Child Care 7 February 1958 918A
19) The Bank Account 14 February 1958 919A
20) Lonesome Beaver 28 February 1958 920A
21) Cleaning Up Beaver 7 March 1958 922A
22) The Perfect Father 14 March 1958 921A
23) Beaver and Poncho 21 March 1958 924A
24) The State vs. Beaver 26 March 1958 923A
25) The Broken Window 2 April 1958 925A
26) Train Trip 9 April 1958 926A
27) My Brother's Girl 16 April 1958 927A
28) Next Door Indians 23 April 1958 928A
29) Tenting Tonight 30 April 1958 930A
30) Music Lesson 7 May 1958 929A
31) New Doctor 14 May 1958 933A
32) Beaver's Old Friend 21 May 1958 931A
33) Wally's Job 28 May 1958 932A
34) Beaver's Bad Day 4 June 1958 935A
35) Boarding School 11 June 1958 934A
36) Beaver and Henry 18 June 1958 937A
37) Beaver Runs Away 25 June 1958 941A
38) Beaver's Guest 2 July 1958 938A
39) Cat Out of the Bag 16 July 1958 939A
So, what do you rate a boxed set like Leave It To Beaver: Complete First Season? That's a toughie since it had all 39 original, uncut episodes with the pilot thrown in for good measure. I'd have greatly preferred more extras since many of the cast are still alive and seemingly willing to discuss their anecdotes (several books have been written, there have been a couple of remake series, and a movie or two) but given the quality of the show itself I think a rating of Recommended is in order. This show was one of a handful that set the television medium up for generations and even today, many of the cliché's and stories are liberally borrowed from (with updated aspects of course). In general though, the material stands the test of time far better than average and fans have finally been given the chance to own the uncut versions that haven't been seen in decades.
Picture: Leave It To Beaver: Complete First Season was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame black & white it was shot in nearly 50 years ago on film. Having long been a fan of the show, I can safely say that the show looked sharper than I've seen it in a long time although to be evenhanded about it, there was a lot of grain in some episodes. The remastering of original film stock probably took awhile and I saw very few bits of dirt, hair, or other foreign matter on the episodes but the grain was easily more noticeable than on the syndicated versions (especially on perhaps a half dozen or so episodes). Otherwise, the contrasts were nice looking, the grayscales better than average, and the overall "look" very pleasing. I only timed a dozen or so episodes (leaving the display function on distracts from the viewing experience and takes away from my ability to see other visual flaws) but each lasted close to the ~25:45 minute standard length with some going a bit over and some a bit under, leading me to believe the advertised nature of them being uncut. I saw no compression artifacts but there was some minor pattern noise when lines were close together (especially on suits) and moiré but not enough to become a serious issue.
Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital monaural. It sounded very crisp and clean with no major auditory flaws. Keeping in mind the limitations of the source material and how crummy the speakers on our televisions were back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, I was surprised that the episodes sounded as good as they did with limited hiss, no popping, and clear vocals with the amusing soundtrack effects that would routinely punctuate the antics of the cast.
Extras: The only real extra of the set was the pilot episode called It's A Small World that had a slightly different cast with Ward and Wally played by other actors. Contrasting their performances to that of the series regulars, I'm glad the changes were made since the Dow/Mathers/Beaumont/Billingsly/Osmond chemistry was so perfect. There were also some episode synopsis material on the DVDs but I hope future sets include interviews, commentaries, and perhaps some of the stock footage from various shows the cast has been on in the past (maybe even some material from the remake series). There is also a special edition boxed set that included a lunch box and some picture postcards but for the extra money, you could do better elsewhere.
Final Thoughts: Leave It To Beaver: Complete First Season brought back scores of wonderful memories from a television show that literally set the standard for a very long time. I know it'd be more contemporary if Ward were sleeping around, June was addicted to prescription medicine and engaged in a lesbian affair, Wally was screwing the cheerleaders and doing drugs, Eddie was pimping out the gals and Beaver was being molested but I liked it just fine the way it was; serving as a time capsule for the nation of a pretty interesting time in our collective history. The boxed set was wonderful in terms of providing uncut episodes that looked very clean compared to some of the worn out syndicated versions and if sales are good; future boxed sets may well include some better extras from what I hear. It's difficult to pin down the entire impact this series has had on the world but it certainly went far beyond a little television show was supposed to in terms of shaping social mores and offering up a time that so many of us wish we could return to.