Until S'more Entertainment took it upon themselves to unearth it for home video release late in 2005, Mister Peepers (1952-55) had been one of the "lost classics" of early American television, a fondly remembered but long inaccessible sitcom that had assumed an almost legendary status among television collectors and nostalgia buffs. Looking at the show's first 26 episodes, it's easy to see why. Back in the earliest days of television, most sitcoms were adaptations of popular radio shows or starred ex-vaudevillians and burlesque types plying tried-and-true routines in the new medium. Popular shows like I Love Lucy set the mold for slapstick stories built around a star performer.
Mister Peepers is much more an antecedent of the MTM-produced sitcoms of the 1970s, such as Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show. The humor is subtler, more quietly eccentric, less slapsticky, with more nuanced performances and characterizations, and an ensemble cast whose roles evolved over time.
Mister Peepers' title character (Wally Cox), is mild-mannered pixie of a man, a Walter Mitty type slight of build but full of polite enthusiasm for his new job as a junior high school science teacher. Significantly, Robinson J. Peepers is no 98-pound weakling, however: he's assertive if shy, standing his ground when need be, though his high, nasally voice (Peepers say he was in the church choir until his voice changed - it got higher) and manner suggest a man easy to push around. Rather like the real Wally Cox apparently was, Peepers is also rather Puckish, a man amused by his perceived nerdiness, and who sometimes used it to subversive advantage.
Over the course of the show's first 26 episodes, about a dozen supporting characters are introduced, including typical sitcom school principal Gabriel Gurney (Joseph Foley), who soon vanishes; his doddering wife (Marion Lorne, later "Aunt Clara" on Bewitched), and music teacher Miss Deem (Norma Crane, best remembered as Golde in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof). Early episodes hint at a possible romance between Miss Deem and Peepers - both wear spectacles and resemble one another - but for whatever reason Crane also fades into the background with school nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit) taking her place.
Though Crane is excellent, Benoit is superb. Supposedly '50s audiences had a hard time accepting that she was an actress playing a role, so natural are her performances. The series gets another big shot in the arm with the first appearance about five or six episodes in of fellow teacher Harvey Weskitt (Tony Randall, nearly two decades before The Odd Couple) and his eventual bride (Georgann Johnson). The pairing of these two emerging young couples, Peepers and Remington and Harvey and his new wife, is irresistible. Unlike most TV sitcom couples, there's an honesty to this foursome, all full of youthful excitement about teaching and making new friends.
Why then is Mister Peepers all but forgotten today? Simple. The show was shot live on video - videotape didn't come into use until 1956, the year Mister Peepers went off the air - and the only way to preserve shows back then was via Kinescope, a cumbersome process that essentially involved pointing a 16mm camera at a TV screen. The resultant image and sound were quite poor and by the end of the fifties even those Kinescopes that had survived from earlier in the decade (most were eventually junked and lost forever) were considered much less desirable for syndication than shows (good and bad) that had been shot on standard 35mm film, like The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy.
Though Mister Peepers benefits from the excitement of a live performance performed before the series' receptive New York audience (they clearly love what they're seeing), it really should have been shot on film. Beyond the technical limitations of kinescoping, the series attempts complex sight gags and situations the production just can't bring off. Actors flub lines, props don't work properly and a lot of the humor required timing that the unforgiving nature of live television constantly thwarts. Shooting the series live adds a certain intimacy, but the advantage of cutting and shooting retakes and close-ups, etc., makes watching Mister Peepers unfold live almost painful.
By the end of the 1950s creator David Swift was stuck writing screenplays for Disney movies like Pollyanna and Candleshoe, and never got the chance to contribute to the '70s comedies his show clearly influenced, though frequent collaborator James Fritzell went on to pen sitcoms like The Odd Couple and M*A*S*H, including one of that series' most memorable episodes, "Abyssynia, Henry" (which he wrote with another Peepers writer-partner, Everett Greenbaum.
Supporting the show's cast were a Who's Who of rising character stars, including Walter Matthau, Murray Hamilton, Mike Kellin, and Jack Warden. It's great fun to see them so early in their careers.
Video & Audio
The surviving kinescopes of Mister Peepers were provided by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which in turn acquired them primarily from the estate of creator Swift. The shows may technically fall into the realm of public domain, which likely explains the decision to include that institution's logo as a water mark in the lower right-hand corner twice during each episode. This is unfortunate, but is only mildly distracting given the much larger technical shortcomings of the Kinescope process itself. Otherwise, the image and sound are comparable to other kinescoped titles from the period, for example Image's release of episodes from Tales from Tomorrow. The original commercials have been deleted, though Ford's logo is seen over the end credits, and there are little plugs here and there for organizations like the Girl Scouts of America.
Shooting live also created other problems. The staging of the show was perhaps too ambitious, and frequently actors' dialog is lost because the boom operator (or whomever) hadn't time to swing his microphone to the appropriate spot. Each show concludes with a post-end credits epilogue, and during this segment on the first episode we can hear the studio audience laughing at lines we can't hear at all.
Menu screens unhelpfully list episodes only by their airdates. The lack of short descriptions of each show makes things confusing unless you're watching everything in one marathon sitting. The endless logos for UCLA, SFM, and S'More Entertainment intrude on the fun. Just loading the player and getting to a particular episode seems to take several minutes. There are no subtitle options.
As with their other television titles, S'More is stretching a bit trying to create supplements to beef up their packages. There's a Dom DeLuise Interview About Wally Cox, obviously filmed when that actor was interviewed about another S'More release, Lotsa Luck. DeLuise, who never appeared on Mister Peepers, doesn't have much to say, but the brief interview is okay. An alleged Photo Gallery is nothing more than blurry screen captures, while a Mister Peepers Trivia Game is of limited value.
Other supplements include an appearance by Wally Cox on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, a Cox bio, and a useful Mister Peepers' Family Tree. More interesting is a pilot film, also kinescoped, recorded without a live audience.
Mister Peepers is both charming and heartbreaking, the former because of its delicate writing and terrific performances, the latter because the show cries out to have been shot on film and survives now in a form only the most forgiving viewers will tolerate. But there's a real jewel buried behind the blurry, sometimes scratched up kinescopes, waiting to be rediscovered.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.