I started watching this new boxed set of the second season of Mister Peepers on "Black Friday," the mad shopping day which incredibly ended with the death of one store clerk and the shooting deaths of two shoppers, news interspersed with horrifying scenes of terror in Mumbai, India. My thought was that everyone everywhere needs to take a really deep breath and step back from the everyday insanity that seems to overpopulate our lives in 2008. And what better way to do that than with this unassuming and quietly charming series from the early 1950s? If Mister Peepers seems slow and virtually catatonic at times, at least when compared to today's quick-cut, joke every four second gestalt, maybe that's exactly what's needed to calm everybody down and to get us all back to a kinder, gentler time when not everything had to be based in raucousness. In fact it's instructive to note that when Mister Peepers was awarded the vaunted Peabody (take that, Bill O'Reilly) in 1952, the awards committee specifically cited the fact that star Wally Cox's peculiar talent lay not in "bombast," but in an interior sort of comedy that was appealing for that very lack of showiness.
It may come as a surprise to a lot of Cox fans that he was a lifelong friend of Marlon Brando's, and that the two shared at least a passable athleticism in their heydays. Brando's of course eventually got buried under obesity and increasing weirdness, while Cox's was never really realized and thus was never capitalized upon due mostly to his becoming so indelibly identified with his title role character, Robinson Peepers, science teacher at Jefferson City High School. The unassuming, shy and somewhat bumbling Peepers quickly became a national sensation, and Cox was forever associated with the role, basically playing it over and over again for the duration of his career, brought prematurely to an end with his heart attack at age 48 in 1973.
Mister Peepers the situation comedy is a very lightweight, if at times surprisingly emotional, affair that tended to deal more with Peepers' interactions with other teachers than with student matters. Making up the fine supporting cast are the wonderfully dotty Marion Lorne (Aunt Clara in Bewitched for you younger folk) as befuddled English teacher Mrs. Gurney, Patricia Benoit as school nurse Nancy, Peepers' halting love interest, and in the role that first brought him to major national attention, Tony Randall as boorish but lovable history teacher Harvey Weskit. Many of the shows revolve around pretty minimal plot points, as when Peepers' mother comes to visit, staying with Nancy, or when Peepers stays the night at Harvey's tiny apartment.
The show mixes a sly and somewhat irreverent humor with a broad dash of physical comedy, most of which deals with Peepers' inability to get various things to work right. Whether wrestling with his teacher's locker, which requires a Rube Goldberg series of events to get it to open, or chasing an errant dust bunny across his bedroom floor, Cox is a very adept, if typically understated, physical comedian. Filmed before a large live audience in a Broadway theater, the show is sometimes as interesting for what the audience doesn't respond to as to what it does. I personally was kind of surprised several times to find myself laughing out loud at some pretty funny lines that elicited not a peep from the audience, such as Peepers telling the town phone operator that they hadn't changed the ending of "Romeo and Juliet", the school's play. At other times, typically during Randall's over the top mugging, the lack of reaction is more understandable. At still other times, there is relatively raucous response (this was the 50s, after all, when decorum was more the norm) as in a great scene built around Randall's character's impending marriage, when Peepers and Harvey are at a diner discussing breakfast options. Harvey is too nervous to read the menu, so Peepers does it for him, divulging that the options are Special Breakfast Number 1, Special Breakfast Number 2, Special Breakfast Number 3, Special Breakfast Number 4 and Special Breakfast Number 5. Harvey needs those choices to be repeated, and finally Peepers and Harvey decide on Number 4, adding what style of eggs they want. "Number 4 is waffles," intones the disapproving waitress. "Sorry, we're new here," Peepers offers as a placating answer. It's perfectly played, nothing out of the ordinary, but brilliantly in tune with these characters.
The wedding episode itself points out the great strength of Mister Peepers, its reliance on the human interactions and relationships between the characters. By the time Harvey ties the knot, in a segment that pretty much has the minister doing a complete wedding service (no montage or wipe fades here), there's a welling of emotion that would be unthinkable in a lot of today's form fitting sitcoms. When Peepers and Nancy look bashfully yet longingly at each other as Harvey and his bride say their vows, it's a beautiful and heartfelt moment of two slightly misfit characters finding their apt match, and is strangely redolent of another early 50s "small scale" masterpiece, Paddy Chayefsky's Marty.
Mister Peepers, under the expert guidance of producer Fred Coe, often belies its live origins, with a surprising amount of multi-camera setups and an even more surprising occasional dolly or tracking shot. While the physical production is fairly minimal, it's really not that important, as the focus always is squarely on the characters, as it should be. This is a very calm, almost langorous show that finds its comedy in the quiet play of characters. The writing is uniformly quite sharp, especially for an early 1950s piece, and Cox is a one of a kind performer who found his most memorable role early in his career. It may have hampered his further development as an actor, since no one would cast him against type for the most part, but that type is about as perfectly realized as it possibly could be in the ineffable Mister Peepers, a low key show that can serve as a potent antidote to a lot of what ails our modern world.
As with all pre-videotape era live broadcasts, Mister Peepers exists for modern audiences only because it was preserved on kinescope, masters of which are held at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, from which this set was transferred. If you've seen kinescopes before, you already know that quality is wildly variant, but I'm happy to report that for the most part these Peepers episodes are very good indeed. While the full frame, black and white images lack the solid contrast of an original film positive, they exhibit very little of the total blanching that a lot of older kinescopes do. The image can be a bit soft at times, as is to be expected, but this is really a rather remarkable looking set, considering its age.
The soundtrack hasn't weathered the ravages of time quite so well, unfortunately, and you'll notice an omnipresent hiss, as well as some pretty severe compression, especially at the extreme ends of the register, high and low. Midrange is pretty decent, which means all of the dialogue is relatively easy to hear. This was live television, and you'll note a time or two when the cueing of boom microphones is off, resulting in no sound for a moment. No subtitles are available.
Each of the four discs in this set contains its own extra. Disc One has a nice interview with Tony Randall, where he talks about not only Peepers in particular, but early television in general. Disc Two has a fascinating 1949 NBC featurette on the "advances" in the kinescope method (though it's missing some footage of what are advertised as then-recent kinescopes, which leads me to believe there were licensing issues that couldn't be handled). Disc Three has the 1952 Peabody Awards broadcast where Cox was honored. Disc Four has a very fun 1951 Suspense episode with Cox (doing a Brooklyn accent, no less) as a mystery writer at a party of authors that is crashed by a real killer (Jackie Cooper). All of the episodes run with their original Reynolds Aluminum commercials, which are about as low-tech as you can get, and provide some good laughs of their own, albeit (hopefully) unintentional.
Mister Peepers was a lovely, heartfelt show with a minimalist attitude bolstered by exceptionally fine work by Cox, Lorne, Randall and Benoit. It may take you an episode or two to dial yourself down to a 1950s level of entertainment enjoyment, but there is such an abundance of good will and simple honesty in these shows that they're easily Highly Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet