"We sure are going to miss good ol' Mr. Wilson."
Sooo loooooooooong, Mr. Wilson. Shout! Factory has released Dennis the Menace: Season Three, a five-disc, 38-episode (yikes!) collection of the series' 1961-1962 season. As fans of the show know, season three saw the death of series' co-star, Joseph Kearns, and despite the comedic chops of his formidable replacement, Gale Gordon, the handwriting was probably on the wall for the series when George Wilson suddenly just...disappeared one day from Elm Street, never to return. The series is still tightly written and expertly produced, with numerous series-best episodes, but it's obvious, too, that Dennis will soon be getting too big for those britches. No extras, unfortunately, for this good-looking release.
Suburban Hillsdale, America, circa 1960. If you round the bend on Mississippi Street, you won't have to get too close to 627 Elm to hear a strident, "Helloooooooooooo, Mr. Wilson!" called out by little Dennis Mitchell (Jay North). A rambunctious, inquisitive, tow-headed walking disaster zone in stripped shirt and overalls, Dennis means well, but this red-blooded, all-American boy simply can't help but lay down a path of destruction wherever he goes...particularly when he visits "good ol' Mr. Wilson" (Joseph Kearns), the Mitchell's next-door neighbor. Retired to the good life of 1950s suburban America, George Wilson wants nothing more than to putter around his house with his various hobbies, including bird watching, coin collecting and especially his garden, before settling down every afternoon for a quiet snooze on the couch.
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson is driven to gulping straight out of his nerve tonic bottle, such is the ruckus caused by hero-worshipping Dennis, who likes Mr. Wilson so much that he's very probably going to kill George with hyper-kindness. George's saintly wife, Martha (Sylvia Field), thinks Dennis a dear, sweet little boy, but even she knows there are times when Dennis shouldn't be around grouchy George...and those are precisely the times that Dennis strikes with completely innocent mayhem. The parents of such a child could rightly apply for sainthood, too; however, engineer Henry Mitchell (Herbert Anderson) and lovely housewife Alice (Gloria Henry), get exasperated with Dennis, as well―until they realize he's just a boy with good intentions...and low impulse control skills. Rounding out the gang are Dennis' good-natured, willing best friend Tommy (Billy Booth), and that "dumb ol' Margaret" Wade (Jeannie Russell), who is forever trying to wrangle a horrified Dennis into playing house as her "husband." When George suddenly "goes East" on a trip and/or to "settle an estate," his brother, writer John Wilson (Gale Gordon), comes to stay at George's home...where he becomes the latest target of towheaded Dennis' killer friendship.
If you were a kid like me growing up back in the '70s, you had no idea about the "reality" of television or its stars. You might read an Earl Wilson column about Archie Bunker bitching for more money, or catch Rona Barrett on Good Morning, America discussing the latest contretemps on the set of Laverne & Shirley. However, if you wanted to know what happened to the first Mr. Wilson on an old show like Dennis the Menace, you were probably out of luck: no internet to instantly look up fifty stories on his death, no serious history books on television in the local library, and the most you'd probably get out of your parents, if they remembered, was that he died and that was it. In a weird way, that less-obsessed, pre-media crazed time contributed to that almost dreamlike feel TV had back then for us (or at least me); television just "was" for kids, it existed in this strange world of old and new shows butting up against each other without rhyme or reason, and if one day the old Mr. Wilson was replaced with a new one, you wondered about it...but somehow on some weird level it made sense because you knew deep down none of any of it made sense. And you weren't going to get any answers, either.
Of course today, that's all different. My kids know too much about their favorite TV stars, and that's why they hold almost no weight with them: there's no distance, no magic. With the internet, you can easily look up all the particulars of Joseph Kearns' death from a cerebral hemorrhage on February 17th, 1962, and you can speculate on blogs with hundreds of other TV fans about whether or not his strict Metracal diet (a liquid diet drink) was the cause, while gabbing about thousands of other equally "juicy" TV stories (Jay North's supposed abuse on the show is one of the all-time biggies). But back in the early seventies, watching reruns of Dennis the Menace as a kid, Mr. Wilson was there one day, and the next he wasn't, and you wondered about it for a day or two before you just let that shadowbox dream-maker carry you along blinking into new fantasies.
And truth be told, that knowledge of Kearns' passing does set up a rather morbid curiosity in the viewer while watching this third season collection. Of course there's nothing in anyone's behavior here to suggest some weird occult predestination of Kearns' fate (although how spooky is the coincidence that Where There's a Will, the episode where Mr. Wilson makes out a will and leaves everything to Dennis, was the last episode to air before Kearns' own death, just six days later?). And being a model of Hollywood efficiency, there's not the slightest trace of acknowledgment from the remaining cast, on any level in the subsequent episodes, that the show's co-star has actually and for real, died. Everyone moves on in that supremely odd TV world, as if nothing has happened. That doesn't stop us from looking for signs, all the same...but they're not there.
Getting past that vague shadow that hangs over the experience of watching season three of Dennis the Menace, just as with seasons one and two (please click here to read my reviews for those sets), the quality of the episodes is consistently high...if perhaps, just a tad perhaps, played out. Silly but ingenious plots play out with almost metronomic precision, yielding big laughs from the expert cast. Episodes like Mr. Wilson's Safe (where Dennis has to be hypnotized to remember the combination to George's new wall safe) or Dennis and the Pee Wee League, where George uses psychology to get the boys to transfer their hatred for cello lessons, dancing with girls, and washing, to the baseball for big runs (did Bill Lancaster watch this before writing The Bad News Bears...because it's pretty similar), seem slight and even inane at first glance, until they build and build cleverly from one topper to the next. Indeed, that expert situational/slapstick "build" is a hallmark of Dennis the Menace (and many other classic sitcoms from this era), with the various script writers coming up with a seemingly endless supply of ever-increasing mishaps that grow into a major calamity―and almost always for Mr. Wilson. The season opener, Trouble From Mars, has Mr. Wilson accidentally putting on Dennis' space helmet and getting it stuck, leading to the fire department eventually raiding his house. The Fifty Thousandth Customer, a beautifully constructed episode, has Mr. Wilson building himself into a frenzy to be the 50,000 customer into crabby Mr. Finch's (Charles Lane) drug store, the winner getting a five-minute shopping spree...with of course Dennis beating him to it. The show tops this by having Dennis best the stingy Mr. Finch, who stored everything of value on high shelves, by smart Dennis climbing the walls and throwing everything into a hammock (the show sweetly has Dennis giving Mr. Wilson everything he wanted; there's genuine affection from North to Kearns in their scenes together...or at least it looks that way). A Quiet Evening finds possible Dennis replacement Seymour (Robert John Pittman) causing havoc with babysitting George by spending his valuable dime in a candy machine (the subsequent events are expertly staged, culminating in a hilarious third degree of George by the cops, a la Dragnet).
The Man Next Door is another precisely-designed farce, with everyone suspecting each of being the notorious neighborhood thief (veteran comedy director Charles Barton, who again directs almost all the episodes here this season, is a master at such simple yet effective comedic staging). Television historians take note: Calling All Bird Lovers, a delightfully bizarre entry from Russell Beggs where some hepcat musicians mistake one of George's bird call concerts for a jazz session, has what has to be one of the first unmistakable drug humor jokes in a network sitcom...on Dennis the Menace, no less (after one of the squares flips out, the jazz enthusiast wonders, "I don't what that cat was taking...but I sure would like to have some!"). And best example of the "build" here has to be my favorite episode this season, and a timely one at Christmas time, Keith Fowler's and Phil Leslie's The Fifteen-Foot Christmas Tree. Here, George takes it upon himself to dismiss the Mitchell's puny, spray-painted tree so he can take Dennis and Henry into the woods to chop down a real Christmas tree. Of course, the disasters begin almost immediately (he breaks the ax handle on the first swing), before some stray passersby in the woods scam them out of twenty bucks, saying they own the property (hilarious), before they're trying to get the tree on a bus because they lost their car keys (I hit the floor when the drunk woke up on the bus, peering through the tree branches that surround him, thinking he's in the woods). The sight of George's final creation―a hideously mangled abomination―is priceless. And of course, Dennis repeats his Christmas tradition by sweetly singing Silent Night at the end of this genuine work of TV comedy art.
Of course, no review of Dennis the Menace's third season would be complete without mentioning Kearns' replacement, Gale Gordon. You can see the producers scrambling to maintain their production schedule after Kearns' unexpected demise when they plug in first Willard Waterman as grocer Mr. Quigley into George's shoes (to no effect: Waterman was priceless as a supporting player, but he fades in the long run), and then Edward Everett Horton as George's Uncle Ned (he was introduced in an earlier Kearns episode). Once Gale Gordon comes in, the series finds a beat again―not the same as Kearns' beat, and frankly not as good as his, but a beat nonetheless, and the producers probably felt that Gordon was the way to continue. As a huge fan of Gale Gordon's on the various Lucy Show incarnations, it's a pleasure to see him here, looking sleek and smooth, with his silky delivery that gives way to brief explosions of rage that are quickly smothered. He's a gem, as always, and probably more technically proficient an actor and comedian than Kearns. But he's not Kearns, and it's difficult to feel any of the connection one felt between Kearns and North here. Understandably, Gordon was probably feeling his way through an enormously difficult situation, knowing he was an outsider in a production "family," and that his continued presence would eventually lead to another regular, Sylvia Field, being let go. We'll wait till the fourth and final season to fully evaluate him as the "new" Mr. Wilson, but as for these few last episodes of season three, Kearns is sorely, sorely missed.
It's certainly possible that even though it took most of the season for Kearns' remaining episodes to play out, the news of his death in mid-February could have had a negative effect on Dennis the Menace's ratings. Just as likely, Dennis' direct competition―NBC's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color at 7:30―was to blame, as well, for the former sitcom's 11th Nielsen position tumbling to 17th for this third season. ABC's adventure series, Follow the Sun, was no serious threat, but the lure of Disney in color, followed by a hip sitcom, Car 54, Where Are You? (anchored by an equally hip cartoon, The Bullwinkle Show at 7:00pm, and followed up with the giant killer, Bonanza at 9:00), was sure to siphon off some the kiddies (as well as the adults who might have wanted to avoid answering any uncomfortable questions like, "If Mr. Wilson died like it said in the papers, why is he still on TV?"). The following year, Dennis the Menace would drop out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether, pole-axed by the loss of Kearns, the rapid maturation of Jay North, the continued presence of Walt Disney, and a hip Flintstones spin-off, The Jetsons, over on ABC.
Here are the 38 (!) episodes of the five-disc set, Dennis the Menace: Season
Three, as described on the set's enclosed episode guide:
Trouble From Mars
Mr. Wilson accidentally gets Dennis' space helmet stuck on his head.
Dennis and Mr. Wilson camp out on a mountain so that Dennis can join the Junior Pathfinders club.
Keep Off The Grass
Henry gets a ticket for walking on the grass in the park. When Mr. Wilson hears about it, he thinks it isn't fair, so he convinces Henry to go to court and contest it.
Mr. Wilson's Safe
Mr. Wilson has something very important in his safe. Unfortunately, no one can remember the combination.
George and Henry purchase a house as an income property and later find out that it is known to be haunted.
The School Play
Mr. Wilson ends up being in a play at Dennis' school after he and Tommy get handcuffed together before the play starts.
The Fifty-Thousandth Customer
Mr. Finch is having a contest in which his store's fifty-thousandth customer of the year will win five minutes of free shopping. Mr. Wilson is determined to be the winner.
Dennis And The Pee Wee League
Mr. Wilson coaches Dennis' Pee Wee League baseball team because Henry, the team's original coach, becomes ill.
Mr. Wilson's Inheritance
Mr. Wilson receives an inheritance from his aunt and thinks about starting a foundation to help the less fortunate.
Dennis Is A Genius
A school intelligence test labels Dennis a genius.
The Lucky Piece
Dennis mows Mr. Wilson's lawn, and instead of the silver dollar he is promised, Mr. Wilson tricks him into taking a silver coin with a horseshoe and the words "good luck" written on it.
The Fifteen-Foot Christmas Tree
Dennis, Henry and Mr. Wilson go out in the woods and cut down a big Christmas tree that almost ends up getting destroyed before they get it home.
Dennis' Bank Account
Dennis wants to open an account at the bank where Mr. Wilson is temporarily working in the new-accounts department.
Through Thick and Thin
Dennis' Cub Scout troop is putting on a circus, and Dennis convinces Mr. Wilson to be the lion.
Calling All Bird Lovers
Mr. Wilson holds a bird lovers' session at his home that includes a woman who does realistic bird calls.
Silence Is Golden
Mr. Wilson agrees to give Dennis his magnifying glass as long as he doesn't say a word to him or around him for the rest of the day.
Dennis Has A Fling
Dennis is put on the spot when he asks both Mr. Wilson and Mr. MacTavish to represent Scotland for his school project.
Frog Jumping Contest
Dennis enters his frog in a jumping contest with Mr. Wilson as his partner. Mr. Wilson bets Sergeant Mooney that Dennis' frog will win.
Where's There's a Will
Mr. Wilson decides to leave Dennis a gold watch in his will. Soon after, Mr. Wilson begins to feel old and is convinced that he only has a short time to live.
Mr. Wilson's Uncle
George's Uncle Ned comes to visit and convinces George that he isn't in shape. Ned starts a physical fitness program and forces George and Henry to participate.
A Quiet Evening
Mr. Wilson plans to have a quiet evening at home, but his plans change when Henry needs a sitter for Dennis.
The Private Eye
Mr. Wilson's wallet is taken by a pickpocket, so Dennis and Tommy try to help the police find the crook.
Mr. Wilson's Housekeeper
Mr. Wilson hires a housekeeper for Mrs. Wilson but soon regrets it when the housekeeper tries to tell Mr. Wilson what he can and cannot do in his own home.
A Dog's Life
A big, shaggy dog follows Mr. Wilson home from the market.
Dennis' Documentary Film
Dennis enlists the help of Mr. Wilson in creating a documentary film of the town for a school project.
Horseless Carriage Club
Dennis charges admission to his friends for rides in Mr. Wilson's 1912 Winton.
Junior Pathfinders Ride Again
An Indian fire-starting demonstration is scheduled for Dennis' Junior Pathfinders club, and Mr. Wilson is drafted to start a fire by rubbing together two sticks.
The Treasure Chest
Mr. Wilson buys a treasure chest at an auction thinking that it has a pirate's treasure in it.
Wilson Goes To The Dentist
Dennis has an appointment to go to a new dentist in town who gives a gift to each child that sees him for the first time.
The Man Next Door
Mr. Wilson thinks his next-door neighbor is the stocking bandit and tries to prove it.
Dennis And The Dodger
The mayor agrees to give the team new uniforms if Mr. Quigley can get Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers to play an exhibition game in town.
Dennis' Lovesick Friend
In order to get out of playing house with Margaret, Dennis decides to help Mr. Wilson's Uncle Ned plant flower bulbs in his yard.
John Wilson's Cushion
George Wilson's brother John comes to stay with Martha while George is out of town.
John Wilson Wins a Chicken
After selling a rare 1919 dime for $150, Mr. Wilson buys ten raffle tickets from Dennis and ends up winning a chicken. When he wants to cook the chicken for dinner, Dennis and his friends try to talk him out of it.
Alice makes Dennis promise not to fight after he is picked on by the school bully.
The Club Initiation
Dennis wants to join an older boys' club, but, in order to do so, he has to go through an initiation.
Mr. Brady and Tiny, an employee at his store, challenge Henry and John to compete against them in the sporting events at an upcoming community picnic.
Dennis And The Witch Doctor
Mr. Wilson is writing a magazine article about voodoo. Dennis gets the wrong idea and tells the whole neighborhood that Mr. Wilson is a witch doctor.
The full-screen, 1.37:1 black and white transfers for Dennis the Menace: Season Three look fairly stabilized from the ones in season two. Black generally hold, and the image is sharp and clean. Some minor moire effects whenever the stripes come out.
The Dolby Digital English split mono track is fine if unremarkable, with minor fluctuations here and there, and low hiss. No subtitles or close-captions available.
For the first time, no extras for a Dennis the Menace release. You couldn't include one Skippy® peanut butter ad, Shout! Factory?
He only misses the last few episodes, but knowing about the death of George Wilson's Joseph Kearns puts a strange pall over this season for the viewer. The episodes are still beautifully constructed and directed, and the cast is excellent, as always. Kearns' replacement, the smooth, silky, then explosive Gale Gordon, is fine, too...but we're too used to Kearns by this point. We'll see how things work out in season four. I'm highly recommending Dennis the Menace: Season Three.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.