Suburban Hillsdale, America, circa late 1950s - early 1960s. 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 astronomy, 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 little 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."
I wrote four extensive reviews for Shout!'s season releases of Dennis the Menace (you can read those here), so I won't go into a new song and dance about this charming and often hilarious sitcom. Suffice it to say, Dennis the Menace holds up remarkably well 53 years (!) after its first season premiere. A "kiddie" show that plays as well with adults as it does with the small fry, Dennis the Menace is yet another example of beautifully-crafted entertainment that was the norm in television's golden past―a fact that shouldn't, but does, continually surprise me the more I re-visit these often-maligned treasures. An interviewer in the 1980s once asked "The Great One," Jackie Gleason, why the "classic 39" Honeymooners were still revered by audiences after 30 years, and he said quite plainly, "Because they're funny," a deceptively simplistic statement that actually sums up their intangible appeal quite nicely. When Jay North starts rattling off a machine gun-fire line of questions at some exasperated adult, it's still funny...and it's going to be funny for as long as people recognize the humor in a peripatetic kid who can't help but say the wrong thing at the wrong time, or whose actions cause bigger calamities than he was trying to avert. "Funny is funny," as the saying goes, and deeper meaning is fine if you can find it...but it's not necessary. It's enough to laugh at Dennis' well-intentioned sincerity, marred by his incredibly bad judgment of his actions' consequences, along with the surrounding adults' mortification as they watch this well-intentioned train wreck in action. With a crack team of writers, including pros William Cowley, Peggy Chantler, Keith Fowler and Phil Leslie, and with solid support from most-often used directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, Dennis the Menace is simply and cleanly constructed, episode after episode, and invariably funny...at least in the first three seasons (once the show lost Kearns, who died suddenly during the third season, and North began to rapidly mature, the series quickly lost its bearings for the final, weak fourth season).
As for Shout!'s Dennis the Menace: 20 Timeless Episodes gathering, only one or two selections proved disconcerting, particularly the three from the largely failed fourth season featuring Gale Gordon (it's bad enough that an unfunny episode like San Diego Safari is chosen...but wouldn't you at least include its second part, Dennis At Boot Camp?). Series loyalists will always adamantly assert their "best of" choices are the "correct" ones, so naturally there will be quibbling about which ones Shout! selected (I'm insane, right, to think there are Dennis the Menace fanatics out there arguing about this?). I know I would have picked other titles over some of the ones here. Where's Grandpa and Miss Cathcart, with panic-stricken man-eater neighbor Miss Cathcart, played to absolute hilarious perfection by that treasure, Mary Wickes? Or Innocents in Space, a sweet, gentle entry that captures the wonder and innocence of kids' imaginations, as filtered through their favorite TV shows (Dennis and the Cowboy is another good example of this)? Dennis' Garden is a perfectly constructed laugh-builder about dahlia bulbs being buried and unearthed to increasingly surreal results. Or how about one of the series' best, Dennis and the Swing, where Dennis sets into motion multiple comic misunderstandings that result in a series of beautifully simple-yet-hilariously staged set pieces? Or how about the sublime The Fifteen-Foot Christmas Tree, from scripters Keith Fowler and Phil Leslie, where an ever-increasing set of disasters befall George when he takes it upon himself to give Dennis a "real" Christmas tree?
Still...the rest of the offerings here in Dennis the Menace: 20 Timeless Episodes are nothing to sneeze at. Dennis And the Signpost is a nicely-modulated "build" comedy resulting from Dennis helpfully moving a street sign. Wilson Sleeps Over has fun with George bunking with Dennis. Mr. Wilson's Uncle features the wonderful Edward Everett Horton as strong-as-an-ox Uncle Ned. Dennis and the Open House is another series' best, an expertly-staged "comedy of attrition" that finds every freeloader in town showing up at the Mitchell's business "open house," courtesy of Dennis' unwelcome help (Dub Taylor is great as the unpretentious fix-it-man, Opie Swanson). Man of the House, scripted by Louella MacFarlane, is another perfect example of the show's ability to build increasingly clever gags, with the simple set-up of Dennis minding the house just long enough for his sick mother to lay down for some sleep snowballing into Dennis buffaloing everyone into doing his chores, including scamming plastic dishware salesman Alan Hewitt (brilliant, as always) into providing a full-course meal. Of course the best example of this build is in the series' first outing, Dennis Goes to the Movies (included here), where we see the ornery, lying, destructively mischievous Dennis that could have been featured in the series...had the producers not caved to pressure groups and the censors, subsequently toning down the character considerably. The rest of the episodes here may not be quite up to the level of the ones mentioned above, but invariably, the laughs are consistently drawn from the expert timing of the performers, and the skilled writers and directors who cranked out these funny shows, week after week, year after year.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.