Sooo looooooooooong, Dennis...and not a moment too soon. Shout! Factory has released Dennis the Menace: The Final Season, a five-disc, 38-episode collection that encompasses the CBS sitcom's fourth and last go-around, from the 1962-1963 television season. With Gale Gordon's "new" Mr. Wilson firmly entrenched, along with an instant presto wife, played by Sara Seegar, everything should be business as usual at 627 Elm Street. Sadly, though, it's not. The scripts aren't nearly as tight or as funny this final fourth time, the conflict between Dennis and Mr. Wilson is muted to the point of ennui, and that little bastard Dennis had the nerve to grow up―he ditches his bib coveralls and pullover for chinos and a polo shirt...and even his cowlick takes a more conservative profile. No extras for this good-looking release.
Suburban Hillsdale, America, circa 1962. 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 fifth-grader Dennis Mitchell (Jay North). A rambunctious, inquisitive, tow-headed walking disaster zone in a stripped polo shirt and chinos, 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" (Gale Gordon), the Mitchell's new next-door neighbor. Unlike his brother, George (the late Joseph Kearns), who previously owned the home and who was retired to the good life of 1950s suburban America, John Wilson is a working writer, constantly looking for an angle for his magazine assignments...and a little peace and quiet to tap out his stories. John's pragmatic, slightly smart-assed wife, Eloise (Sara Seegar), enjoys Dennis coming over just as much to have him annoy John as to see his smiling face. The parents of such a child could rightly apply for sainthood; 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."
What was once one the brightest, funniest sitcoms on TV...just doesn't work anymore at this point. I've had a lot of fun watching this classic boomer sitcom from its very beginning (you can read those three previous reviews here), but it was apparent in season three that Dennis the Menace was already chugging along on borrowed time, with confirmation of that decline coming in this scattershot fourth and final season. The most obivous―but by no means the only―problem with the show is the loss of Joseph Kearns. As I wrote in my previous review, Gale Gordon was a brilliant TV comedian...but something about his portrayal here of John Wilson is just off. Whereas there was real anguish and terror on the part of Kearns when he was buffeted and blasted by Dennis' continued assaults (and real heart-tugging emotion when these obviously simpatico performers had their tender moments together), with Gordon, everything is rather reserved, and calm, even when he's supposed to be enraged. Mild irritation for Dennis has replaced open anger; he's just too understanding and sweet with Dennis the Pest, and that throws the concept off its axis. I rather like the addition of Seegar as John's flip wife―even if her presence is arbitrary and unexplained―but no matter how funny she is, bantering with John and subtlety egging on Dennis to annoy her husband, it can't make up for the fact that she seems less interested in "mothering" Dennis as the previous Mrs. Wilson was (the sublime Sylvia Fields), thereby eliminating another thread from the concept: Mrs. Wilson is supposed to be a calming, maternal buffer between the eager-to-please Dennis and the fuming Mr. Wilson―not a wise-ass who wants the kid around only to piss-off her husband (there is a weird, beautiful moment in episode two, You Go Your Way, where the rigid bounds of TVland seem ready to bust when Dennis tells John the old Mr. Wilson let him cut his grass, to which John angrily replies, "Well, I own the house now, and I don't...." before Eloise cuts him off in horror. There's a lot of layers getting unpeeled there when she reacts with surprisingly real effrontery....).
And frankly, it doesn't help that Jay North is growing up here, either. Certainly CBS was in an impossible spot: North was Dennis to so many viewers that they couldn't have replaced him with a younger re-cast, but clearly, he's too old for these shenanigans, and it shows. Merely changing his costume and pasting down his manufactured cowlick doesn't successfully change the character, any more than having Dennis "grow up" in several episodes here―and that's because the concept is being altered for the worse. We don't want a "growing up" Dennis the Menace. Dennis should forever be a little tiny terror whose guile and smart-ass ways continually trip-up the adult world he navigates. If he's older, how does that concept accommodate him? He's too old to idolize his older neighbor now, so the scripters throw out all that "my best pal" jazz, which ironically only serves to distance the characters even further from each other, creating more unease with the show's evolution. They even make the mistake of having the grown-ups legitimately mad at Dennis for fouling up, because he can't fall back on being a kid anymore to explain his screw-ups. What kid wants to watch that happen on Dennis the Menace? They get that crap at home; they watch the show to see an escape from their own reality, where a little smart-ass causes a whole bunch of trouble, and the grown-ups simply throw up their hands because what else are they going to do with such an adorable little tot?
Now, there are some funny outings here (although none are series-best). Anytime the show brings in supporting characters like man-hungry spinsters Miss Esther Cathcart (Mary Wickes) and Miss Tarbell (Bewitched's Alice Pearce), the show achieves a wacky Frank Capra/Abbott & Costello Show/Seinfeld alternate universe feel that scores every time (same thing whenever dodgy cop Sergeant Theodore Mooney, played brilliantly by George Cisar, waltzes in, laughing). And veteran director Charles Barton, when given a script that can let him improvise with the physical gags, delivers some funny extended sequences in The Uninvited Guest, Tuxedo Trouble, My Uncle Ned, and The Creature With the Big Feet. However...those passable entries are far outnumbered by episodes that either focus too much on Gale Gordon (was that part of his agreement to take on the role?), or that miss the original tone of the series entirely. A perfect example of all the problems for this fourth season are found in the season opener, The Chinese Girl, which plays like a bad Family Affair episode. How many fans of the series tuned into this horrible opener and quickly vowed to watch The Jetsons from that point on? Forget that it has very few laughs (if the first three seasons proved anything, it was that Dennis the Menace was a reliable laugh machine): why the hell is Dennis romantically interested in a girl? Show me that in the comic strip. If that isn't bad enough, we get to see him dress up in a suit for a luncheon date (jesus), and get his first kiss―how many little television viewers blanched at that (I don't need lessons in cultural tolerance from Dennis the Menace, either, particularly when they're so heavy-handed)?
But it's not just the opener; so many episodes this time out are either misguided conceptually, or just downright odd in their tone. Dennis in Gypsyland is probably the worst offender, with too much Gale Gordon and a premise that was played out long before 1962 (the sight of Gordon in a gypsy outfit isn't insulting because it mocks gypsies, it's insulting because it's not funny). A Tax on Cats further embarrasses Gordon by having him become Hillsdale's cat catcher (a successful writer is doing this why?), and then blows the concept by doing absolutely nothing with it. Henry's New Job has too little Dennis in an unfunny story about Henry being fired and Dennis running away from home. The Big Basketball Game must be trying for some kind of minor social message exploration when it features a poor kid who says, among other things, "I live in a dump." Well, Dennis the Menace can keep that message, because viewers don't tune into the show for realism; they have enough of that in their own lives―it's supposed to be escapism. Location shooting is always a sure sign of producer desperation, and the two-parter to San Diego (San Diego Safari and Dennis at Boot Camp) is marred by plot contrivances, too few jokes, and even botched location shooting (San Diego apparently is nothing more than parking lots and motels). And the list goes on and on.
What's most distressing, though, watching season four of Dennis the Menace, is seeing how Jay North has changed. No, not that he's gotten older (he can hardly help that), but rather, his spirit seems oddly deflated. Maybe by this time he had gotten old enough where the "glamour and excitement" of doing the show had worn off, with him either balking at the kid-stuff he was asked to do, or becoming zoned-out bored performing like a trick pony. Maybe it was the death of Kearns (some people assert it affected him rather strongly). Maybe it was the continued abuse he's alleged to have endured by his parents. It's impossible to say, probably, but even if North felt better about not having to wear that wardrobe anymore, there's no mistaking that something is off here with his performance. Unlike the Dennis of old, where North created a rather astounding character of insane cheeriness and sly wit, here his energy is lower, he's subdued, and even a little grumpy-looking at times. And who can blame him, quite frankly? Dennis the Menace just wasn't the same, anymore.
And it's not just me writing that, 50 years on: audiences in 1962 rejected this season, too. What had been a Nielsen Top Twenty (the 17th most-watched TV show for the 1961-1962 season), dropped with a sickening free-fall out of the Nielsen Top Thirty altogether by the end of the 1962-1963 season. Direct competition from The Jetsons on ABC may not have garnered that Hanna-Barbera animated comedy Top Thirty ratings, either, but it had to take a bite out of Dennis the Menace's available audience sample, while cool and steady Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color over on NBC stayed solid at 24th for the year (it would remain a Top Twenty/Ten hit for the next 12 years straight). Clearly, audiences had tired of Dennis the Menace; the reasons could be many (North's age, the loss of Kearns, the refusal to accept Gordon as a replacement, the general decline in the quality of the episodes), but there was no arguing with the numbers. Dennis the Menace was canceled in the spring of 1963, soon to be seen in repeats until this very day (and very probably for years and years to come).
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.