Two primetime sitcoms in the Fifties focused on a child in the family: “Leave It to Beaver” (1957) and “Dennis the Menace” (1959). Both series ended in 1963, but “Dennis the Menace,” which was based on the cartoon strip by Hank Ketcham, was more warmly received when it originally aired, finishing at Number 16 its first season and edging up to Number 11 for its second. At the center of each show was some misunderstanding, and often that misunderstanding involved the Mitchell’s neighbor, the fussy and easily upset Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns).
While Dennis Mitchell (Jay North) is just as naïve as Beaver Cleaver, he has something that Beaver never did: boundless energy, enthusiasm, and ideas for how to help people or make the world a better place. Unfortunately, week after week his good intentions cause big problems for everyone he tries to help, because he is, after all, just a kid.
But the show suffered a severe blow when Stearns died and the producers and network opted not to replace the character with a different actor but to create a scenario in which the Wilsons moved away and George’s brother, John (Gale Gordon, “The Lucy Show”) and his wife, Eloise (Sara Seeger) bought the Wilson house. Stearns played a Though Gordon’s less shrill and dinner-theater performance is a welcome change, lost is the ambivalence that the first Mr. Wilson had for Dennis, and the dynamic that made Dennis his unknowing nemesis.
Producers allowed Dennis to ditch his overalls and the slingshot that hung from a back pocket in favor of a polo shirt and pressed slacks, and the debut episode this season emphasizes that Dennis has grown up a little bit because he takes an interest in a Chinese girl visiting the Wilsons. Still, he’s a little old to be uttering “jeepers” in such a wide-eyed child-actor fashion, and so is Jeannie Russell as Margaret—a 12-year-old girl who dresses like an eight year old from the ‘50s and talks like one too, pushing a doll carriage and such things.
So for audiences today this 1962-63 sitcom will seem like a relic. Some of the plots are recycled and other scenarios are downright preposterous (like driving a chimpanzee from one zoo to another). But the writing (Hank Ketcham was involved in 88 out of 146 episodes) is so good that we get a dose of nostalgia but with a number of unforced laughs. With no moralizing and mostly innocent well-intentioned “help” rather than mischief, each episode creates an atmosphere where parents and children can both watch without feeling uncomfortable. Dennis isn’t doing anything malicious, and his parents aren’t punishing him. Yet, things go terribly (and sometimes hilariously) wrong. Call it “no-fault comedy.”
The core incidents behind each episode provide for both laughs and a nostalgic look at a simpler time. It’s a little annoying that for the tiniest of jokes, not only do we get a laugh track but we get a group reaction shot as everyone stands there laughing . . . wholesomely. This is an extremely wholesome show, and parents whose kids can tolerate black-and-white family comedies might try this one out. But it’s best to begin with Season 1, when North was younger and Dennis was more believable as an innocent mischief-maker.
Here’s a rundown on the 38 episodes, which are described on a three-color bi-fold insert, complete with original air dates, contained on five single-sided discs and housed in a standard size keep case with plastic “pages”:
- “The Chinese Girl.” Dennis becomes fast friends with a girl from Hong Kong who is staying with the Wilsons.
- “You Go Your Way.” Dennis hears the Wilsons arguing and spreads the news around the neighborhood, leading some of the neighbors to think the Wilsons have split up.
- “Dennis and the Circular Circumstances.” Mrs. Elkins turns Dennis down for a job delivering circulars for her campaign, but Mr. Wilson agrees to help Dennis pursue it.
- “The Little Judge.” Following a complaint from Mrs. Elkins, Sgt. Mooney takes Mr. Wilson to court for an alleged violation of a town ordinance when his incinerator continues to burn after 8 a.m.
- “Poor Mr. Wilson.” When Mr. Wilson’s money is lost at Quigley’s market through a hole in his pocket, he cannot pay Dennis for washing his car—but Dennis misinterprets “the market” to mean stock and assumes Mr. Wilson is broke.
- “Dennis in Gypsyland.” Mr. Wilson’s article about gypsies is returned with the request that he get to know them better through further research.
- “The New Principal.” Dennis and his school’s new principal get off to a bad start after the principal takes a remark about his height the wrong way.
- “San Diego Safari.” Both the Wilsons and the Mitchells take a trip when Mr. Wilson is selected to pick up a chimpanzee from the San Diego Zoo.
- “Dennis at Boot Camp.” Mr. Wilson receives an inheritance from his aunt and thinks about starting a foundation to help the less fortunate.
- “Henry’s New Job.” Dennis runs away from home because Henry is thinking of getting a new job that would relocate him and his family.
- “Wilson’s Second Childhood.” Mr. Wilson hangs out and plays with Dennis and his friends for the day to gather information for a magazine article about the changing behaviors of children.
- “Jane Butterfield Says.” Mr. Wilson takes over an advice-to-the-lovelorn newspaper column for a few weeks, thinking he will have every single woman in town happily married by the time he finishes.
- “Dennis and the Hermit.” Mr. Wilson believes that a hermit Dennis visits at a shack out in the woods fought in the Civil War, so he tries to get his life story.
- “My Uncle Ned.” Mr. Wilson has written a book about his Uncle Ned’s life, but Ned does not want the book to be published.
- “Junior Astronaut.” Mr. Wilson is named chairman of a saving-stamps campaign for the Junior Astronauts and arranges a contest at Dennis’ school to win a trip to Cape Canaveral to meet an astronaut.
- “Wilson’s Little White Lie.” Mr. Wilson tells Dennis he isn’t feeling well, just to get Dennis to leave him alone. But Dennis of course spreads the word and leads everyone to believe that Mr. Wilson is very sick.
- “Dennis, the Rain Maker.” Mr. Wilson gives Dennis a book called Secrets of the Indian Rain Dance, and he and his friends decide to give it a try.
- “The Creature with the Big Feet.” Mr. Wilson sees large footprints in his yard caused by Dennis’ new novelty shoes and thinks they may be from a monster that has been reported in the newspaper.
- “Dennis, the Confused Cupid.” Dennis decides to help along a potential romance between an older friend of his and a new girl in town.
- “Dennis Goes to Washington.” Dennis is appointed by the mayor to go to Washington to ask their senator to support the creation of a national forest at nearby Hickory Mountain.
- “The Big Basketball Game.” The star player on Dennis’ basketball team, Stretch, quits the team because Johnny Brady and some of the other players constantly make fun of him.
- “Wilson’s Allergy.” Mr. Wilson is convinced that he is allergic to Dennis because he sneezes every time Dennis is around.
- “Baby Booties.” Mrs. Wilson knits several baby booties to use as covers for a new set of golf clubs, and Dennis quickly spreads word around the neighborhood.
- “My Four Boys.” Mr. Wilson wins an essay contest that requires the entrants to be parents, so he tries to pass off Dennis and his friends as his own children.
- “Dennis and the Homing Pigeons.” Dennis and Tommy decide to use pigeons in the park to send messages to each other.
- “A Tax on Cats.” Mr. Wilson becomes a cat-catcher for the police department to help enforce a cat license law.
- “The Uninvited Guest.” With Henry away in New York on business and Alice having to spend the night with Henry’s mother, Dennis stays with the Wilsons for a night.
- “Dennis Plays Robin Hood.” Dennis takes Mr. Wilson’s lawn edger without asking, so when Mr. Wilson sees Mrs. Elkins using an edger she recently purchased, he takes it believing it was stolen from him.
- “The Three F’s.” Mr. Wilson thinks property taxes are rising because the school is wasting money on nonessential programs and luxuries.
- “Never Say Dye.” A famous actress commissions Mr. Wilson to write her life story, thinking he is a young, vigorous author with a youthful point of view.
- “The Lost Dog.” Dennis finds a stray dog and convinces Henry to allow the dog to stay in their house for the night.
- “Tuxedo Trouble.” Dennis and his friends start a laundry service using Mrs. Elkins’ old washing machine.
- “Hawaiian Love Song.” Mrs. Wilson is angry with Mr. Wilson because she thinks he’s not taking her to Hawaii for their anniversary, even though he promised to.
- “The Lucky Rabbit’s Foot.” With the recent bad luck Mr. Wilson has been having, Dennis offers to let him borrow what he believes to be a lucky rabbit’s foot.
- “Listen to the Mockingbird.” Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Elkins each run for president of the Birdwatcher’s Society.
- “First Editions.” Henry tells Dennis to get rid of his massive comic book collection, and so he decides to sell them.
- “A Man among Men.” While Henry is out of town, Dennis tries to take his place and do everything his father would do.
- “Aunt Emma Visits the Wilsons.” When Mr. Wilson’s Aunt Emma pays a visit, she takes an instant liking to Dennis, causing Mr. Wilson to fear that she will make Dennis her heir instead of him.
The video is a little rough-looking in some of the episodes, with a lot of grain. Not all episodes are as bad. “Dennis the Menace” is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, in black and white.
The audio is a nothing-fancy Dolby Digital Mono in English.
There are no other bonus features this season.
Introduced the end of Season 3 after Kearns died, Gale Gordon takes over this final season as John Wilson, a freelance writer whose projects get him in almost as much trouble as his brother, George. Unfortunately, the chemistry between North and Gordon just isn’t the same as it was with Kearns, and North seems to have outgrown the role this season. But fans will still want to pick this one up to complete their collections.