In the pantheon of classic TV sitcoms, Leave it to Beaver ranks near the top. Though light years away from the comic sophistication of a modern classic like Arrested Development, Leave It to Beaver will eternally be the iconic televisual picture of '50s Americana. Each episode is the half-hour equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting: a wry and affectionate look at archetypal American social roles and the family unit. Theodore "Beaver" Cleaver was the original adorable sitcom kid, bequeathing to shows like Malcolm in the Middle a legacy simultaneously to emulate and react against.
Creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher reportedly drew from the experiences of their own children to craft the adventures of the Cleavers: parents Ward and June (Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley), high-school sophomore Wallace "Wally" Cleaver (Tony Dow), "and Jerry Mathers as the Beaver," a ten-year-old fourth grader with a penchant for trouble. To the tune of canned laughter, the Beav or Wally would get himself into a whole mess of trouble only to be rescued by the other, a parent or, in a moment of rare resilience, himself. The show's unique fifties pre-teen and teen patois is also part of the show's nostalgic charm. "Because" invariably becomes "on account of," "hang out" becomes "mess around," and jerks are "rats" and "creeps."
Season Three of Leave It to Beaver marked a fictional move for the Cleavers, from Mapleton Drive to 211 Pine Street, but the series remained comfortably at home at ABC (the first season had aired on CBS). The third season's thirty-nine black-and-white episodes include appearances from the series' large and memorable cast of characters: Wally's two-faced peer Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond, in sixteen episodes), Beaver's best bud Larry Mondello (Rusty Stevens, in twenty-four episodes), Wally's friend Lumpy Rutherford (Frank Bank, in three episodes) and his father Fred (Richard Deacon, in four episodes), Beaver's nemesis Judy Hensler (Jeri Weil, in ten episodes), fourth-grade teacher Miss Landers (Sue Randall in eight episodes), and Beaver's pals Whitey Whitney (Stanley Fafara, in eighteen episodes), Gilbert Bates (Stephen Talbot, in six episodes), and Richard Rickover (Richard Correll, in five episodes), among others. Other notable Season Three guest stars include Madge Blake as Mrs. Mondello, Veronica Cartwright as Violet Rutherford and Majel Barrett as Gwen Rutherford. Aside from sitcom vets Norman Tokar and Norman Abbott, the third season directing roster includes actors Earl Bellamy and Beaumont, who made his debut behind the camera with "Wally and Alma."
The world of suburban Mayfield includes references (and trips to) Metzger's Field and Friends Lake, as well as the most popular girl in Wally's class Mary Ellen Rogers, who remains off-screen in Season Three (though the girl who would be Mary, Pamela Baird, appears as Wally's date Myra in "Wally's Orchid). Mayfield is mostly a quiet place (at times evoking the bucolic climes of Andy Griffith's Mayberry) where kids can, within reason, keep their own schedules walking to and from school and hanging around with friends. But in spite of the show's squeaky-clean reputation, head writers Connelly and Mosher do hint at darker themes in Season Three. In the episode "Beaver and Andy," for example, Ward and June dance around the subject of alcoholism in talking to the Beaver about drunk acquaintance Andy (Wendell Holmes). In another episode, a deeply distressed Beaver confesses to his parents, "I wished I was dead. I wished it for about fifteen minutes. But nothing happened so I came home" (of course, the problem is solved and the mood passes, but like Dr. Spock, the writers take seriously the emotions of children).
Speaking of Dr. Spock, the larger question of how best to parent a child also can move into troubling territory. Leave It to Beaver clearly favors the parenting style of Ward and June. Though June is largely deferential to Ward, she's allowed to voice her opinions, often fretfully in archetypal maternal fashion, but just as often wittily, showing she's not just a pretty face and a good cook. The parenting onus does fall to Ward, though, who thankfully doesn't always know best and, when push comes to shove will admit that fact to his own children. Ward and June sometimes learn lessons from their kids as important as those the parents dole out. Still, their humility makes them ideal parents: wise but alert to the possibility of their own failings. By contrast, children who aren't the Cleavers almost always complain about their parents for tresspasses small ("hollerin'") and large (corporal punishment). That Larry Mondello's father is perpetually out-of-town on business trips to Cincinatti is something of a running joke, but it also reflects the all-too-real post-war phenomenon of the absent father, sometimes emotionally absent if not physically so.
The Season Three plots are simplicity itself and usually easily summarized by the episode title: "Beaver's Monkey," "Teacher Comes to Dinner," "Wally's Test," "Last Day of School." In one episode, Beaver runs afoul of his mother (in "Baby Picture," June blithely prepares to ruin Beaver's life by submitting a naked baby picture for a class contest); in the next ("Beaver Takes a Walk"), he clashes with his father over a tall tale that causes Beaver to lose a bet on his father's honesty. More often, it's Beaver himself causing the problems: getting hauled into the police station when mistaken for a boat thief ("Borrowed Boat"), playing hooky from dancing school ("Beaver's Dance"), telling lies about his mother ("Mother's Day Composition") or accidentally destroying property ("Beaver Takes a Bath," "Ward's Baseball," "The Spot Removers"). As for Wally, his problems run more to troubleshooting the unreasonable behavior of sophomoric girls.
The third season has a handful of especially memorable episodes. "Beaver, the Magician" finds a neighborhood boy utterly convinced that Beaver has turned into a rock, while "The Hypnotist" refers to Beaver believing he has successfully gotten that creep Eddie Haskell under his spell. Some episodes are memorable because the experiences they dramatize are so universal: "June's Birthday" (in which a loving Beaver excitedly gives June a hideous blouse, which she tries and fails to accept graciously), "Beaver's Library Book" (in which overdue notices plague the Beav), and "Beaver Finds a Wallet" (in which Beaver learns about schadenfreude by hoping that no one will claim the lost goods). And then there's the literary misadventure "Beaver and Ivanhoe," in which dreams of knightly chivalry cause Beaver to run riot defending women's honor and pursuing justice.
Though gentle comedy is important to Leave It to Beaver, so too are the moral lessons that punctuate each half-hour fable. Take, for example, this gem of an exchange from "Baby Picture":
Ward: You know, they say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Well, lots of times ugliness is, too.
Beaver: You mean all the bad stuff in the world is in people's minds?
Ward: Well, a great deal of them are, Beaver.
Universal Studios released the first two seasons of Leave It to Beaver in 2005 and 2006, and then abandoned the issuing of the show. Now Shout! Factory comes to the rescue with a six-disc set of Season Three, soon to be followed by the rest of the episodes. The picture quality is outstanding, with beautiful clarity and contrast to the brand-new, black-and-white high-definition transfers, struck from the original film elements, and the sound is every bit as crisp and clear.
There's only one bonus feature in this set, but it's a great one. On Disc One, encoded to play (optionally, of course) over the first four episodes is an Audio Interview with Jerry Mathers and Frank Bank from Shokus Internet Radio’s Stu’s Show. Stu Shokus hosts this November 2008 program featuring an in-depth interview with Mathers, with cross-talk from Bank. Mathers discusses his career and memories of shooting the show and working with his TV family, and both men give their reminsicences of Alfred Hitchcock. The show wraps with Shokus taking a few calls from fans.
Leave It to Beaver: Season Three comes highly recommended for new and old fans of classic TV.
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