Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of Leave It To Beaver (1957-1958, CBS; 1958-1963, ABC), which is currently available in full on DVD!
Leave It To Beaver stars BARBARA BILLINGSLEY as June Cleaver, HUGH BEAUMONT as Ward Cleaver, TONY DOW as Wally Cleaver, and JERRY MATHERS as The Beaver.
Growing up, Leave It To Beaver was a staple of my classic TV diet. Today, I don’t consider it an exemplary model of the American situation comedy because I don’t rate it highly using the metrics that typically inform my interests — comedic success and character usage. And out of its premiering decade, I’ve since acknowledged that the series doesn’t come close to matching the excellence of, say, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, or The Phil Silvers Show. In fact, my qualified appreciation of this series is why we’re “doubling up” in our coverage, discussing two seasons a week, instead of the usual one. Oh, sure, I could have committed to my ten per season standard, but I truly don’t think there are many episodic samples of Beaver that deserve to be hailed alongside the gems from other shows in this era. Yet I still wanted to feature the series. Because even if it isn’t among the best sitcoms of the 1950s, it offers an accurate, albeit slightly more favorable, study of one of the decade’s most dominant genres: the domestic comedy. And after having covered the best character-driven show of the ’50s (I Love Lucy) along with the best franchised example of this form (Our Miss Brooks), the best idea-driven show of the ’50s (Phil Silvers) along with its most popular alternative (The Honeymooners), and the best adaptation of a radio mainstay (Burns And Allen), I knew I had to devote time to at least ONE of the era’s many family-orientated “warmedies” — the category that has since been derisively used to define the decade’s entire output as a sanitary, homogenized, idealized dream of postwar America, which prized the nuclear family, the white picket fence, and an adherence to societal conventions. Pleasantville, if you will… So, I spent a lot of time considering which show should represent this category. I wanted one that depicted its subgenre fairly, but might still be competitive with the other sitcoms seen here: a show more comedic and character-driven than its peers, and hopefully, more honest and human than the one-dimensional rap falsely applied to all the comedies of the 1950s, not just the ones that structurally reinforce the stereotypes.
Now, although I knew Leave It To Beaver was a strong contender, simply because it’s remained the most visible — in syndication and through its adaptations (both as an ’80s revival and as a ’90s movie) — I studied a range of ’50s domestic comedies, from those less often seen, like the slow-moving The Stu Erwin Show and the predictable The Life Of Riley, to those more popularly identifiable, like The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show. To explain why I ultimately selected Beaver, I have to give you bite-sized commentary on those last three. (These are not full analyses — just impressions based on my particular objective, and the shows’ qualities relative to each other.) With regard to Ozzie And Harriet, its 14-season run as the highest episode-producing live action comedy in American history makes it a staple. But, among this category, it has a bit too much metatheatricality — a trait that some fans interpret as light surrealism, yet I find to be mostly a function of the performative family’s self-promotion. That is, even though the Nelsons are supposed to be the “typical” suburban family, they’re a group of performers — with kids launching their own music careers through the series — and this gives the scripts a winking show business bent that, frankly, disqualifies the series from typifying the rest of the domestic genre, which is far more earnest. As for Father Knows Best, it’s a great look at the iconic male-dominant nuclear family structure with intense weekly moralizing, as kids learn lesson after lesson. It’s probably the best narrative reinforcement of those half-fair ’50s tropes, but with more sincerity than you’d expect (there’s some human sensitivity in there, however varnished). My concern? Seven out of ten times the show seems to purposely avoid going for hahas — meaning, I don’t think it even wants to be competitive alongside other sitcoms. There are a few episodic exceptions, but they’re too few to make the series coverable here. In contrast, The Donna Reed Show tries more regularly for laughs and is led by its mother figure (played by the eponymous Reed), but it’s short on honesty, as the movie star gloss supplied by its star blurs everything — from the characters to the comedy, and especially the exploration of essential human truths. It would make for very superficial coverage.
And that leaves it to Beaver, a show that I wish was funnier, more character-driven, and more honest, but is nevertheless funnier, more character-driven and more honest than its ’50s/early ’60s domestic cohorts. To wit, I wish there were more genuine laughs in a half-hour of Beaver and less of a reliance on Beaver’s sweetness and kiddie charm; I wish that the regulars had more personality beyond the roles they play in the family — little kid, supportive brother, caring mother, and wise father — and that the stories arose from more than just these positional archetypes; and I wish the series more often put aside its moral idealism to engage in bolder character choices that not only would be funnier, but could also reflect the actuality of what families experienced at the turn of that decade — particularly teens going into the early ’60s. And yet, Beaver still is more enjoyable because it acknowledges our key interests better than any alternative — a fact that many fans attribute to its focus on/for the kids, which puts the show in contrast to those other popular series and poises it for more success on my character/comedy/truth terms. I think that’s largely valid; certainly much of the humor in Leave It To Beaver comes from the “out of the mouth of babes” phenomenon, and many of the human truths on display are the result of the show’s success at emulating how kids really talk — silly, and not always nicely — primarily in the ’50s episodes, where they’re younger and the show indeed writes them in a way that’s less perfect or polished than most TV children of that era, with ideas that perfectly capture their feeling of youth and stories specific to that age. Yet I think that’s the answer: specificity. The all-encompassing reason that Beaver is more rewarding than other similar shows is that it’s more often able to combat the subgenre’s perception of cookie cutter sameness through details that suggest originality, and it’s those details that, as usual, bolster the use of both character and comedy, and also humanity, as complications to stereotypes provide truth and make the series more emotionally relatable (both then and now).
This comes from the performers, like Mathers — the opposite of the caricatured Dennis The Menace — who has natural comic timing and a relationship with Beaumont that’s as honest as any on TV; the stories, which reside in an amusing, age-appropriate lens, such as Beaver’s fear of being mocked by his classmates; and even from recurring characters like Eddie Haskell, the wrongdoing friend whose phoniness doesn’t fool the parents. And though I’d criticize the series for not offering more of this, creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher do give us what we need: an accurate look at the family comedy of the 1950s, showcasing all the tropes and proving why these shows tend not to be great, while also revealing that there’s more to them than their reputation suggests and challenging some of the basic assumptions that preclude investment. For Beaver is an iconic show that has everything you think you know about 1950s sitcoms, but with enough emotional accessibility to keep you from writing it, or its subgenre, off… As for the first two seasons, every year is different, especially as the boys age. Season One, the only year on CBS, is perhaps the most unique because after an initial batch of scripts with Victories In Premise that impress how well the series “gets” the two kids’ voices, the year delights in contrasting their youth with the parents’ maturity, yielding more stories than any other to Ward, whose episodic arcs are a focus — i.e. he’s the one doing the learning, not the boys. Two flips this, as the show settles into a familiar routine where Beaver naively acts out or errs and Ward swoops in with a lesson at the end. It’s the MOST what you expect the series to be — more for kids than adults — and for that reason, some fans consider it the series’ apex. For me, the predictability of Two’s narrative template and the overdrawn sentiment imbued in these morality tales limit the originality, via the details, that keep the show from seeming bland; and for character, comedy, and truth (the elements that also inform my episodic selections), I largely find Two lacking. That said, these first two seasons show a Leave It To Beaver that’s highly memorable, and as we’ll see, because the series is better at depicting younger kids, this list may be the most satisfying. So, I have picked twelve episodes that I think exemplify their finest.
Season One (1957-1958, CBS)
01) Episode 2: “Captain Jack” (Aired: 10/11/57)
Wally and the Beaver buy a pet baby alligator.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Tokar
The series’ first produced episode is a memorable one featuring Edgar Buchanan as the eponymous Captain Jack and a truly kid-oriented story about a pet alligator that leads to some rare (for Beaver) big laughs. CBS bumped it from the premiere slot because it shows a toilet tank.
02) Episode 3: “The Black Eye” (Aired: 10/18/57)
Ward teaches Beaver to defend himself after he’s beaten up… by a girl classmate.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Rik Vollaerts | Directed by Norman Tokar
One of many cases this year where a story is anchored by Ward, whose emotional arc is more important than Beaver’s, this amusing time capsule not only boasts the first appearance of Richard Deacon as Mr. Rutherford, but also the series’ first exploration of Beaver’s feelings towards girls… with the era’s attitudes about gender on full display.
03) Episode 4: “The Haircut” (Aired: 10/25/57)
Beaver decides to give himself a haircut.
Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Norman Tokar
I appreciate whenever Beaver turns to sight gags because it’s a play for laughs, which I desperately want. But I especially appreciate this installment because the sight gag — of Beaver’s terrible haircut (assisted by Wally) — is motivated by character. A favorite.
04) Episode 7: “Water, Anyone?” (Aired: 11/15/57)
Beaver decides to charge the neighborhood kids for water during an outage.
Written by Clifford Goldsmith | Directed by Norman Tokar
Beaver will become more of a schemer in later years — particularly when aided by Larry — but this is among the first examples of the titular character engaging in some innocent wrongdoing that we just know is going to earn a lecture from Ward. A Victory in Premise.
05) Episode 13: “Voodoo Magic” (Aired: 01/03/58)
Beaver is convinced that he’s felled Eddie Haskell with some voodoo magic.
Written by Bill Manhoff | Directed by Norman Tokar
Although not Eddie’s first episode, this is perhaps the first entry to really give us a good look at his characterization, as he not only encourages the Cleaver boys to disobey their folks, but he tries to pull one over on his parents, too… which, naturally, comes back to bite him. The idea of Beaver practicing voodoo magic is a hoot and largely the source of this one’s appeal.
06) Episode 16: “Lumpy Rutherford” (Aired: 01/24/58)
Wally and the Beaver use Ward’s advice to booby-trap a bully… but they get his father instead.
Written by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Tokar
Lumpy Rutherford, here depicted as a bully to both Cleaver brothers, will hold greater prominence in future seasons, when he becomes a classmate of Wally’s, and they become, with Eddie, a trio. But his debut is more a showcase for his father, Richard Deacon, and for Ward, who’s really on his boys’ side in a way that again makes him the focal point of the story.
07) Episode 32: “Beaver’s Old Friend” (Aired: 05/21/58)
Beaver’s beloved teddy bear winds up on a garbage truck.
Written by Dick Conway, Roland MacLane, Joe Connelly, & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Tokar
This plot roots itself in rather conventional sitcom trappings — retrieving a lost item, a lie gone awry, etc. — but I like it because it’s grounded by Beaver’s anxieties about being seen as too much of a kid among his peers and then indeed finds him growing up in the process.
Season Two (1958-1959, ABC)
08) Episode 43: “Beaver And Chuey” (Aired: 10/23/58)
Eddie Haskell teaches Beaver to say something mean to a new Hispanic playmate.
Written by George Tibbles | Directed by Norman Tokar
Eddie Haskell, the series’ most well-designed character, is the source of this entry’s conflict when he gives Beaver a rude comment to say to a new Spanish-speaking friend. It’s rather tame overall, but for Beaver, it’s got more of an edge (and a dose of reality) than usual.
09) Episode 65: “Price Of Fame” (Aired: 03/26/59)
Beaver can’t seem to help staying out of trouble, even when warned.
Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Story by Dick Conway & Roland MacLane | Directed by Norman Tokar
My pick for the Most Valuable Episode (MVE) from these first two seasons, “Price Of Fame” is the quintessential “Beaver naively does something he knows he shouldn’t do and then gets a lecture” — Season Two’s modus operandi — because it packs in TWO incidents of troublemaking: pulling the fire alarm after getting locked in the principal’s office, which warrants a lesson about not being “conspicuous,” and then getting his head stuck in a fence (a very conspicuous act)… So, this is a shining example of the storytelling in this era.
10) Episode 73: “Wally’s Haircomb” (Aired: 05/21/59)
The family is shocked when Wally adopts a trendy jellyroll hairdo.
Story by George Tibbles | Teleplay by Joe Connelly & Bob Mosher | Directed by Norman Tokar
Another entry about hair, this one focuses on Wally, who startles the family (especially June, who has to lay down the law) by adopting the trendy “jellyroll” look — one of the series’ most obvious and comedic reminders of its late ’50s setting, and the reason I most enjoy it.
11) Episode 77: “Found Money” (Aired: 06/18/59)
Larry makes Beaver an accessory in a scheme involving some stolen money.
Written by Katherine Eunson & Dale Eunson | Directed by Norman Tokar
Larry — the funniest of Beaver’s younger pals — is the schemer in this outing, as he concocts a ruse to take money from his mother without it being theft: he throws it out the window and has Beaver “find it.” It’s silly and creative and a good sign of what’s to come ahead in Season Three, the year that contains the most Beaver/Larry hijinks and more laugh-seeking kid adventures.
12) Episode 78: “Most Interesting Character” (Aired: 06/25/59)
Beaver considers lying to make his father seem more interesting in a school essay.
Written by Joe Connelly, Bob Mosher, Mathilde Ferro, & Theodore Ferro | Directed by Norman Tokar
I don’t usually go in for such overt displays of sentiment, especially when it’s not supported by the genre’s fundamental comedic requirement, but because this installment, the season’s finale, is so sincere in its depiction of Beaver and his relationship with Ward (which I believe to be the series’ most buyable bond), it stands out favorably as a showcase for Beaver‘s humanity.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: from Season One, the premiere, “Beaver Gets ‘Spelled’,” the sight gag-revolving “Beaver’s Short Pants,” the year’s best Beaver vs. Wally entry, “Cleaning Up Beaver,” and the girl-focused “My Brother’s Girl,” along with the Eddie-introducing “New Neighbors” and the Larry-heavy “Beaver’s Guest.” From Season Two, Honorable Mentions include shows with memorable premises like “The Pipe,” “Wally’s New Suit,” “Wally’s Pug Nose,” and “Beaver’s Sweater,” along with the Tom Sawyer-inspired (and therefore more self-conscious than usual) “The Garage Painters.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Seasons One & Two of Leave It To Beaver goes to…
“Price Of Fame”
Come back next week for Seasons Three and Four! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!