I got a chance to check out the first season DVD set of Dennis the Menace, due out from Shout! Factory tomorrow, March 29. 32 episodes are included on five discs. Each show is roughly 25 minutes. The first four discs have seven shows each, with the fifth containing the remaining four and the bonus features.
This sitcom has the pacing characteristic of its time, 1959, with situations set up in such a way you see the punchline coming a while before it arrives. It’s episodic, showing its panel cartoon origins, with a gag scene paying off and then switching to another incident.
Jay North is adorable enough as Dennis that you don’t immediately want to kill him, although after watching just one episode, I don’t understand how his parents and neighbor Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns) kept from slaughtering him. In the pilot, he manages to destroy a kitchen table, scattering eggs and dishes everywhere, plus doing the expected things — shaking the ladder, getting paint everywhere — when we see Mr. Wilson painting his house. Then it’s a matter of Dennis sneaking out to the movies through a convoluted scheme involving tricking his sitter.
The gimmick is that he just wants to help, only he’s too energetic, mischievous, and accident-prone to succeed. That’s good to see, but I admit, I found his shrill voice, always at high volume, a bit much to take after a few episodes. Definitely something to parcel out, watching only a couple of shows at a sitting. Also, the actor playing Dennis’ friend Joey seems too young for the role. He gives those off-screen glances similar to the ones dogs have when they’re following their trainers’ hand signals, and he rarely talks. He wasn’t used regularly, and Dennis’ character was toned down as well after the first handful of episodes, out of fear that kids would emulate what they were seeing.
The reproduction is about what I’d expect for something this old. There are speckles and lines on the image at time, but the soundtrack is good, and the black-and-white crisp. I enjoyed seeing such a different period — putting on a suit to go to the movies, for instance, which has a packed house for the latest Glenn Ford Western. Or the episode about Dennis’ friend having his own TV set, which astounds all the other kids. Part of Dennis’ costume was a set of cap guns on a gaudy holster belt, perhaps the most visible signal that this is another era.
The fifth disc has the following extras:
- A 20-second 1960 TV promo for the show.
- Six minutes of scratchy commercials for Bosco (a chocolate syrup “milk amplifier” with iron and vitamin D) and Skippy, show sponsors, featuring the show credits and characters.
- A 39-minute conversation with Jeannie Russell (Margaret) and Gloria Henry (Alice Mitchell) filmed last year, including their memories about the show, their co-workers, their favorite episodes, and meeting Hank Ketcham, the author of Dennis. Interspersed with clips referencing what they’re discussing, this was my favorite piece.
- A 2007 two-hour radio interview with the same women; both interviews are hosted by Stu Shokus.
- The Donna Reed Show episode “Donna Decorates”, guest-starring Dennis and Mr. Wilson. (Look for Dennis helping with the painting starting about 14 1/2 minutes in, with Mr. Wilson just at the end.) In this we learn that Donna makes the best coffee ever, so much so that workmen stop by just to have some.
Dennis the Menace fits right in with Shout!’s line of other, similar TV shows: the Complete Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the like. It’s a wonderful package for the nostalgic, especially those who dream of the return of white suburban America, and kids will enjoy the slapstick and silly situations. It’s a simple enough premise and execution that the family can enjoy it together. I wouldn’t advise showing this to youngsters too often, though, for fear of the ideas they might get! In addition to wanting their own drum, bugle, and cap pistols, they might also expect a mother who did housework in dresses and heels and stayed home to bake her own cakes. (The studio provided a review copy.)