Tom Shales revisits 'Leave It to Beaver' (1957-1963) on box set

THE INFAMOUS FAMILY: From left, Hugh Beaumont, Barbara Billingsley, Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers as the wholesome Cleavers.
THE INFAMOUS FAMILY: From left, Hugh Beaumont, Barbara Billingsley, Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers as the wholesome Cleavers. (Shout! Factory/nbc Universal)
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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On this matter, there's bound to be little middle ground. The prospect either appeals or appalls: all six seasons, all 234 episodes, of the primordial sitcom "Leave It to Beaver" available, as of Tuesday, in a boxed set of 37 DVDs, selling for just short of 200 bucks.

"Leave It to Beaver," which ran from 1957 until 1963, was one of the strangest, sweetest, most distinctive domestic sitcoms of television's celebrated Golden Age. The age wasn't golden because of its sitcoms -- or its crime shows, doctor shows or what-have-you's. It was golden for the live and later taped dramas that aired with amazing frequency in network prime time. But while the drama anthologies were the gourmet delicacies of the cuisine, the episodic genre shows -- westerns, crime capers, comedies -- were the meat and potatoes.

"Beaver," basically the story of two brothers growing up in an eerily underpopulated Everytown called Mayfield, had a rhythm, a sensibility, an aura of its own. Only someone aspiring to be mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records is likely to attempt watching all 234 episodes at a single sitting, but if you sample, say, a dozen from the box (from Shout! Home Video, home of many a restored "classic") you may emerge with as reordered a view of reality as if you'd just walked out of a Fellini fantasy, or some current 3-D adventure set on an enchanted planet.

Can that really be true of a dinky little TV show? Especially one that's been the target of parody and ridicule for more than 50 years, much of it directed at Barbara Billingsley, who as mom did the dishes in permanent pearls, and Hugh Beaumont's dad, whose mystery job required very little work?

Not all of the oddness was intentional, but the show, like the work of artsy independent filmmakers, had auteurs who conceived and nurtured it and kept its sensibility consistent: comedy writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, who wrote some episodes in the early years and created the stories for many others -- often based, they said, on the misadventures of their own kids.

Artfully and heartfully played by Jerry Mathers and Tony Dow, young Beaver Cleaver and his older brother Wally arguably rank among literary child heroes conjured by Dickens and Twain; their stories have more authenticity than those of most other family sitcoms of the era. "Leave It to Beaver" is indeed filled with "iconic" characters and situations -- even though the adjective is wildly overused these days.

"You're a wonderful brother," Beaver tells Wally in the fourth episode; they were both wonderful brothers, and yet not so perfectly behaved or pasteurized as to defy credulity. Wally and the Beaver have an organic vitality that separates them from sitcom kids who were really just shrunken adults.

One problem, however, is that the series hit its highest notes in its first two seasons (1957-58 and 1958-59) and never fully recovered, although all six seasons have marvelous, memorable moments. Time was the enemy, and by the third season, Dow's voice had been lowered by puberty and Mathers's also dropped an octave or so; he lost some of the vulnerability that had made him so achingly innocent, and his disarming naturalness turned to "acting."

Interviewed for "The Box," Jeff Kisseloff's landmark oral history of broadcasting, Barbara Billingsley recalled that Beaumont, her TV husband, "wasn't happy in the beginning" because sitcoms were held in low regard, "but he appreciated the show as it went along." Beaumont directed several episodes to keep him interested, and first-season episodes opened with Beaumount's narration telling viewers what lessons would be learned on that night's show.

"We always laughed at what Ward was supposed to do for a living," Billingsley said. "We never knew. That was deliberate. It was like Ozzie Nelson. He was always home. It was always Saturday in that house."

What June -- "mom" -- did was evident: housework. Tidying up. Wearing pert frocks so starched they stuck out a couple feet. As for those ever-present pearls, Billingsley has explained many times in years since that "I have a hollow in my neck . . . so the cameramen asked me to wear the pearls because the hollow created a shadow."

Forgiving the old-fashioned concepts and references is easy to do, especially when the show exudes the natural warmth that "Leave It to Beaver" does. It's also funny in ways that other shows weren't, helped in that pursuit by such regulars as Eddie Haskell, the duplicitous little sycophant from down the street, and Larry Mondello, Beaver's accomplice in little-boy mischief. The Cleavers rarely expressed real affection for one another on-camera -- little if any hugging -- but one senses it anyway. The restraint is in keeping with the stylized simplicity of the show.

There is perhaps one mysterious, impossible-to-synthesize ingredient that gave the show its special edge -- and it may be as simple and perhaps corny-sounding as love. Dow's and Mathers's mothers were on the set every day to help them separate reality from the fantasy world created by the show and help them maintain solid values. The small cast did seem to bond in a faux-familial way, and it comes through. Then, too, there has to be a reason that the child actors of "Leave It to Beaver" were spared the kind of nightmare lives led by some of the kids who worked on such sitcoms as "Diff'rent Strokes" and "One Day at a Time."

"We all got along beautifully," Billingsley said. "I believe that if you are loved, and there's some discipline and you feel secure, you are going to be all right. The kids on our show were."

The kids were alright, yes. The adults apparently were, too. Revisiting "Leave It to Beaver," and seeing it in the pristine visual clarity of digital restoration, are mood-altering if not quite mind-altering experiences, very much for the better. Every now and then there's a moment that lets you know this was more than just actors and writers and crews trying to make a buck. They were doing that, yes -- but something genuinely joyful was going on as well.

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