DVD Review: Leave it to Beaver

If you think Leave it to Beaver is just a stale slice of white bread from the middle of the last century, as Eddie Haskell would say, you’re dead wrong, Sam.
On Tuesday, Shout! Factory releases Leave it to Beaver: The Complete Series, a massive, seven volume, 37-disc DVD collection featuring all 234 episodes of the black and white sitcom. Leave it to Beaver originally ran–first on CBS and later ABC–from 1957 to 1963.
The price is high–a suggested retail of US$199.99 (get it for US$179.99 plus S&H at the Shout! site)–but this series is a real treasure for Boomers who grew up with the show or who want to share it with their kids or even grandchildren. Leave it to Beaver is The Little Rascals of its day, a warm slice of life through the eyes of kids growing up in North America. And while, yes, June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) does wear pearls and vacuums in high heels, and the neighbourhood is not exactly, shall we say, diverse, the series is far less cloying than it has often been characterized. Credit straight ahead, slice of life writing from creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher (a writing team who worked on the even more maligned Amos ‘n’ Andy and went on to The Munsters). These two clearly never forgot what it was like to cope with life a kid.
The casting also had everything to do with the charm of this series. That’s driven home by viewing one of the extras on this collection, the original pilot, called “It’s a Small World.” Only Billingsley and Jerry Mathers (“as The Beaver”) survived into the actual series run, with different actors playing dad Ward Cleaver and big brother Wally. The additions of Hugh Beaumont and Tony Dow in those roles made a tremendous difference to this series. Beaumont brought authority and character, Dow just seemed so true, managing to turn what could have been a bullying older brother role into a real–sometimes caring, sometimes oblivious–family member.
Ken Osmond nails it as Wally’s jerky pal Eddie Haskell, always so kiss-ass with Mrs. Cleaver and nothing but two faced trouble behind any parent’s back. The Cleaver kids other pals were mainly jerks and creeps too, especially that boob Lumpy Rutherford (Frank Bank).
The episodes often wind up in some little sermon with Ward called upon to offer a moral to the story. Surprisingly, in looking back, it is often the parent getting the lesson. When The Beav lies at school about not having a pet for Pet Day, Ward reprimands the boy but still goes out and buys a turtle for Beaver to take to school. When the Beav asks why his dad went against his own principles and covered for the kid, Ward explains there are just some things a father has to do for his son. You know the lesson is coming yet you feel it anyway, quite a feat at the time and especially 50 years later.
That kind of care in the quieter moments had an influence on Carl Rener, creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, who often singles out Leave it to Beaver as one of his favourite TV shows. I think you can also see echos of the series in everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Corner Gas.
A big bonus with this set is the pristine quality of the transfers. I spoke with Shout! general manager Garson Foos (above right with Dow and Mathers) this week for a Canadian Press article (read that whole story here), and he expressed gratitude that rights holder NBC Universal kept the original film source material in such great condition in their vaults. All 234 episodes (39 a season back then!) were fully restored and digitally transferred for the boxed set release and the images are bright, crisp and complete and truly in glorious black and while.
Hunting down clean source materials for DVD collections is not always such an easy task. As a 16mm film collector, I once bought an episode of I Love Lucy at auction off eBay and immediately received an email from someone who missed out on the bidding and wanted to know if I would sell it to him. The message was from Gregg Oppenheimer, son of I Love Lucy creator Jess Oppenheimer, who was hunting down the “lost” original animated titles and cast cigarette ads that are such a welcome curiosity on I Love Lucy DVD releases.
I let Oppenheimer know I had picked up a run-of-the-mill syndicated print with the familiar heart-shaped opening titles. That didn’t stop him from sending me an autographed copy of his book, “Laughs, Luck…and Lucy.”
TV shows occasionally had a whole other set of network titles (sometimes featuring sponsor products like the Lucy Phillip Morris cigarette tie-ins) and the shows were longer when first broadcast back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Networks used to ship 16mm prints to their 200 or so affiliates, and these prints later had two to three minutes spliced out of them in order to accommodate more commercial time in the modern era. A half hour series like I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver or The Dick Van Dyke Show ran closer to 24 or 25 minutes in the ‘50s and ‘60s instead of the 22 minutes shows like The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory get to tell a story today. The Shout! Boxed Beaver set restores each episode to its full, 25-minute glory.
The actors were showing their age more than the series earlier this week in Los Angeles. Shout! hosted a Leave it to Beaver tribute at The Paley Center. Jerry Mathers, now 62, is still the Beaver but looks his age in the above photo taken Monday at the event. Mathers, who has coped with diabetes since being diagnosed in 1996, is a tireless spokesman in the fight against the disease.
Tony Dow, on the other hand, at 65, looks as cleaned up and pristine as the prints from the new DVD release. You know that has to bug Eddie Haskell.

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