Given the half-century that TV’s evolved since Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace comic strip spun off into a sitcom, I wouldn’t expect the series’ DVD debut March 29 with 32 Season 1 episodes would cause much stir. After all, though the strip has endured, the series ran just four seasons, and it wasn’t the pop-cultural phenomenon of rivals like Leave It To Beaver and My Three Sons.
But in truth, TV’s Dennis the Menace stood apart, largely part because its innocent highjinks gone horribly wrong gave it an oddly dark undercurrent, like The Bad Seed but told in a good way. I mean, look at the titled: Menace, right? And you always have to wonder: Are Dennis’ misadventures truly propelled by good-intentioned if misguided youthful enthusiasm? Or does he know, in his heart of hearts, that he’s torturing his poor parents and, most of all, good oooooold Mr. Wilson next door?
In short, was Dennis an Ike-era Bart Simpsons, up to no good though feigning angelic sweeetness and “boys will be boys” nonsense to get away with it all?
In its day, it’s doubtful many folks suspected such a dark side, and it’s not necessarily a go-to stance today, given how juvenile and even sweet the series can seem with its sunny portrait of complacent Middle American suburbia.
As with any such show, the kid role was crucial, and young Jay North did a fine job projecting Dennis’ awkward zeal with starry-eyed avidness — and not a twinkle of malice. But isn’t it strange that he never truly owned up to what a pest he could be? Or did he just not want to admit the damning truth out loud?
Others were ready to do so. Good oooooold Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns) may have tried playing nice and sometimes bounced Dennis on his knee, but mostly he was openly disdainful, if not hostile, toward his pestering, pint-sized neighbor. And even Dennis’ beleaguered yet patient parents, played by Herbert Anderson and Gloria Henry, often voiced misgivings about their active only child.
That said, some of the zaniness is quite funny, as when Mr. Wilson gets an unwanted swimming pool instead of a backyard garden, thanks to Dennis dutifully re-erecting a street sign — the wrong way. But the mischief does tend to bog down at times in inane sitcom inconsequence — just another day at the office for Dennis and his “oopsies.”
Still, the show has a warm tinge and can be lots of fun, and it’s cool to see a very young Ronny Howard pop up early in Season 1 as one of Dennis’ friends, and around mid-season, Stanley Livingston, too. Both were within months of starring in their own shows: The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons, respectively.
Such other kids get to wear normal clothes, but Dennis is always clad in overalls and a striped shirt, with an unruly lock of blond hair at the back of his head and a slingshot dangling from his hip pocket.
That Dennis — no telling what he’ll do next. And that’s what this show is all about.
A sad side note: Kearns died three years into the show’s run, getting a brief replacement by Gale Gordon until cancellation. He was just 55. And this underscores a problem for the early era of TV.
Older actors often were cast in key roles, and they sometimes died in the middle of the series. Another was Bea Benaderet of Petticoat Junction, and another was William Frawley of My Three Sons. People didn’t live as long back then, and casting older actors (by ’60s standards) meant taking that risk. But we still can cherish their work for however long it lasted, and the superb Kearns was truly just as key to this show as North was as Dennis.
Good oooold Kearns and North. Now they’re back to entertain eternally on DVD. Or in North’s case, is he back to torment? (Readers: Click here for an online trailer for the show.)