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Reviewed by Will Harris
t’s been a fair while since comic strips have been considered cool enough to be transformed into live-action television series. Not comic books, you understand. We’re talking about comic strips, as in the three or four paneled adventures of such characters as Charlie Brown and Snoopy, Beetle Bailey, Dick Tracy, and their ilk. As hard as it may be to imagine now, here was a time when TV producers could (and probably did) run a finger down the comics page of their local newspaper and come up with half a dozen viable pitches for new series.
When compiling the all-time classic shows to emerge from this genre, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever leaving “Dennis the Menace” off the list. Dennis Mitchell, played by Jay North, was a blond-haired, overalls-wearing rapscallion who rarely intended to cause problems, but his boundless enthusiasm and perpetual desire to help out his friends, family and neighbors always seemed to translate into trouble for, well, just about anyone who crossed his path, really.
To look at the show’s cast, it’s clear that at least three of the main players – North, Herbert Anderson and Gloria Henry – were selected at least partially because of their uncanny resemblance to the characters as portrayed in the original comic strip. In particular, Anderson seems to have stepped straight out of the Sunday funnies, so perfect is he to play the part of Dennis’s dad, but Henry’s expressions successfully capture both the love and the frustration so often demonstrated by Dennis’s mother. As for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, played by Joseph Kearns and Sylvia Field, they may not look like their comic strip counterparts, but they certain possess their spirit; Field’s aura of sweetness is undeniable, and Kearns’ aggravation manages to be thoroughly realistic without ever leaving you concerned that Mr. Wilson might actually throttle Dennis.
When it comes to Dennis’s fellow youths, Jeannie Russell played the perfect Margaret, a character who was to the late 1950s and early 1960s what Nellie Oleson was to the ‘70s: the little girl you love to hate. The other kids – Joey (Gil Smith) and Tommy (Billy Booth) – don’t make quite as much of an impression, but they play off Dennis well. For trivia’s sake, it’s also worth noting that one of Dennis’s lesser-seen friends is played by a pre-Opie Ron Howard.
Ironically, the one element of “Dennis the Menace” that may turn off some viewers is North’s exuberance as Dennis. Although the intent at the time was surely to underline to viewers that this was a super-nice kid, it feels over the top by today’s child actor standards. But with that said, North nonetheless succeeds at his task: you can feel the genuinely good intentions radiating off of Dennis’s deeds, and he quickly mastered the look of bewilderment on his face when the recipients of those deeds seem less than grateful for what he’s done for them.
“Dennis the Menace” may be considered an artifact of its time, but it’s one that’s fondly remembered. Don’t be surprised if a lot of parents and grandparents give this one to their favorite youngsters come the holidays: it’s pleasant, innocent fun, and it’s held up quite well over the years.
Special Features: The good news: Shout Factory has, as ever, done the best possible job of culling together bonus materials to include on this set. The bad news: there’s a limited number of surviving cast members, and the most crucial one of the bunch, Jay North, doesn’t participate in the proceedings. (There’s no explanation given for his absence, but given Shout’s track record, you can bet that they did everything in their power to get him.) Fortunately, Gloria Henry and Jeannie Russell – who’s now a chiropractor! – sit down on camera for a highly entertaining interview with noted pop culture enthusiast Stu Shostak, giving them a chance to expound on the entire history of the show. There’s also a full-length episode of Shostak’s podcast, “Stu’s Show,” where he interviews Henry and Russell, but while also enjoyable in its own right, it’s rather repetitive when listened to after the on-camera conversation. Other inclusions on the set are several classic commercials originally shown with “Dennis the Menace,” and classic TV aficionados will be thrilled to find the show’s crossover episode with “The Donna Reed Show” tacked on as well.