With respect to the copywriters at Shout! Factory who summarize plots of TV shows so succinctly for the episode lists you find on the inside of their DVD cases and on the back of separate cases for some multi-disc sets as well, I thought, while looking at the list of episodes on the back of the two-disc Dennis the Menace: 20 Timeless Episodes set, that they didn’t even have to do it. They could have taken the day off, run a few errands they hadn’t yet had a chance to during the week, go to that one coffee shop they keep hearing about that isn’t Starbucks, or finally crack open that book they bought and have wanted to read for the past week and a half. Episodes like “Dennis Goes To The Movies,” “Dennis and the Open House,” “Dennis’ Documentary Film,” and “Dennis’ Bank Account” would seem to be enough description. Yet opening this case, and reading what they have written, it not only makes sense to give just a little more, but it inspires a need to see these episodes, to see how Dennis gets into the inevitable mischief he’s so famous for in his neighborhood. And you laugh just from reading some of the episode descriptions, knowing full well the human tornado’s reputation. It’s appropriate that that’s the main graphic during the theme music.
Watching a few of these episodes, I find that what was missing from Hazel, which was also based on a comic strip, was inventiveness within the situation. We know who Hazel is, we know that she pries, but it felt like there wasn’t much to pull out of the comic strip, or create independent of it. No expansion of the character. Obviously the family appreciates Hazel, though George is always inexplicably exasperated by her when he knows full well who she is, but when every episode seems to be about George being frustrated with her yet again, what’s the fun in that?
Of course, Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns and then Gale Gordon) is always incensed by Dennis’s antics, yet there are moments different from what we think to expect, such as the end of the episode “The Fifty-Thousandth Customer,” in which Mr. Wilson tries to be the 50,000th customer of a local store. Dennis’s gesture at the end shows that he means well all the time, even though it’s never perceived that way. Otherwise, insurance rates would go way up.
Dennis the Menace feels broader than Hazel. There’s more life to it not only because of Dennis, but what it can do in this neighborhood. Dennis has his friends, including the mute Joey in “Dennis Goes To The Movies,” and his parents (Herbert Anderson as Henry Mitchell and Gloria Henry as Alice Mitchell), and has his own contentions too, mostly with Margaret (Jeannie Russell), who always wants to play house. Within this pattern, we get Dennis in a movie theater after Henry and Alice are so desperate to find a babysitter that doesn’t know Dennis (Dennis then invites Joey for a sleepover and has him be Dennis while he sneaks out to the movies), Dennis trying to take care of his sick mother, and finding the washing machine belching out suds, as well as a salesman relentlessly belching out his gas, I mean, pitch, and most notable, the Mitchells and the Wilsons going to the San Diego Zoo. It’s no wonder that this particular episode, “San Diego Safari,” was chosen to be part of this collection because you can see the zoo as it once was, circa 1962. This was during the Gale Gordon era of the show, after Joseph Kearns and Sylvia Field as the Wilsons left and were replaced by Gordon and Sara Seegar as the Wilsons. Gordon’s Wilson has to pick up a chimpanzee from the zoo and so off the Mitchells and Wilsons go on a trip there. Compared to the episodes on the first disc, this feels like an entirely different show, more on-location filming, and a Mr. Wilson that’s less stressed out than Joseph Kearns’ Wilson was. Gordon’s Wilson prefers to maintain control over his life and his home, and he acts accordingly, with a slightly haughty backbone that makes you think of Vincent Price, and just as entertaining to watch.
Once again, Shout! Factory has a good thing going. In January, the final season of Dennis the Menace was released on DVD. Those who have waited years to have the series on DVD now have it, so that profit line is well in progress. That leaves this set to pick up the profit that’s left, and that’s public libraries. Various library systems will likely get all five seasons on DVD if they haven’t already, but they’re most likely aware that some patrons aren’t going to want to try it at one shot, going through an entire season. They’ll want to sample it, to see if they like more, and here is this set, all ready for them. It’s smart to have released this set after every single set is available, and not to be a tease about it like some other companies are, with compilations featuring episodes that aren’t available on DVD as part of their respective seasons. It’s considerate thinking.
This Dennis the Menace set is ideal for watching the evolution of the series more quickly and to watch the sheer inventiveness by the writers of what Dennis can get into. So many different things in the span of 24 minutes. It’s always entertaining.