Ward Cleaver: “When I was a boy, if I’d broken a window, I’d have had to pay for it…Not only that but I’d have gotten a pretty good taste of the strap, too.”
Beaver: “Gee, Dad—you must have had a real mean father.”
Years ago, when I was watching my way through Leave it to Beaver for the billionth time, I noticed an interesting pattern. In many episodes, after Beaver’s troubles resolve themselves, Ward and June share a quiet moment. Almost invariably, she asks him how his father would have handled a situation like Beaver’s. And almost invariably, Ward describes his father reacting with less understanding—and more hitting.
From Leave It to Beaver’s premier in 1957, TV critics recognized a small innovation that the show introduced to TV—its point of view.
“With Beaver, we aimed at showing the child’s view of this world,” Joe Connelly told the Associated Press in 1960. Connelly, with Bob Mosher, created and produced the series.
In my opinion, however, the show’s perspective is more complicated than that. Leave it to Beaver shows a child’s world as filtered through the perspective of a warm but bewildered father—a father who is groping toward a new model for fatherhood, quite different from the one he experienced growing up.
This dual perspective came naturally for Mosher and Connelly, who had eight children between them when Leave It to Beaver premiered. For story ideas, they drew upon their real families. The episode in which Aunt Martha forces Beaver to wear short pants to school, and the episode where the boys break Ward’s car window and attempt to hide it, came directly from the life of Connelly’s son Richard.
In the 1950s, when upper-middle-class parents like Ward and June Cleaver had a question about parenting, there was one man they turned to—Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published to instant acclaim in 1946. As a 1955 article in the Milwaukee Journal put it, “The words ‘Dr. Spock says,’ heard daily in households from coast to coast, have made him ‘everybody’s baby doctor.’”
Dr. Spock stressed a relaxed and tolerant attitude toward children and encouraged parents to enjoy their children.
As years passed and new editions of the book appeared, Dr. Spock increased his focus on the father’s role in parenting, but even the earliest edition encouraged fathers to play a more active and positive role than their own fathers did.
In the early editions of his book, Dr. Spock discouraged spanking, although he stopped short of condemning the practice entirely.
As a 1998 Baltimore Sun article assessing Dr. Spock’s legacy stated: “It can be argued that Dr. Spock, more than anyone, sparked a revolution in how children were raised, turning baby-boom parents away from the strict discipline and prudish standards of their own parents and grandparents in favor of a more flexible approach that stresses plenty of love, caring and attention for children.”
Ward’s Parenting Journey
The words Leave It to Beaver have become a descriptive term for retrograde, sexist images of American life. It’s ironic, then, that the program actually shows a man who is working hard to become a “modern” father.
In a classic first-season episode, “The Haircut,” Ward and June discover that Beaver cut his own hair—badly—after losing his haircut money. Ward’s reaction is typical for the series:
Ward: “Boy, when I was a kid, my father would have whaled the tar out of me…Don’t worry, I’m not going to resort to physical violence. I’m tempted, though.”
Again and again, Ward rises above the temptation to discipline the boys the way he got disciplined. As other episodes show, he wants to have a warm relationship with his boys, even if he doesn’t always know how to build that relationship.
Take the first season episode “The Perfect Father,” for example. Ward grows increasingly distressed as Wally and the Beav spend all their time at the Dennisons’ house, where Mr. Dennison has installed a “regulation” basketball hoop.
Soon Ward is installing his own hoop and spending time with the boys and their friends as they play basketball. His action backfires, however, when his overbearing presence drives the neighborhood kids away.
This is certainly a departure from the all-wise, “father knows best” image presented in other early family comedies. Only when Ward runs into Mr. Dennison, and gets some advice from that more experienced father, does he realize his mistake.
Mr. Dennison: “If you ask me, the secret of getting close to your kids is to know when to stay away from them.”
In the moving second-season episode “Most Interesting Character,” we get a glimpse of Ward through Beaver’s eyes and see that Ward is succeeding in his efforts to be an involved and supportive father.
After struggling to make his father seem interesting for a school composition, and making a foray into fiction, Beaver decides to write the truth:
“He does not have an interesting job. He just works hard and takes care of all of us. He never shot things in Africa or saved anybody that was drowning, but that’s all right with me because when I am sick, he brings me ice cream, and when I tell him things or ask things, he always listens to me, and he gives up a whole Saturday to make junk with me in the garage. He may not be interesting to you, or someone else, because he’s not your father, just mine.”
Other Thoughts About Leave It to Beaver
Watching Beaver episodes in preparation for this blog post reminded what an enjoyable show this is. While the Cleavers are rather bland characters, Mosher and Connelly surround them with a hilarious collection of kids and adults, each believably annoying in his or her own way—from know-it-all Judy, whose mother was apparently one of the first helicopter parents—she threatened to call the school and complain if Judy didn’t pass her school orchestra audition—to overbearing braggart Fred Rutherford, to the ultimate in two-faced trouble-makers, Eddie Haskell.
The writers also slip some great lines into their scripts. I loved the randomness of this comment from “Train Trip”:
Ward, on how the boys could amuse themselves in a train station: “Well, you could always watch a fat lady hit a kid.”
June: “Why would they do that?”
Ward: “I don’t know…but I’ve never been in a railroad station yet where there wasn’t a fat lady hitting a kid.”
(If you substitute Wal-Mart for railroad station, this observation still holds true.)
In the early episodes, even June could bring the snark, as in The Perfect Father:
Ward, while installing the basketball hoop: “I must have put up hundreds of these all over the South Pacific when I was in the Seabees.”
June: “Well…I guess we all contributed to victory in our own way.”
So, if you haven’t seen Leave It to Beaver for a while, be sure to catch it on Me-TV—you’re sure to find it rewarding.
And when you do watch it, keep an eye on Ward and his journey to modern fatherhood.
“This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com) to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.”
Out of the entire blogathon, this is the post I’ve most been looking forward to reading. “Leave It To Beaver” is the series I watch most often on Me-TV.
Watching the show as an adult, what really jumps out at me is the interplay between Ward and June – something I completely disregarded when watching the same reruns as a kid.
For instance, in “June’s Birthday,” the phrase “Ooh-la-la” is emblazoned on the back of the blouse Beaver gives her. As Ward stands at the bottom of the stairs while June walks up, he teases her by stating, “Ooh-la-la!” For TV in 1959, that was pretty edgy.
On a completely different note, that episode also has one of my favorite (among many) scenes of the series – when June realizes that Beaver is among the children that have come to sing for her group as a surprise, and that she has been caught in her lie about wearing the blouse. Barbara Billingsley and Jerry Mathers both show so much emotion on their faces without having to say a word.
I enjoyed your great post about Ward’s journey. Far too often, this series is disregarded in our modern, cynical times as a “Father Knows Best” type of series, while, as your post states, this is actually far from the truth. Despite what those people say, there are no perfect parents on “Leave It To Beaver,” which helps to make it a classic.
Thanks for taking time to write such a thoughtful comment. I really enjoy the Ward and June scenes now too–as a parent I appreciate the obvious effort they are making to raise their children in a positve way, and the misteps they make along the way seem very realistic. I also enjoy their affectionate and supportive relationship–which is strong enough to withstand the exchange of a humorous dig now and then.
I need to watch “June’s Birthday” again; I haven’t seen that one for a while. Barbara Billingsley didn’t always get the best material to work with, but when she did, she made the most of it.
I really enjoyed your article which spoke to the truthful core of the show. “Leave It to Beaver” is such a well-written show that really touches the mine, heart and funny bone.
I really related to June when she called Ward at the office when Mrs. Rayburn wanted to see a parent. June just couldn’t go because the principal always makes her feel like a little girl who’s done something wrong. The show is filled with moments like that – they live with us.
Thanks for commenting! There is definitely a lot more going on in Leave It to Beaver than a casual look would suggest–I suppose that’s why it’s gotten a bad rap in some quareters. The way certain scenes and lines linger in your mind is definitely a testament to the show’s lasting appeal.
I really enjoyed this post. A few years back we bought, on a lark, season one of “Leave It to Beaver” and watched it all summer. It was so much fun we bought season two. (We’ve stalled … and need to get back to it.) I agree with your observations about Ward … he did struggle with how to be a good father, but because he was aware of the difficulty of the task he almost always came up with the right solution. Or, if he didn’t do the right thing, he learned from his mistake — just like the boys did. There’s a lot more truths in this series than people give it credit for, and I for one think the show is tops. Thanks for such an insightful post!
Thanks for your comments! I’m glad to see that the show still resonates for many people. It’s too bad that some people are blinded by its incongruities, like June vacuuming in pearls and high heels, to see how much authenticity the show has.
I have the first two seasons on DVD, too. The whole series is also available on Netflix now.
I too have been waiting for this post all week! I’m a HUGE Leave it to Beaver nut. My father introduced me to it in the 80s and I have so many wonderful memories of watching it with him. He grew up in the 50s and I think he knew a few Eddie Haskells in his day! 🙂
This was a wonderful post, and I have to admit, watching this show again on Me-TV, I’ve been looking at a lot of the subtler points. I agree about Ward’s journey to become a better father, and it is interesting to see how he recalls his own farm boy childhood. Also, Beaumont had some great deliveries. He always makes me smile.
I also agree that this show gets a little unfairly maligned with regards to the conservative 50s. It’s the one show that everyone brings up when they talk about the myth of suburbia. As a Mexican American who grew up in the same situation in the 80s, I think a lot of it was right on track and relatable to everyone.
Btw, I just watched the 1983 reunion movie Still the Beaver and loved it. Beaumont passed away about a year before the movie, but he’s there in the flashbacks, and his presence remained strong. I miss him.
Anyway, needless to say, I loved your post!
Thanks for taking the time to comment. When I picked Leave It to Beaver as my blogathon topic, I wasn’t sure that many people would still be interested in it.
I agree that the show has a lot that many people can relate to. I’ve definitely encoutered some Eddie Haskells and Lumpy Rutherfords over the years, and I’ve worked with a few Judys. 🙂
I haven’t seen Still the Beaver since it first aired–I really need to seek that out.
Thanks again for commenting!
You made an interesting point about the father trying to be a better, gentler father that his own father was to him. I’ve never seen this series, but this is something I’ll be looking for when I do catch it.,
Oh, you have to try to catch this show sometime. I think you would enjoy it.
Marvelous post! I love the comment you included from Joe Mosher about creating a “child’s view of this world.” I don’t think any TV series did that better than LEAVE IT TO BEAVER! Ward Cleaver was a great father because he made mistakes and, once he was aware of them, he would take responsibility for them. You know, I don’t remember Ward’s references to his father, so I will look for them when I next watch BEAVER (I’ve seen every episode multiple times now, but it’s a series that is always fun to revisit). Thanks for including the dialogue at the train station. It sounds so natural–it just confirms what an awesome job the writers did week in and week out. Thanks for a great contribution to the Me-TV Blogathon.
Thanks for commenting! I do think Mosher and Connelly had a special knack for dialog, which makes sense since they came from an old-time radio background (mainly writing for Amos and Andy).
A friend of mine might disagree with you on the subject of Ward Cleaver. He always thought Ward was a horrible example of a dad, and would often riff for a half-hour as to why this was so. (Sadly, I can’t do it justice.) I think that’s one of the reasons they had Fred Rutherford around…to make Ward look better.
My mother breaks out in a case of wrinkle face whenever I watch a rerun of Leave It to Beaver but I’m not ashamed to admit that the show still plays funny to me. It’s held up all these years because it’s pure and simple character comedy: I’d be hard pressed to think of a “joke” from the series but the situations and characters (there has never been a character on TV like Larry Mondello, who was going to have to spend a lot of time in therapy when he grew up) still resonate in the mind. Most of all…it’s funny.
That’s funny–Ward seems so inoffensive; I can’t imagine anyone getting worked up about him. I guess we all have characters that rub us the wrong way, though. I don’t think anyone could understand the deep, abiding hatred I have for Casper the Friendly Ghost.
I agree that the characters are great, especially the kids’ friends. Mosher and Connelly supposedly drew upon their own childhood friends and their kids’ friends for those characterizations.
Thanks for commenting!
An excellent insight into one of our favorite TV dads! I agree with Mr. Yeary : too often Leave it to Beaver is considered “entirely fictional” or “unreal”, but if you watch the episodes carefully, the boys are not goodie-two-shoes and are continually getting into scrapes which Ward and June try to handle with patience ( or sometimes not ). I find Ward and June’s remarks as entertaining as the boys. ( Although Gilbert was a hoot! ) Even Father Knows Best didn’t make Robert Young out to be a perfect dad; he always made mistakes, but he tried to learn from them and in the process become a better father.
Thanks for commenting! I agree with you about Ward and June–as a kid, I didn’t focus on their comments, but as an adult, I really enjoy them. A show that can appeal to both kids and parents is a rarity these days.
I haven’t seen Father Knows Best for a long time, but you’re probably right that its portrayal of fatherhood is more nuanced than the title would suggest.
Ivan’s comment is right–Fred Rutherford, Lumpy’s dad, Larry’s father, and even Eddie’s father stand in contrast to Ward’s repeated attempts to be kind, compassionate, and more understanding. Love your approach in this essay–very thought provoking!
Terrific post, Amy. It’s such a pleasure to read a piece that really digs into the deeper significance of a program. One of the things that attracts me to classic TV is how it functions as a primary source document, as it were, for the stucy of the culture at large at a given time Very interesting!
Thanks! I can never resist trying to analyze–probably over-analyze–the historical and cultural context of old TV shows and movies. I really appreciate your comments because I just love your site. The old TV Guides provide a fascinating window into the past.
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Thank you! It’s actually just one of the free WordPress.com themes–Dawn to Dusk.
Good luck with your blog!
Or Dusk to Dawn. I can’t remember which. 🙂