Leave it to Beaver: A Father’s Journey

403X403-SOCTVBLOGWard 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.

Changing Roles

470px-Cleaver_family_Leave_it_to_Beaver_1960

Leave It to Beaver‘s Ward Cleaver fulfilled traditional father roles as a provider and an authority figure. In almost every episode, however, he made a conscious effort to be a more warm and understanding father than his own father had been.

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

Hugh Beaumont was an ordained minister; this background might have helped him create his authoritative but compassionate portrayal of Ward.

Hugh Beaumont was an ordained minister; this background might have helped him create his authoritative but compassionate portrayal of Ward.

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

Leave It to Beaver aired from 1957 to 1963. When CBS cancelled the show after two seasons, ABC picked it up.

Leave It to Beaver aired from 1957 to 1963. When CBS cancelled the show after two seasons, ABC picked it up.

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.”

Advertisements

Family Affair Friday(ish): Season 2, Episode 10, “You Like Buffy Better,” 11/10/1967

403X403-SOCTVBLOGAttention classic TV fans: Don’t Miss Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon, starting July 15! All week long, a large collection of bloggers will be sharing their thoughts about great shows on Me-TV’s schedule, including That Girl, Bewitched, The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and many more. (Of course, I’m particularly interested in the bloggers who will be turning their attention to Family Affair.) I’ll be posting my entry, a look at Leave it to Beaver from Ward Cleaver’s perspective, on July 19.

Many thanks to the Classic TV Blog Association for hosting this event and to Me-TV for making so many classic shows available to viewers.

Now, on to Family Affair

Written by: Hannibal Coons (Seriously? Apparently so, although his real first name was Stanley.) and Harry Winkler. Directed by: Charles Barton.

This week’s episode opens as Uncle Bill prepares for a date, blissfully unaware of all the trouble that’s about to rain down on him.

That trouble begins innocently enough, when Jody requests help with a bridge he’s designing for school. Revealing that he’s learned his lesson about such projects, Bill first seeks assurance that parents are allowed to help.

As Jody and Bill talk engineering, Buffy barges in with exciting news--her dance studio has picked her to try out for a television role.

As Jody and Bill talk engineering, Buffy barges in with exciting news–her dance studio has picked her to try out for a television role.

Jody resents Buffy’s intrusion, while Buffy finds Uncle Bill less than enthralled with her news. (In fairness to him, it’s been established that he hates ballet.)

Neither kids has to worry about it for long, as Bill soon shoos them from the room in preparation for his date.

Buffy and Jody introduce themselves to the lady in question, who has some kind of tumbleweed attached to her head.

Buffy and Jody introduce themselves to the lady in question, who has some kind of tumbleweed attached to her head.

“At Uncle Bill’s age,” the kids observe, “men are just more interested in pretty ladies than in little kids.” Ouch.

Later that night, Buffy confides her troubles to Mrs. Beasley.

Later that night, Buffy confides her troubles to Mrs. Beasley.

“I’m glad you’re not a man,” she tells the doll. “At least I have one friend.” Ouch again.

Cissy overhears Buffy’s comments and gets that concerned look on her face–that look usually bodes ill for Uncle Bill.

She waits up for him to return from his date and tells him that he needs to spend more time with Buffy.

She waits up for him to return from his date and tells him that he needs to spend more time with Buffy.

Uncle Bill agrees to do so, but when Cissy changes the subject to her latest boyfriend, Bill pleads exhaustion and heads for bed. Great–now all the kids are frustrated.

The next day, Bill makes time to talk with Buffy and to watch her "buttercup dance." But now Cissy, who was so concerned about her sister the night before, tries to monopolize Bill's attention for their delayed boyfriend discussion.

The next day, Bill makes time to talk with Buffy and to watch her “buttercup dance.” But now Cissy, who was so concerned about her sister the night before, tries to monopolize Bill’s attention for their delayed boyfriend discussion.

By the way, doesn’t the girls’ room look much more spacious than usual?

Soon, Jody enters with a request for more bridge assistance, but Bill keeps his focus on Buffy, especially when he learns that the TV producer she’ll be auditioning for is a friend of his.

VTS_01_5.VOB_000372111

Bill calls his friend to put in a good word for Buffy. (Oh, that’s why the room looked so spacious–the desk had temporarily disappeared, as desks are wont to do.)

At school the next day, Ronny Bartlett questions why he hasn’t been able to meet Uncle Bill yet.

Teenage boys are always so anxious to meet their girlfriends' parents.

Teenage boys are always so anxious to meet their girlfriends’ parents.

Cissy promises that she’ll make the introduction after school, but it turns out to be a chaotic afternoon at the Davis apartment.

In Bill’s absence, French has tried to help Jody with the bridge and made a royal mess of it.

Bill finds Jody sulking and refusing to work on the project at all.

Bill finds Jody sulking and refusing to work on the project at all.

Before he can offer much help, Bill has another obligation–taking Buffy to her audition.

VTS_01_5.VOB_000763903

Buffy gives an underwhelming performance for the TV producer, who has to explain to Bill that she’s not ready for prime time.

Bill takes a dejected Buffy home, where he finds an equally dejected Jody, as well as Cissy waiting with a nervous Ronny.

VTS_01_5.VOB_000823762

Random mystery: Buffy both leaves the apartment and returns to it in her leotard, so what’s in that awesome flowered suitcase?

Cissy springs upon Bill the news that she and Ronny are going steady and planning marriage in a few years. Now, from my study of old teen advice books, I know that parents considered “going steady” a fast train to nookie-ville, which explains Bill’s harsh reaction.

By the time Bill finishes his man-to-man talk with Ronny, fruit punch is spilling, the boy's voice is cracking, and the "going steady" is over.

By the time Bill finishes his man-to-man talk with Ronny, fruit punch is spilling, the boy’s voice is cracking, and the “going steady” is over.

Cissy takes this development in the calm fashion that any teenage girl would.

"You've ruined my life!" she screeches. "I love Ronny!"

“You’ve ruined my life!” she screeches. “I love Ronny!”

By this time, Uncle Bill feels like the challenges of parenting have defeated him (and I’m feeling glad that I have only one child).

French, however, raises an interesting possibility--maybe parenting isn't the problem. Maybe the kids are acting like little jerks.

French, however, raises an interesting possibility–maybe parenting isn’t the problem. Maybe the kids are acting like little jerks.

Bill seizes on this theory with enthusiasm and calls all the kids into the living for for a talking-to.

Unlike real kids, the Davis kids accept that they've been making unreasonable demands on Bill's attention, and everyone ends up happy.

Unlike real kids, the Davis kids accept that they’ve been making unreasonable demands on Bill’s attention, and everyone ends up happy.

Commentary

These conflicts would arise in a real family situation, especially when the time Uncle Bill spends at home is so limited. I began the episode feeling sorry for the kids and ended it feeling sorry for Bill. It’s nice to see the kids have to take responsibility for their own behavior at the end.

Guest Cast

Ronny Bartlett: Gregg Fedderson. Miss Peterson: Olga Kaya. Ballet Mother: Katey Barrett. Alicia: Kellie Flanagan. Secretary: Charlotte Askins. Eric Langley: Del Moore.

This is the second appearance by Flanagan, best known for the TV version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Oh, Me-TV--any chance you could resurrect that show?

This is the second appearance by Flanagan, best known for the TV version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Oh, Me-TV–any chance you could resurrect that show?

Moore’s career included a regular role on Bachelor Father–a show with a premise similar to Family Affair‘s–and a part in 1963’s The Nutty Professor.

Fedderson, the son of executive producer Don Fedderson, would make many more appearances as Cissy's date, usually named Gregg. He was the brother of Petticoat Junction's Mike Minor.

Fedderson, the son of executive producer Don Fedderson, would make many more appearances as Cissy’s date, usually named Gregg. He was the brother of Petticoat Junction‘s Mike Minor.

Fun Facts

Uncle Bill once built a bridge over the Amazon.

Notable Quotes

“I do it better with my costume on–all fluffy and buttercuppy.”–Buffy, practicing her buttercup dance.