Saturday, December 24, 2011

Twas the Day before Christmas (Dennis the Menace style)

If you thought I was going to take this opportunity to come up with some parody of the classic “Twas the night before Christmas” poem, I’m sorry to disappoint you. No, I’m afraid I’m a little too weary to embark on such an endeavor this year (I gave up after a half-hour). However, I do have a fun story to share courtesy of streaming Netflik: The 11th episode of the Dennis the Menace TV show, which aired originally on 1959 December 20, entitled “The Christmas Story”.

The show always opens with a small scene prior to the credits. This time Dennis is describing the giant Christmas card he just made “for the whole world”. His mother, only half listening at first, is certain he’s exaggerating until particular phrases start to sink in like “as tall as our upstairs windows”. She suspiciously questions him on where he painted this greeting, when he reveals matter-of-factly that he did it on the side of their house. Next comes her shocked look where typical of early TV shows of that era all the expressions are magnified to almost comic strip proportions and accompanied by the traditional laugh-track.

After the theme song featuring an animated whirling dervish with a baseball cap, the main story begins. The plot is simple. Every year Dennis always finds his presents beforehand and knows what he’s getting, so his parents, Henry and Alice Mitchell, strive to thwart his ingenious efforts. This time he’s specifically on the lookout for the sled his Grandpa was supposed to get for him.

When Henry arrives home, Alice questions him on where he’s hidden the presents for Dennis. He’d moved them from their bedroom closet and locked them in “the vault” (a trunk in the attic). “Oh, Dennis will be sure to look there”, her worried reply. “LET HIM LOOK! The trunk is locked and I HAVE the key!” declares Henry smugly, pulling the key from his pocket and shaking it vigorously. He heads upstairs with an armload full of wrapped gifts ready to deposit in the trunk. However, when he enters the room, Dennis is busily trying to pick the lock with unwanted keys that he and Tommy obtained from the neighborhood. “Oops. Gosh, Dad. Those new r-r-rubber soled shoes of yours s-s-sure are quiet, aren’t they?“ “They most certainly are” Henry fumes. “Hey, you gonna hide some more presents?” “YES I AM, but not while you’re around. You two run downstairs.”

Throughout the show, Dennis attempts to play a song on his bugle…badly. And both parents repeatedly try to dissuade him. “JEEPERS haven’t I got it yet?” “Well…not quite,” says Henry softy. “Maybe because I’m wearing my mittens. I’ll try it with them off!” Alice takes Dennis out (without the bugle) for some last minute shopping and Henry stays home to relocate the gifts, specifically Dennis’ sled, which did arrive from Grandpa.

After an hour Henry decides that there is no safe place to hide the presents from Dennis, so he asks the Wilson’s to hold them. Mr. Wilson agrees and the gifts are stored in their hall closet, the one where he had just sanded and painted the door to get out Dennis’ crayon marks. “At least he’s grown out of THAT phase…in exchange for a new one.” “You mean his bulging?” Henry utters somberly. Of course, Wilson can’t miss the opportunity to ask about the song Dennis is blaring about the neighborhood. "Silent Night”, Henry sheepishly replies, which issues laughter from Mrs. Wilson. “Well YOU can’t play Silent Night on a BUGLE?” Mr. Wilson says emphatically. “Well, that’s what I told him [slightly chuckling], but he said he’s going to be the first.”

Upon returning home (after buying his father an alarm clock), Dennis and Tommy are canvassing the house again. He tries to slyly, but not too subtlety pry the location from his Mom by looking for clues to where she doesn’t want him to be. Unfortunately for him, she’s not bothered by any of his suggestions. Stumped, Dennis and Tommy sneak a peek under the bed. “Anything down there?” asks his mother, sitting on the bed while licking a label sticker. “Nothing but dust.” (This comment momentarily mortifies his mother. There aren’t any messes to be seen in this sterile, scripted Hollywood environment.) When Dennis laments how “good” they have the presents hid, his mother proudly, but kindly says, “I’m sorry young man. You’re out of luck this time.”

Of course, this just spurs Dennis on again, so he and Tommy try to wrestle the information from his Dad, who happens to be napping peacefully on the living room couch. “Dad, you asleep?” When he elicits no response, Dennis repeats the question several times. Tommy slips off camera and quickly returns with an object in hand. “Here. Give him a toot on your bugle.” “I better not, it’s too close to Christmas”, Dennis quickly replies. Still undaunted, Dennis pulls a string from his pocket and proceeds to brush it over his father’s nose. He starts to stir; thinking it’s a fly of some kind. Once he’s fully awake, Dennis tries to get his Dad to guess what he and his mother got for him that afternoon and tells him they even got a bone for the Wilson’s dog, Freemont. Dennis asks where he should put his Dad’s present (to keep it with the others). “Tricky, tricky. It won’t work. You’re not going to find them out of ME!”

Dennis’ next idea is pure genius. He asks his father the time. Then he goes upstairs and sets the new alarm clock, which sounds like a buzzing doorbell, for a few hours later. Then shrewdly encourages his mother to wrap up this “important” present right away. The theory: When the alarm goes off, he’ll know exactly where his gifts are located. Only they won’t be in his house at all, after Alice delivers the last remaining gifts to the Wilson’s.

Later, Dennis lying next to his father on the floor, who is concentrating hard at fixing a string of lights asks what time it is. It’s close to 4:00pm, so Dennis repeats the inquiry about 15 seconds later and when the reply is the same, he does it another time or two. Now totally distracted, Henry starts to lecture Dennis. “Excuse me, Dad. Can you ball me out later? [Head cocked at a slight angle] I’m trying to hear something.”

Back at the Wilson’s home, Freemont having sniffed out the bone, starts scratching up the hall closet door (Remember, the one newly refinished?). Wilson puts him outside for his misbehavior. BUZZZZZZZZ! Infuriated that Dennis must be pushing on the doorbell too long, Wilson starts to stomp off toward the door for a harsh confrontation. Martha (Mrs. Wilson) tries to calm him down, reminding him that their doorbell has been sticking lately. But when he opens the door there’s no one there but Freemont. He lets him inside and the dog goes after the door again. Then a quick repeat: Out goes the dog and off goes the alarm clock (on its automatic sleeper setting). This time when he only sees Freemont, Wilson is convinced that the dog is the one pushing the doorbell. "Oh George, that's silly" his wife responds. “Dennis put him up to it, just to irritate me!” he says with paranoia. When the alarm goes off a third time (and it won’t stop now until the clock runs down), Mr. Wilson ignores it, thinking that Freemont will have him at his “beck and call” if he goes to the door.

Sometime later the doorbell really goes off and this time it is Dennis. He sees the dog sniffing at the door and Mr. Wilson remarks about Freemont’s odd behavior all afternoon. “You’d think there was a BONE in there.” “A BONE?” Dennis enthusiastically and now knowingly asks. “HEY! Why don’t we take a look into that good ol’ closet?” Both Mr. and Mrs. Wilson indicate that they don’t really care what’s in the closet. “YOU’RE not interested [to Mrs. Wilson] and Mr. Wilson, YOU’RE not interested, How about we look because I’M interested!?”

The final plan is hatched. Dennis sorrowfully suggests to his parents that they invite “Poor old Mr. and Mrs. Wilson” over to their house to trim the tree, since they aren’t even decorating at home for “just the two of them”. Alice and Henry eagerly agree and his mother says it’s a wonderful idea, thanking him for thinking about it. “Me too! That’ll give them a chance to get out of their house.”

By evening, everyone is having a great time (wearing their Sunday best), full of holiday cheer. And in perfect TV timing – it begins to snow. Dennis starts to play the song he’s been practicing for them on his bugle, but after some ear splitting moments, his Mom recommends they all sing “Silent Night” instead. Everyone joins in singing the first verse, but each of the adults in turn trails off as Dennis really starts to belt it out – in perfect key (although at a different tempo). Eyes glisten with joy as they all watch this “angelic” child sing about Christ’s birth.

(My wife was crying too during this scene – she ALWAYS cries during Silent Night. She has since childhood, long before she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. It was the closest connection she had to God before she realized He came, died, and rose to forgive her of ALL her sins and give her abundant life in Him. That’s the Good News Gospel in a nutshell, folks – available to anyone. And while it’s not the only reason to celebrate Christmas, it’s the main reason I rejoice this time of year.)

After the song, Dennis surveying his malleable audience asks if he can go to the kitchen and get a cookie. Next we see Dennis enter the Wilson’s house, heading straight for the hall door. The final scene is shot from inside the closet with the sled in the foreground. The door opens and there is Dennis, dressed for the cold weather, cookie in hand, eyes wide with excitement. “WOW!!! I GOT IT!!!”

This black and white episode is so awesome I’ve watched it at least three times already this season. The scripting is brilliant and funny. All the plot elements are laid out like breadcrumbs and you have a sense of what’s going to happen ahead of time, but it’s still fun to see it all played out. It’s also interesting to compare how different life is portrayed in this show from how it really is today or even was then. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get married to sleep alone on a twin bed. And did any mother EVER wear heels around the house while she cleaned?

The actors’ performances are wonderful too. Mr. Wilson played by Joseph Kearns manages to be both grumpy and lovable at the same time. Dennis played by Jay North is simultaneously annoying and endearing, but at his most mischievous maintains a childlike innocence. Even when he’s driving them crazy with his antics, his parents, played by Herbert Anderson and Gloria Henry, continue to lovingly adore him. They’re also dead ringers for the their comic strip counterparts.

It’s a charming Christmas tale, which should be part of the annual Christmas programming tradition like those featuring George Taylor, Charlie Brown, the Grinch, and all the characters in those wonderful Rankin Bass specials.

"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

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