Barbara Billingsley: TV Mom, Jive Talker, Fashion Expert - Macleans.ca
 

Barbara Billingsley: TV Mom, Jive Talker, Fashion Expert


 

Because “Leave It To Beaver” isn’t as ubiquitous in syndication as it used to be, reactions to the death of Barbara Billingsley at age 94 revealed that at this point she may be better known as the jive-talking old lady in Airplane! But of course June Cleaver is her definitive role; she got the part in Airplane! because all three directors were huge Leave It To Beaver fans. (One of them says on the commentary that the high point of doing the Kentucky Fried Theatre in L.A. was “the night ‘Lumpy’ showed up.”) It was a great show, well worth the cost of Shout! Factory’s complete set, and she was one of the best TV moms ever, despite the pearls and high heels — she became understandably irritated about having to explain them in every interview. (The pearls were to cover up a hollow in her neck; the heels were to make it less clear that the boys were getting taller.) Ward and June Cleaver are difficult characters to pull off because the show is not about them — it was the first TV family comedy that was about the kids — and yet the scripts require them to be more than just the generic parents who lecture the kids when they get in trouble. The idea that comes through in many of the scripts is that June and Ward aren’t completely sure how to be parents, or what it means to be a parent in a changing world. Many of their conversations have to do with the way things have changed since they were kids, and whether the things they remember are applicable to their own children. So they have to be simultaneously old-fashioned and modern: old-fashioned, because their instincts are old-fashioned; modern, because they’re the hippest parents on the block. Billingsley brought her natural sense of humour and intelligence to June, and made her the ideal TV mom: with-it in her own way — particularly when it came to seeing through Eddie Haskell — and a perfect mix of old-fashioned values and modern assertiveness.

Like many TV stars of the ’50s, she’s also an advertisement for the power of television to give an actor a break that he or she could never quite get on movies or on stage. I think it was Mad magazine that made jokes about how TV put Broadway and film stars on parity with moderately successful B-movie actors, and Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont are both examples of people who hit it big on television after years of not quite hitting it big in movies.

Here is one of Billingsley’s small movie roles from the pre-Beaver days, her appearance as a costume designer in my favourite Hollywood movie about Hollywood, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. All the characters in the movie are amalgams of various real people from Hollywood (Kirk Douglas’s character is mostly David O. Selznick with a bit of Val Lewton thrown in; Leo G. Carroll’s British director is a thinner Alfred Hitchcock, and Kathleen Freeman is Hitchcock’s wife Alma Revile), and the likeliest model for Billingsley’s character is Helen Rose, the movie’s actual costume designer. Note that she’s wearing pearls here, too.

Also: did June ever say “Ward, you were a little hard on the Beaver last night?” Because that seems to be the line that people who have never seen the show quote most often in reference to it, and it has an urban legend feel to me.


 
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Barbara Billingsley: TV Mom, Jive Talker, Fashion Expert

  1. A dreadful show.

    • Heresy!

    • Why?

      • I thought at the time that it was a children's show. One of those nicey-nice fantasies…like Gilligan's Island…and the only redeeming factor in it was that they had 2 obviously 'slow' children. I thought it was meant to be a morality lesson for kids in showing that you should be kind to everyone, no matter their IQ.

        Imagine my horror when I discovered that Leave it to Beaver, and even Gilligan's Island were ADULT shows, and that the 'Beav' and Wally were supposed to be normal average children.

        • It sounds like you're reacting more to the way the show seems at first glance (or the stereotype of it) than the way it was. While it is an idealized family, it's by no means all nicey-nice, and the two boys are somewhat innocent but not perfect, and not out of the bounds of reality — much of what they did was based on real stuff.

          • I watched enough of it at the time to know what it was like. There wasn't anything in it that wasn't nicey-nice, and it was a completely unreal portrait of family life in the fifties. Much like the later 'Happy Days'.

          • But there's plenty in it that isn't nicey-nice. That's what sets it apart from other shows of the era. The kids sit around and talk about the kind of stuff real kids talk about. Is it a somewhat idealized 1950s world? Absolutely. But none of the kids is perfect – most famously, of course, Eddie Haskell is a fairly horrible person.

          • LOL Treacle.

    • Emily, I too would love to hear why you dislike the show. I think it's one of the best family sitcoms ever. It even handled the aging of the kids pretty deftly.

    • Just bitter that your own childhood was ….. disappointing? Right Bittermuch?

      • It appealed to your IQ level, right?

    • Emily, you can't apply today's sense of humour to the 1950s. Even 80s sitcoms don't seem that funny now. You have to process it on it's own terms. If it seems treacly at first glance, look deeper. It's not Mad Men, but there's a touch of changing-world undercurrent and not everyone is well behaved. There's more to it than "golly"s and "gee-whiz"s.

      • Considering the body ….and level….of world literature we had at the time, the idea that this was an adult show [or even a children's one] boggles the mind.

  2. Whether or not June actually said it, that most-quoted line may be so frequently cited for other reasons. Think about it.

    • That's why he's asking– people frequently cite it because of the entendre, but it was never actually said so folks are technically flat-out wrong.

  3. Like any show ,what make it a sucess is the writing or the story line.
    Many of the shows stories came from the true life experences of the writers with there own children. Ward and June were not the perfect parents and they always expressed that with the moral at the end of the story, they just wanted to lead you down the correct path.
    Leave it to Beaver was one of the best written and wholesome TV series ever made! It was an age of manners, morals respect and love and with those you can never go wrong!
    Leave it to Beaver will forever be in the hearts of those who under stand it and who lived it and who loved it.
    June Cleaver ( Barbara Billingsley) will be for ever in our hearts.

    • Oh puleeze.

    • Keith demonstrates the harmful effect the showed had on a generation of men. We've all met them – they're never found a woman who measures up to this Hallmark card ideal.

      • The shows that are most popular always get the blame, whether or not it's accurate — if you look at family sitcoms in the '50s, June was further from the Hallmark Card ideal than the usual sitcom mom, and the whole show was (and still is) rooted in realism and observational humour — which is not to say that it's realistic, any more than Seinfeld (a show similarly based on real-life, everyday details), just that it endures because viewers sense that it's less fake than most TV shows.

        • Jaime, these shows live on because there were so few of them. We watched these shows back then because there was so little to watch. Nostalgia doesn't make them any better.

          • Some shows live on due to nostalgia; "Leave It To Beaver" is not one of them. It's genuinely good.

          • Well, that explains a lot.

          • About me, or about the show?

          • LOL about your other reviews.

          • Well, yeah. It always makes sense to prefer shows that do something interesting and individual and relevant with their material (like Beaver) than shows that just go through the motions (most family sitcoms of the era) or are outright reactionary (Father Knows Best).

          • If you say so.

          • That's more like it.

          • LOL Kay, yer a good sport.

          • How can a TV show be genuinely good? Any assessment is purely subjective. I think it was smarmy pap.

  4. If I recall correctly, the "most famous line"'s ubiquity comes from it being used as a punchline to a joke during the talent show montage of the original "Revenge of the Nerds" film.

    If I recall correctly.

  5. I watched the entire first season of LITB for research I'm doing and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. I get a bit impatient with the easy dismissal of it as some sort of reactionary / super wholesome / paternalistic / patriarchal / sexist fantasy. Obviously there's an old-fashioned-ness to it, but it is a genuinely interesting portrayal of the life of kids and the way they see the world. To label it with that generic dismissal of 1950s sitcoms a la the send-up in Pleasantville is to get stuck on the surface issues. As Jaime has said, Father Knows Best much better fits that mould.

    I do recall there being a line in the first series that had very similar entendre overtones to the "rough on the Beaver" line (something about "taking it out on the Beaver" IIRC). Over the course of the series there must have been a few – I can see how they'd be misremembered into the line mentioned.

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