DVD Review: 50’s TV Classics

By 2005, two years into my tenure at Film Threat, I had reviewed many independent films, and not the ones you see in theaters. They were without distributors, the ones made in small towns with broke, but passionate casts and crews, some movies that tried to evoke a certain genre, but were more about the filmmakers’ passion for that genre, such as Star Wars fan films, the best of which combined their passion for the original trilogy with finding new stories within it. Those movies were a lot of fun, even while enduring the worst of them, but I wanted to supplement those reviews with something different. Here I was, writing for a website that was widely read. I could get DVDs to review, probably whatever I wanted!

Dinah-Shore-Chevy-ShowDiligent research turned up many of the PR firms working for the major studios, and Warner Bros. sent many DVDs, including Captain Blood and Dodge City¸ both starring Errol Flynn. I loved getting these DVDs for free, because I didn’t have to rent them, didn’t have to wait for my local library to get them in, which takes weeks. But I was nervous. How do I go from reviewing these independent films to touching an era of Hollywood that feels like it’s housed in its own temple, on a mountain you have to climb for days before you can even begin to write about it? I’d watched old movies upon realizing a passion for them when I was in middle school, but I never had to think about them like this. I just watched them, absorbed what I liked (I remember being totally glued to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington the first time), and moved on to the next one. My summers were easy like that.

I reread my review of Dodge City on the Film Threat site a few days ago while starting in on the three-disc ‘50s TV Classics, released by the new Film Chest Media Group, and man, was I ever nervous! My review reads like I kept yelling, making noise, in order to drown out my uncertainty about reviewing old movies. I describe the goings-on in Dodge City well enough, but the review itself feels embarrassingly overeager.

I realize now that as a reviewer, I looked at these movies the wrong way. By dint of them being available on DVD, anyone can see them, anyone can get out of them what they want, to see actors they’ve only heard about, to go deeper into the genres they love. They’re enormous fields of exploration left behind and still very much alive for us to enjoy, even the bad ones to see what doesn’t work, even today.

I went into 50’s TV Classics with the same mindset and had a wonderful time. My first question to Film Chest Media Group is if they own more episodes of The Chevy Show, starring Dinah Shore, and anything else starring Dinah Shore. In one hour, you get a few songs from Shore and guest star Betty Hutton, who comes on to pitch herself as a replacement for Shore for the summer when she goes on vacation. Guest star Art Carney comes on and Shore believes he might be suitable, but Carney playfully demurs, suggesting instead…guest star Boris Karloff! Why not, Carney says. He’s got the charisma, the presence, the face for it. This all leads into Karloff briefly hosting what his summer show would look like, with all the touches of horror movies that he’s known for. There’s also the scene preceding it in which Karloff has Carney over for tea, and Carney plays nervousness masterfully. It makes me wonder if Carol Burnett was partly influenced by Shore because, while watching her, I thought of Burnett and her performances in front of an audience before the sketches began. Burnett has the same charming patter as Shore. So please, Film Chest! More Dinah Shore! Lots more. And watch for the stars promoting Chevrolet, how smoothly it’s integrated into the show. Jimmy Kimmel is the only one who does that today, advertising various products before his show begins, in the same amusing spirit as all those television stars in the 1950s who did the exact same thing.

It would be enough to just have Shore on this DVD, but Film Chest doesn’t work like that. You want to know more about what was on television in the 1950s, and you shall have it.

There’s also The Ed Wynn Show, which is an interesting contrast, no matter that The Chevy Show episode aired six years later. Because Shore sings, and can banter easily with her guest stars, and can cede the show to them for a few minutes at a time, an hour with her is heaven. Not that Ed Wynn doesn’t have anything to offer. He sure does, and my reason for watching this episode of his show is my fondness for him in Mary Poppins, my favorite movie. Wynn is always on during his show, always center stage with guest stars orbiting around him, whereas Shore works agreeably alongside her guest stars. Just like the plot of that episode of The Chevy Show being about Shore looking for a summer replacement gently unfolding in the first few minutes, Ed Wynn has to contend with three CBS executives interrupting his show, looking to make changes, those CBS executives played by the Three Stooges. Wynn also has a singer come on, but it’s only for one song, and there’s also a sketch for Camel Cigarettes (since the show is called the “Camel Comedy Caravan”), in which Wynn has to keep climbing up on a stepladder to get cigarettes for customers, including William Frawley who not only wants a pack from the bottom, but also the entire pack itself, one that’s holding up the tower that Wynn says he spent three days building. If Wynn’s show was an hour, it would be taxing, so half an hour is exactly right. You get a lot of Wynn in a short amount of time, enough to carry over into next week, which was obviously the intent, to keep people watching.

Three episodes of Death Valley Days, on the second disc, are introduced by the Old Ranger (Stanley Andrews) and basically tell the same story, with one slight exception. In the “Sego Lilies” episode, Mormons trek to Southern Utah, near the Arizona border, to start a new town there. The wife of one of the men doesn’t like it there, tries to get used to it over a few weeks, but can’t, and wants to leave. In “Little Washington,” a young Washington socialite is aghast to learn that she and her family are moving to Carson City, Nevada, where her father is taking up what he sees as a prestigious post. She doesn’t want any part of it, and tries to fight it while they’re there, also contending with Minnie, the maid of their house, and a vastly embarrassing-in-hindsight Indian stereotype. Yet Minnie is the most entertaining character in this episode, strong-willed and knowledgeable of all the social customs in Carson City, fondly remembered by the governor’s wife. “Dear Teacher” finds a mining town again without a teacher for the school house, the children having chased away their eighth teacher. All unruly, but another teacher arrives, smarter than all the others, quickly bringing order to her classroom, one of the early figures of that cliché in television and movies. I don’t have a great deal of objection to these episodes, beyond there not being much variety in these episodes, because a Western atmosphere always captures me. However, more episodes on DVD would be appreciated in order to discover different Death Valley stories.

For most of the set, there are comedies and music, also in The Paul Winchell & Jerry Mahoney Show, The Bob Hope Show, The Milton Berle Show, and The Lawrence Welk Show. The third disc is mostly taken up by game shows, save for an episode of The Red Skelton Show at the end. Film Chest wisely includes a best-of episode of Name That Tune from 1955, which is mainly centered around a real American cowboy and an English exchange student, between which there’s a kind of bashful chemistry at work, egged on a little by host George DeWitt, from whom Ryan Seacrest could learn a lot. It’s not criminal to be erudite, to be charming without faking it. He has an easy rapport with the contestants and professionally moves the show along, taking just a minute or two more when he’s tickled by the cowboy’s one-syllable answers. The worst part of the episode is DeWitt, in separately taped reminisces about the contestants, moving the episode along to another contestant, saying that they’ll get back to the cowboy and the English exchange student next week. Next week?! I hope Film Chest has the following episode because I wanted to see more of these two, and I wish that Name That Tune had been the two-parter instead of Do You Trust Your Wife.

With this release, Film Chest has automatically become a new favorite label. Reading the press releases on their website, it appears that they own a lot of television series that have not yet been put on DVD, which means that there’s a lot of treasure still to be discovered by viewers. They appear cautious about what they release, so far only putting out Zaat, Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, Federal Men, and this, with Suddenly, starring Frank Sinatra, coming in October. They likely want to figure out where each release stands with a hopefully eager public, and what they need to lean on more in the future. I hope that includes more like 50’s TV Classics, but also more episodes put together of individual TV shows for individual DVD releases. If they’ve got as much as I think they do, based on these shows alone, they’re going to have great success in a mostly-untapped market. But please speed up these DVD releases! Keep them coming. I want more of the fun found in this set.

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