DVD Review: The Decade You Were Born – The 50s

The thing to understand about Mill Creek Entertainment’s The Decade You Were Born DVDs is that they’re made with what’s available, what they own for cheap, what they can get from the public domain for free. That’s mostly not so bad. If you’re a student of history, you’ve been bombarded before with famous images, famous scenes from movies, and you know exactly what happened when and why. If you’re not, you may know a little bit about certain historical events, and may have seen some of the same famous images.

Mill Creek’s approach is great because they focus on lesser-known moments, or moments that were swallowed up by the bigger moments. Yes, car ownership exploded in the 1950s, especially when the Interstate Highway System was constructed, but have you seen the commercials for some of those vehicles? The 1953 Plymouth with the easy exit seat? The 1958 Edsel? The 1959 Chevrolet? Car enthusiasts will love this, since it’s the thick first section of the documentary featured on The Decade You Were Born: The 50s DVD. After about 10 minutes, for the average viewer like me, it gets tiresome, but to stave off that feeling, there’s the benefit of listening to the scripts for these commercials, or watching them in action, as it is with the near silent film-like Chevrolet commercial in which a little boy makes faces at a little girl who’s in back of one of the Chevrolets, causing his father to look over, see that Chevrolet and think about it. Then the boy’s mother, frustrated with the door of their car not closing tightly every time, comes over, sees the Chevrolet, and hey, there’s an idea! It makes me wonder if the writer(s) for that commercial are still alive, what other commercials they might have written, and where they are right now. Because in the scheme of that commercial, as easy as it plays, it’s pretty complex in its construction.

The TV section of the documentary has more to offer than the 40s DVD because TV was more prevalent in the 1950s, though it doesn’t cover the live comedy shows then, such as Your Show of Shows. However, if it’s a matter of the rights not being so easy to obtain without having to pay so much, well, then that’s how it goes. Nevertheless, there are clips from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Life with Elizabeth, starring Betty White, and Dragnet, my favorite. I love it because as to-the-point as the scripts are, like Jack Webb wanted them, he makes sure they have a lot of poetry of the city, such as in one of the bonus features on this DVD, a full episode called “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas.” At the beginning, Webb-as-Joe-Friday says that most of the year, Los Angeles wears its work clothes, but during the holidays, it dresses up. I’ve always liked listening to Webb’s approach to language, how he uses it to tell these stories. Even though he didn’t write the scripts himself, you can bet that he kept watch on them, making sure they were exactly what he wanted. He was a stickler for detail, and it’s why Dragnet lasts even today.

And then you’ve got a collection of commercials and political ads, newsreels about the marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, about the threat of Communism and the atomic bomb (the infamous government safety film, Duck and Cover, is shown in its entirety), and scenes from such movies as Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a comment on the perils of Communism. You’ll also be surprised by the fact that Hugh Hefner was once young, as evidenced by the introduction to his TV show, Playboy’s Penthouse.

I can’t help being slightly disappointed by the overemphasis on car culture instead of more about the Korean War and the Cold War, to give a well-rounded view of the decade. Yet, as if Mill Creek notices this, the bonus features agreeably supplement the documentary. The “Timelines” section, which has major events for each year followed by Billboard Top Ten Hits, the Academy Award-winning film of each year, and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, gives more that the documentary doesn’t feature, and sets one on interesting paths of study if desired. They’re brief, and well-written.

Besides the Christmas episode of Dragnet, there’s also The Last Time I Saw Paris, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson. The entire movie. Plus, you get seven commercials for various products, including Ozzie Nelson advertising a Kodak camera, and a floating bath toy offered by Kellogg’s that makes cereal-box toys today look puny. To cap off this well-fed DVD, there are trailers for five movies, such as José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, Abbott & Costello in Jack and the Beanstalk, and what looks like a robust Western in Rage at Dawn, starring Randolph Scott. Remember that scene in Blazing Saddles where the church members look up reverently to the heavens when Randolph Scott’s name is invoked? That’s how this trailer sees him too.

While 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, Disney, and others trumpet their bigger, better, best DVDs, Mill Creek is content with putting out on the market, promoting it as much as they can, and seeing how they do. They’re completely unpretentious in their approach, only wanting to give people what they think they might want, reducing the price of TV shows like That ‘70s Show to very affordable levels, and I recall seeing their 100-movie collections on DVD at Walmart, made up of mystery movies, comedies, horror movies, and others. They’re designed for you to bump into them and if you want them, you can have them and spend many peaceful weekend afternoons exploring movie history that may not always get the same attention as The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain and Dracula and all of that. I like DVD labels that gently tap you on the shoulder than scream in your face, and Mill Creek is becoming one of my favorites because of that. They have a strong instinct for making sure every DVD under their name has decent value for the consumer, so as short-sighted as the documentary is on this 50s DVD, at least there are other things to make up for it. For that, I don’t mind having to remind myself that they work with what they have, what they can get easily. There’s always something to spark interest.

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