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DVD Review: ’50s TV Classics

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This indiscriminate three-disc DVD package from Film Chest Media Group offers 14 copyright-free television episodes from the 1950s that are fascinating as broadcast and cultural history. Unfortunately, the programs are presented without any editorial or historical comment, and the product seems a hastily produced set of DVDs, similiar to the one dollar copyright-free videos that once flooded bargain bins at places like Wal-Mart.

Given the impossibly poised and artificially mannered contestants on the game shows offered here, and the crude editorial removal of a racist segment from a 1956 episode of The Lawrence Welk Show (the edited song looks like it was cut out with scissors), 50’s TV Classics would benefit from a higher regard for this era of television history and a brief but concerned commentary.

Most of the programs here were originally broadcast live, and the frantic immediacy of the productions and hyper pacing of the performers still offer an entertainment that is as forgotten as gas station attendants who clean the windshield. Commercials are incorporated directly into the programs and often serve as a comedic element of a sketch or monolog. Camel Cigarettes, for instance, are hawked as if they are hot dogs at the ballpark in a sketch in The Ed Wynn Show (1950), that dubiously boasts Camel to be “less irritating to the throat as other brands”.

Surprisingly, what would seem to be the blandest and most cliched offering here, the Chevrolet sponsored The Chevy Show with Dinah Shore (1956) a then popular musical variety hour with celebrity guests and comedic bits, is a jewel of television history. It’s an Emmy-worthy blueprint of the variety show format, so prevalent in the 1950s, with elements of the fiercely dominating new musical wave – rock ‘n roll – neatly fitted into the traditional style of Shore’s soft and safe crooning. Guest star Betty Hutton, a largely forgotten movie star with an enormous music and comedic talent, provides ample zing and swing to this exceptional hour of programming.

The three game shows included on the disc – two episodes of Do You Trust Your Wife (1957), and one each of Name That Tune (1955) and Beat The Clock (1950), are artificially contrived and seem only an arm’s length away from the quiz show scandal of the 1950s. One suspects such cheating was an industry standard. The contestants recite obviously scripted verbal interplay with the host as if they were just yanked off an actor’s unemployment line. Of these, Beat The Clock is the most genuine and the most fun with amiable host Bud Collyer, guiding at break-neck speed, contestants performing simple stunts for cash.

The Bob Hope Show (1957) finds Hope performing his show for American troops stationed in French Morocco, with the extremely likable Gary Crosby – Bing’s son – singing and looking very much like his namesake and providing Hope with a flurry of Hope-Crosby jokes. Three episodes of Death Valley Days from 1953, are fine western dramas depicting actual history of the western expansion of the continental U.S. The episodes include the original iconic 20 Mule Team Borax commercials.

The Milton Berle Show (1956) offers an unlikely dramatic segment with guest star Mickey Rooney in a searing performance in a short boxing play reminiscent of Requiem For A Heavyweight. The Red Skelton Show (1954) finds the red-headed clown providing his own laughs to jokes that fall flat with the audience in a “Deadeye” cowboy sketch that offers an elaborate set design and complex stunts. Ed Sullivan guests doing a deadpan parody of himself.

No easy paycheck guest appearance for The Three Stooges (Shemp, not Curly), as they work hard for laughs and deliver a workmen-like performance on The Ed Wynn Show. They are as funny and seemingly spontaneous as they are in their classic filmed shorts. The Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney Show, a ventriliquist Saturday morning kids show from 1950, seems only a commercial advertisement for its sponsor – Tootsie Roll – interrupted by rambunctious stunts and gags. It is, however, touching, in the pre-civil rights era, to hear the initiation pledge into the Jerry Mahoney club for kids, spoken quite earnestly – to be kind to all people regardless of race, creed, or color.

50’s TV Classics offers 495 minutes of television broadcast history that should be a delight for students of American broadcast and as nostalgia, should warm the hearts and rekindle fond memories of those familiar with the era. I hope Film Chest Media continues with the serie, and offers a less loosely organized and more detailed account of this often neglected time in American history.

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About Guy De Federicis