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DVD Review: Zane Grey Theatre — Complete Season One

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There was a time when the as-yet-new boob tube was finding its way. Programming was needed and there was one genre that was easy to make and would appeal to the masses: westerns. Back during the Golden Age of Television, westerns were the “in” thing. Americans had once again become obsessed with their great history and heritage — and they just couldn’t get enough of the dust-ridden Old West or the good cowboys and bad Indians that came with it.

Of course, we’ve still yet to see America’s obsession with its prior history — wherein we learn why the Indians decided to hate us — but that’s neither here nor there…

Hey, tell you what  — I’m going to change the subject completely for a moment. Who’s familiar with Dick Powell? Yes? No? If you answered “yes,” then please skip two paragraphs. If you answered “no,” please continue as you were. American actor Dick Powell was a native of Arkansas and began his career in Tinseltown as a singing actor in a heap of Warner Brothers musicals. After belting out tunes onscreen for about 12 years, Powell was finally able to display his serious acting techniques, portraying Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye Philip Marlowe (nearly two years before Humphrey Bogart played the part) in Murder, My Sweet.

His newfound “tough guy” persona lead to a second coming of sorts of Powell, and it wasn’t long after that the actor added producing and directing to his impressive list of talents. As perhaps the biggest driving force behind the now-defunct Four Star Television, Dick Powell co-produced a number of series for TV. One such series was Zane Grey Theatre.

(Ah. There. I wasn’t sure how I was going to accomplish it, but I managed to circle back to the point of this review. Well done, Luigi!)

Of the many, many western series produced for television in the '50s, Dick Powell‘s Zane Grey Theatre offered up a new approach to the genre, one that was in use elsewhere on television. Other TV series, but not westerns, were of the anthology format. I guess Dick figured “Hell, if they can do it with that, why can’t I do it with westerns?” So he tried it. And it worked.

Originally based on the works of the author of the same name, Zane Grey Theatre gave its viewers a weekly dramatic western adventure. Each week, actor/singer/director/producer Powell introduced us to our new setting, sometimes taking a starring role himself. But Dick wasn’t the main star of the individual stories (he wasn’t that big of a camera whore, after all). There were plenty of established and up-and-coming faces available.

Even if westerns aren’t your bag, Zane Grey Theatre — Complete Season One comes highly recommended for the fans of its now-legendary stars, or the devoted followers of oft-forgotten character actors. Folks like Jack Lemmon, David Niven, Ida Lupino, Lloyd Bridges, Beverly Garland, Jack Palance, Walter Brennan, John Ireland, Robert Vaughn, Robert Culp — and just about every other supporting player from film and television that you can think of. Hell, in the first episode alone “You Only Run Once (aka The Hangin’ Tree),” I spotted Whit Bissell, John Hoyt, and Douglas Fowley alongside main stars Robert Ryan and Cloris Leachman.

A magnificent assortment of great actors aside, Zane Grey Theatre is just as enjoyable as any western series due to its direction and writing (many episodes of the series were written by future mega-mogul Aaron Spelling). Several episodes even caused a few new series to be made, and classic shows such as The Rifleman, Johnny Ringo and Wanted: Dead Or Alive came to pass springboarding from episodes of Zane Grey Theatre.

Zane Grey Theatre — Complete Season One comes to DVD via the effortless works of VCI Entertainment. All 29 episodes are presented on four discs in the original standard TV aspect ratio of 1.33:1. While the quality may not be truly “pristine” at times, it is usually quite good nonetheless and never reaches the point of being unwatchable. Accompanying the visual presentation is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono soundtrack which, while also not as “superior” as some perfectionists might wish for, is still enjoyable.

You really wouldn’t expect to find any special features on a title like this, but VCI went that extra mile once again and provides us with a pullout episode guide (included in the case) which gives the history of both Zane Grey and the series; an interview with Dick Powell’s son, Norman (26:52); an audio interview with author Christine Becker (14:43) about Four Star Productions; and several TV bumpers (1:20) for the program as well as some vintage Maxwell House television commercials (2:11) which are always a treat by themselves.

Well done, VCI. This’ll make a great gift for vintage TV and western buffs across the plains.

About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.