Archive for the ‘Donna Reed Show’ Category

DVD blog review: ‘Leave It To Beaver’: Season Three — as good as it gets

June 15, 2010

Many may wonder why a TV series that began 53 years ago would command much interest today. But Leave It To Beaver was special. Among a horde of family-oriented sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, it stood out as one with a nod to contemporary edge, thanks to kids who manipulated parents, spoke slang and made non-dire havoc, all while still keeping one foot in the comfy confines of middle class America’s home and hearth.

Beaver, in fact, became so popular and iconic that today, when someone needs a pop-cultural reference to families in more innocent times, they don’t mention The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show. They mention the Cleavers: parents Ward and June (Hugh Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley) and sons Wally and Beaver (Tony Dow and Jerry Mathers).

When Universal issued the first two seasons of Beaver’s six-year run in 2005 and 2006, fans were ecstatic. But then the run ended. No more Beaver  on DVD for four years.

Now, Shout! Factory has taken up the torch by issuing not only the complete 39-episode third season, due on DVD today, but also, as of June 29, the entire six-season run, in a separate set. That way fans will have a choice–especially those who have the first two seasons on DVD already.

Shout! already has shown a dedication to finishing the job it started (it’s half-way through issuing Mister Ed’s six seasons, too), so you can fully expect to see single-season sets for Beaver’s fourth through sixth seasons. In fact, Season Four’s DVD already is on the schedule, for release Sept. 14. A big shout-out to Shout! Thanks!

That goes for picture and sound quality, too. Beaver’s third season discs sport fully restored and remastered episodes, taken from new high-definition transfers of original film elements. For a season a half-century old, it looks and sounds as good as it gets.

Season Three is a landmark of sorts, in that it takes the Cleavers into the ’60s — and also into a new house. Their first home wasn’t bad, but their new one is handsome and expansive, reflecting the trappings of new post-war affluence, from Ward’s book-lined study to an appliance-filled kitchen to a large (for then) TV prominently seen in the den.

The only false note is that, in this vast two-story house, the two kids still must share a single bedroom. But that worked better logistically for the show, since it helped keep Wally and younger brother Beaver together.

The new house, BTW, wound up being used also in Marcus Welby, M.D., and it remains a fixture on the Universal back lot. Of course, we’re talking exteriors, not interiors, which were built on studio sound stages.

The supporting cast remains much the same for Season Three, with Larry Mondello (Robert Stevens) again talking Beaver into doing stupid things, and Eddie Haskell (Ken Osmond) again fawning politely for Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver before insolently rebelling for all things adult when alone with their kids. Beaver keeps making mistakes, Ward keeps getting mad but patiently teaching right from wrong, June keeps showing compassion, and Wally keeps being a supportive older brother who’s smarter than Beaver but still clueless with girls.

Guest stars include Beverly Washburn, a girl you may recognize from Disney’s classic Old Yeller of 1957. Madge Blake again plays Larry’s mother, though the actress is old enough to be his grandmother; she’d go on to play clueless Aunt Harriet in Batman starting in 1966.

It’s odd how so many shows of this era cast older people in parts better played by younger ones. Today, it’s the reverse. Blake was 59 when she first appeared as Larry’s mother, while the kid playing Larry was 10. She’d have been 49 when she gave birth to him–right.

But in other ways Beaver is timeless — a warm family sitcom without being cloying. It was dawning modernity ahead of its time, but still anchored in a world where kids were essentially innocent, and they played outside instead of burying their faces in video games. Sweetly amusing and highly nostalgic,  is as good as vintage family sitcoms get.

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DVD review: The Donna Reed Show: Season Three

December 1, 2009

A half-century after its birth, The Donna Reed Show still entertains — and still warms hearts. This family sitcom, now with its third season from Virgil Films, epitomized all-American wholesomeness from the late ’50s into the ’60s, where it now ventures with the 1960-61 third season, captured on a four-disc set featuring 38 episodes.

Disc 4 has extras, too, most notably a 27-minute session with series star Paul Petersen (Jeff) and Reed’s actual daughter who was around the same age at the time, Mary Owen, both speaking recently in an appearance at a New York bookstore. They reveal that Reed and her husband at the time, producer Tony Owen, were smart business people, and retained more control over the show than creators often have today.

Reed, we’re told, never lost her temper during production, and was almost as much of a mother to Petersen as his real mom. “I was a handful,” he admits of his TV family years. “I spent more time with them than with my own family.”

There’s also a touching tribute to Carl Betz, the doctor dad who was a classically trained actor, and to whom Petersen (now 64) sings My Dad in the recent footage, intercut with comparable shots showing a teary-eyed Betz being serenaded in the series.

But mostly this is a tribute to Reed, the woman who was typecast in wholesome roles (apart from her From Here to Eternity breakthrough) but who made the most of it, especially on this series. “What she left on film is a treasure,” Petersen says. “It celebrates moms — great moms.”

The show itself grows up a bit in its third season, with a new and more clipped intro (note the phone isn’t black anymore) and the hairstyles getting tweaked (including Petersen’s buzz cut–or is that a flat top?). Mary (Shelley Fabares) is 16 and about to drive, and the generic pop-rock masquerading as the real thing is as bad as ever. (Did TV and film producers really think the audience would buy that kids would listen to this junk?)

But they made up for it in sitcom quality–and in quantity. Seasons from this era ran almost twice as long as those today. Donna Reed’s third season had 38 episodes, bringing its three-year total to 113. It would take today’s sitcoms five years to deliver that. By the series’ end in 1966 after the eighth season, it had amassed 275 episodes.

That’s a lot of good-hearted humor and non-cloying warmth in a home environment where both parents remain, where the family often eats together and where no one texts or tweets during a meal. Hey, that’s enough reason to watch, right there.

Donna Reed Show Second Season sidles into the ’60s

August 10, 2009

And thus, the ’60s began — or almost.

I’m talking The Donna Reed Show: The Complete Second Season, new on DVD from Virgil Films. This season is from 1959-60, which means its latter half actually is set in the ’60s.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s not still stuck in the ’50s, when women knew their only place was in the home–or maybe being secretaries, if they could type–and styles were oh so conservative, and rock ‘n’ roll was largely limited to appalling generic music on TV shows which sounded like kids just learning to play the saxophone. But still, there’s a certain scent of fresh air around the corner, and it starts with the series’ new opening credits.

It’s the same “hurry the kids and hubby to work” scenario of the First Season — and The Munsters, Leaving It to Beaver, The Jetsons, etc. But it’s been reshot for the second stanza with livelier performances, theme music and opening title fonts. Then the shows start showing a bit more daring, as when Donna and Carl Betz fly to NY for a conference (leaving the kids behind!) and he pops sedative pills into her warm milk to calm her down, and she pops more pills (not knowing she’s adding to the mix), and whaddaya know, drug humor ensues. And it’s not even hippie time yet.

Now, I’m not saying this sweet, wholesome show goes all peace, love and communes on us. It doesn’t change THAT much–though the production values do show a new shine. Yet the world was changing at this time, and at least The Donna Reed Show seemed to be changing a bit with it. After all, this season is right on the cusp of JFK’s New Frontier, the first Americans in space and the Beach Boys and Four Seasons. Yes, things are looking up beyond the pallid teen amusements of forever stuck-in’-the-50s Father Knows Best (a show I love for different reasons–not everything about the ’50s was bad).

So sidle up to your big color TV–still not a reality on Donna Reed, but getting closer–and enjoy the b&w glories of a show slightly showing its tilts from superclean but dull ’50s pablum to adventurous ’60s awareness, even if it will always be a long way from hell-raising or hedonistic.

Heck, as the show grows, you never know, but maybe even daughter Shelley Fabares will become a pop star in the process–along with bratty brother Paul Petersen. I swear, these kids are taking over the world. And this season’s Just a Housewife episode just might plant some seeds for women’s liberation.

So what have we got? Thirty-eight wholesome yet slightly less dated episodes on four discs. Guest stars include Esther Williams, Marion Ross, Jack Albertson and Raymond Bailey. And Donna is still the mom everyone loves. Enjoy!

From Donna Reed and Andy Griffith to Fred MacMurray and Jim Nabors, vintage TV stars offer soul-sustaining solace for tough times

December 8, 2008

It’s the holiday season — and a season of woe. The economy is staggering. Thousands are losing their jobs and their savings. Money is terribly tight with no end in sight. What are we to do?

Well, we all have our strategies, plans, beliefs and hopes, and mine is to stay stout, maintain my resolve, hang in there, circle the wagons, work as hard as I can — and ride this out. No white flag for me, because Annie was right: The sun will come out — if not tomorrow, then in what’s hopefully a not too distant future.

But beyond sheer survival and forever focusing on dollars and cents, what about our emotional and spiritual worth? What about our psyches, our souls, our hearts? Money is one thing. Inner peace is  another — and it can be quite independent of external turmoil.

So beyond nurturing my family as best I can, I do something for my inner self. Amid so much tough stuff, I remind myself that life is good, I try to be grateful for those good things, and I also reflect on fleetingly elusive innocence. I guess that’s why I watch as many vintage TV shows on DVD as I do current TV shows with an edge, from Boston Legal to The Simpsons. And those vintage shows on DVD often offer a reminder of a broader, kinder, more peaceful perspective on the world.

Take such ’50s and  ’60s sitcoms as The Andy Griffith Show, The Donna Reed Show (now new on DVD with its first season), My Three Sons, Father Knows Best (new on DVD with its second season) or even Gomer Pyle, USMC (new on DVD with its fifth and final season). Each is a clear product of its times, which is to say, each is often quaintly dated. Yet each, in its own way, concerns a universal and timeless good side to human nature which was better able to shine when mainstream society wasn’t so battered and bruised.

I mean, how many shows today are about someone who’s determinedly good-intentioned, no matter what? Sure, he’s a country bumpkin, but Andy Griffith Show character Gomer (Jim Nabors), in his own spinoff, has an earnest, aw-shucks, down to earth good will toward men (a nice turn of phrase at the holidays — but let’s add “and women”) which is all too rare on TV now, beyond charity shows such as Extreme Makeover and the occasional Biggest Loser (though that once-noble series has strayed from its meaningful beginnings to become emotionally show-boating and open to cliched reality-show rancor).

Or take The Donna Reed Show’s Donna Reed, a woman who epitomized sweetness and light in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, then became an American standard for loving, sensible, dutiful womanhood at a time when women had to make the most of their repressive limitations. Sure, her show’s sexism is often painful from today’s perspective, but it’s also heartening to see Donna return an expensive gift because she didn’t want to be like other craven women, or nudge her husband to choose a homely baby in an infant beauty contest because of how much it would mean to his mama.

Or take Robert Young in Father Knows Best, a solidly fun show which also can be  preachy but almost always in a worthwhile cause that needs a bit of sermonizing. Father Knows Best (which he often didn’t) serves to remind us that we’re all in this together, we have to get along and we might as well be kind and considerate as opposed to today’s entitlement-obsessed attitude junkies. Young’s Jim Anderson also well knew that, while family was paramount, it wasn’t everything, and instead of a myopic preoccupation with his own brood at everyone else’s expense (another common trait today), he also had a strong sense of duty and obligation to his community.

Or take Fred MacMurray’s patient widowed papa on My Three Sons, a harried engineer who was always willing to stop and listen to his boys and try to understand their troubles, then guide them in the right way (though MacMurray’s Steve Douglas sometimes erred, as when he encouraged smallest son Chip to battle a bully). In a sitcom that’s often surprisingly serious, MacMurray was a portrait of quiet compassion.

Now, how often do you see such shining examples of humanity on current TV programs? Ever? Never? Not often, that’s for sure.

That’s not to say we have lost these qualities, but that we’ve forgotten to champion them in our popular culture, perhaps for fear that they’ll seem corny and quaint. But human nature is timeless, and human goodness hasn’t gone away. It’s just been eclipsed by our world, by our culture’s general coarseness and by, if you will, the callouses on our hearts. As I ponder how to make all those ends meet in these troubled times, I don’t forget that goodness. I hold onto it, I cherish it, and I try to live up to it, with the hope that one day it won’t be retro, old-fashioned or quaint, but more widely embraced than ever as the route to true happiness.