Archive for the ‘Family Afair’ Category

DVD review: ‘McHale’s Navy: Season Four’ bids us arrivederci

December 2, 2008

Was Italy the kiss of death for McHale’s Navy? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know that when the WW II sitcom shifted from the South Pacific to an Italian coastal village, its new digs lasted for just one season, and then its seamen bid buh-bye to series TV.

That’s not to say McHale’s Navy: Season Four, new on DVD from Shout! Factory, is a washout. For the five-disc, 30-episode set, almost all of the original comedy cast stays intact, having shifted from fighting the Japanese to fighting Germans in Italy, where some new regulars join in. But though this shift allowed for more elaborate exteriors — with back roads, towns and a wider range of scenery — it also led to some excruciatingly bad Italian accents and Italian stereotyping.

Granted, such transgressions were common on TV in the ’60s, before globalism and dawning multi-cultural awareness made non-Americans seem less corny, colorful and quaint and more like — well, everyday people. And you must take that into account when viewing a series such as this, which surely had no mean-spirited bones in its four-season, 138-episode body.

Also look for Don Knotts among the season’s guest stars. The actor who kept The Andy Griffith Show in stitches was able to go briefly from that series during its run in order to guest star elsewhere or make a theatrical film. Andy would make some reference to Barney being “on patrol,” and an entire episode would slip by without a sign of the skinny, ever-agitated deputy.

Come to think of it, TV was extremely accommodating in the ’60s. Both My Three Sons and Family Affair were creatively produced (writing scripts far in advance and shooting far out of sequence) in order to allow stars Fred MacMurray and Brian Keith, respectively, to pursue their careers elsewhere at the same time they were top-billed TV stars.

I suppose McHale himself, Ernest Borgnine, could have done the same thing, having come to TV with an Oscar pedigree from 1955’s Marty. But he chose to stick closely to his series for its run, and I don’t believe he was ever absent from an episode.

As for the entire crew of PT 73, we’ll miss ’em, now that this series reaches its end on DVD. But  three theatrical films with this cast are hovering out there somewhere, and 138 episodes isn’t a bad run for savoring such silliness and shenanigans.

Our thanks go to Shout! Factory for following through with the complete TV run, which so often isn’t the case with vintage TV releases. And our thanks go to Borgnine, Tim Conway, the late Joe Flynn and others for making McHale’s Navy — whether waging wacky war in the Pacific or the European theater — a frothy, lively, fun show that’s stood the test of time.

Review: ‘Donna Reed Show’ DVD is reassuring TV ‘comfort food’

October 29, 2008

So, how do I reconcile being a fan of current shows as subversive or edgy as South Park, The Simpsons and Boston Legal as well as sweet family sitcoms from olden times such as Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, whose first season is new on DVD? Simple: I’m eclectic, I’m a  Boomer and just as my favorite flicks include The Exorcist and The Sound of Music, there’s room enough for both.

Sure, I love today’s shows which get into the viewer’s face on social and political issues. But in today’s uncertain world, I also find solace in reassurances of the past.

Donna Reed was, and still is, as reassuring as a bowl of pudding — or, for us Texans, hot chili. (Comfort food can be anything, as long as it comforts.) The squeaky clean Stone clan was the ideal 1958-66 American family, and certainly reflected my own of the time. I was a bit younger than  Paul Petersen’s Jeff, but like him, I was a little brother to an older sister, my dad was a white collar family man and sole bread winner, and my mom, like Donna, was a cheerful housewife and, in her case, a Junior Leaguer. They, and we, were calm, comforting — and dull, perhaps, in many people’s minds. But again, reassuring. And certainly these Ike-era families hung together in love. Anything wrong with that?

For The Donna Reed Show’s 50th anniversary, its DVD debut from Arts Alliance America collects all 37 first-season episodes on four discs, the last of which adds a photo gallery, original TV spot, press release and production notes. It’s a handsomely packaged set which, unlike the likes of Father Knows Best, appears to have preserved the original black-and-white episodes in their entirety, meaning they each run about 26 minutes.

Much like Fred MacMurray before My Three Sons or Brian Keith before Family Affair, Reed was a successful film star who was essentially lured into the budding medium of TV. Heck, she’d won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity (playing a prostitute!) and also had starred in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. But she also found a home on the small screen, lasting for eight seasons as the perfect mom and housewife in a gentle sitcom which rarely pushed limits and stayed warmly and safely in middle-class America’s comfort zone.

Carl Betz, as her husband, was a pediatrician with an at-home office, while that older sister/daughter was played by Shelley Fabares, who went on to big-screen stardom in three Elvis Presley flicks as well as renewed TV prominence in TV movie Brian’s Song and the series Coach. Fabares and Petersen got to be marginal pop stars via their Donna Reed fame, with Fabares scoring a hit with Johnny Angel. Her ex-husband, BTW, is Lou Adler, who produced, among others, the Mamas and the Papas and Carole King, notably her landmark Tapestry album.

The Stones’ family fun on Donna Reed was as easily digestible as a cracker — and often as thin — but still had that comforting, curl-up-on-a-sofa quality that’s largely missing in popular entertainment today. Call them bland and overly wholesome if you must, but watching the Stones grapple with everyday crises like canceled camping trips and community theater rivalries still does my heart good. I didn’t grow up in a fractured family as in Gidget, My Three Sons or Family Affair. I grew up in a stick-together family like the Stones. If that makes me bland, too, in some people’s minds, then that’s a blandness I’ll take.

Now when does the next new South Park episode air? See? You can’t say I don’t strive for balance.

And, oh yes: While some vintage shows are victims of watchus interruptus (take Hazel, which has had one season released, and that’s it), not Donna Reed. Arts Alliance America already promises to issue the second season of The Donna Reed Show “in time for Mother’s Day 2009.” Hey, I’m feeling even more warm and more fuzzy already. Cookies and milk, anyone?

‘Bewitched’ switches Darrins — like magic

May 14, 2008

Sony’s release of Bewitched’s complete sixth season DVD underscores one of the strangest transitions in TV history.

For five successful seasons, Dick York played the role of Darrin Stephens, a mortal ad man who’d married witch Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery). York suffered severe back pain and even was written out of 14 episodes of the 170 in the series’ first five seasons. But by 1969, he could go no further. The show would have to end — or would it?

Encouraged by sustained ratings punch, producer William Asher decided to press on by hiring Dick Sargent for the role and then acting as if no change had happened. Hey, both times the character was played by an actor named Dick — get used to it!

Montgomery, it seems, might have preferred to end things, growing weary of the show’s setup and schtick. But having been given a partnership in the series for Season 5 to keep her happy, she was stuck. So Bewitched continued for three more years with a new actor as Darrin.

It’s awfully odd watching that first Season 6 show, in which Sargent appears as if he’s been there all along, and is treated accordingly by Samantha and meddling mother Endora (Agnes Moorehead). It’s also odd seeing Johnny Whitaker of Family Affair playing Jack (of beanstalk fame) come to life, since he was still starring in that show at the time. My guess is that Bewitched went into production shortly before Family Affair that season, allowing Whitaker to do one TV guest spot before resuming his regular role.

Whatever the case, Bewitched lived on, even though the original cast had one major revision. “Who is that strange man?” or not, it proved durable enough to last three more years, so there must have been some magic left in Montgomery’s twitchy nose (which was really more a matter of her twitching her mouth — just try twitching only your nose sometime!).

MPI seals the deal with ‘Family Affair’

February 19, 2008

During the Writers Guild of America strike, I was solidly behind the writers. Movies and TV shows need them far more than the corporate bean counters across the table — and so do viewers and fans. But now that it’s done and the dust has cleared, it’s clear that the strike took a big toll. Even shows that are allowed to rush back to work are losing episodes and story arcs originally planned for this season, while some series on the bubble may not return at all.

In effect, DVDs have an equivalent to this, especially for long-ago-finished old series. That’s because DVDs, produced and distributed by a variety of studios and labels, have no set rules for releasing and completing a series’ run. As a result, vintage TV is often left in the lurch, with token or sporadic releases that can be even more limiting and damaging than if writers in their day had gone on strike too.

Take beloved sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver, Hazel and My Favorite Martian. Each has had DVD exposure, but only to a point. Beaver ran six seasons, but only two are on DVD, with no sign of a third since the second season reached disc almost two years ago. Martian ran three seasons, and Rhino released the first two but has no plans to complete the process. Hazel ran for five years, but since the first season hit DVD, that’s been it. (more…)

Western James Bond owed much to James Dean-molded actor

January 2, 2008

Now that TV series are such big sellers on DVD, wouldn’t it be nice if more extra features were provided? I mean, they’re making enough money to merit extras, right?

Take The Wild Wild West, whose third season recently emerged from Paramount and CBS DVD. It’s a wonderful package with fine sound and picture quality, but unlike season one, it has no extras. Zip. Nada.

Then again, even when shows do get extras, they don’t always do the job. Take warm ’60s dramedy Family Affair, for which MPI has added interviews and featurettes for all four seasons reaching DVD so far. But none has ever acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in the room, that being the fact that little Anissa Jones, who played sweetums twin Buffy, died just five years after the show ended, at age 18, from a drug overdose. Heck, even the season four DVD roundtable talk among the show’s child actors, with a cautionary look at pitfalls and dark sides, never mentioned poor Anissa’s fate, though it hardly could have been more germane.

Wild Wild West has a similarly sad lineage, at least when it comes to a two-time guest star on the show, Nick Adams.

Adams was essentially his era’s poor man’s James Dean, having appeared with Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and, devastated by Dean’s early death, then becoming a mercurial actor often cast as a “troubled young man.” That included his role in The Outer Limits episode Fun and Games, several years after Adams starred in his own TV western, The Rebel.

Adams was a friend to young Conrad Robert Falk, and encouraged the family man to  move from his home of Chicago to Hollywood in the 1950s and become an actor, too. The two appeared together in the 1965 film Young Dillinger just before Falk, renamed Robert Conrad, got cast in the soon to be hit show The Wild  Wild West.

It melded the James Bond spy craze to Old West settings (and some modern anachronisms), with Conrad starring as kick-butt Secret Service agent James West and Ross Martin playing his disguise-expert partner, Artemus Gordon.

Conrad later got his pal Adams cast twice on the show. First was a first-season episode called The Night of the Two-Legged Buffalo, in which Adams played a dangerously mischievious foreign prince with a smirk and a smile. Next was an episode for the new season four box set called The Night of the Vipers. In it, Adams plays a surly, suspicious sheriff, and though the show was in color (only year one of WWW was in B&W), it’s a pallid performance and little more than a one-note cameo.

What goes unsaid, along with everything else on the set (look, ma — no extras!), is that Adams, too, succumbed from drug use, at age 36, reportedly after an accidental overdose of medication he was using for nerves. That was in February of 1968, less than a month after his second and final Wild Wild West appearance aired.

Hollywood is littered with such stories, which seem even worse (yet somehow wryly humorous) in such contexts as Kenneth Anger’s two Hollywood Babylon tomes of the tawdry. Yet such sordid sagas aren’t necessarily an indictment of the show-biz company town. People die from drug overdoses in the “real” world, too — they just aren’t as high profile to draw as much notice. And plenty of actors, like Conrad, survive to a ripe old age.

Even so, with today’s DVDs of vintage shows casting so little light on their actors’ lives, you’d think every Nick Adams and Anissa Jones lived like Ward and June Cleaver, with hardly a care in the world. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a rich tapestry of relationships and lives, including the special bond between Conrad and Adams, those close friends who came together again for The Wild Wild West, just before fate wrenched them apart forever.