This week we’ve got a bit of a treat for fans of classic TV sitcoms. Three of the most popular and influential series of the black-and-white era make their way to Blu-ray with tons of extras and the like. We’ve also got a crowd-funded caper film, a big lizard fighting other big things, some of the Master of Suspense’s best, celebratory comedies, and robots in disguise.
Beginning in 1951, the misadventures of a housewife who dreams of being famous (Lucille Ball) and her exasperated Cuban entertainer husband (Desi Arnaz) became one of the biggest shows of the 1950s (and all time), running from 1951-1957, and a staple of Nick At Nite and syndication everywhere. This spiffy new Blu-ray set gathers all 35 episodes of the first season in truly gorgeous HD form, with a smattering of extras both old and new.
Lucy and her husband Ricky live in an apartment in New York City which they rent from their neighbors/friends, the Mertzes, Fred (William Frawley) and Ethel (Vivian Vance). Each week, Lucy makes some kind of mistake which leads to a big embarrassment or misunderstanding, usually at Ricky’s club, and always with hilarious results. Some of the standout episodes for this season are “Lucy Thinks Ricky Is Trying to Murder Her,” which is just as silly as it sounds; “The Audition,” in which Lucy fills in for a clown on Ricky’s show (and it’s delightful); “The Fur Coat,” wherein Lucy thinks a mink coat is for her but it’s really part of Ricky’s act and he doesn’t want to break her heart so he fakes a burglary… I know…; and the immortal “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” in which she attempts to sell the magical elixir “Vitameatavegamin” on live TV without realizing it’s 23% alcohol.
Lucille Ball was really a genius, both comedically and in the business world. I Love Lucy was made by Desilu Productions, which she founded with Arnaz, a company that would go on to produce other huge TV shows like Mannix, Mission: Impossible, and, of course, Star Trek.
Aside from terrific video and audio quality, the set also contains tons of amazing extras, including the unaired pilot episode, the 1990 special about that episode, episodes of Lucille Ball’s radio show My Favorite Husband, home movies, flubs, and audio commentaries. Perhaps my favorite feature on this set, though, is the option to watch the episodes with their original sponsor material. When it premiered in 1951, I Love Lucy was sponsored solely by Phillip Morris cigarettes, and so we get stick figure cartoons of Lucy and Ricky running around a giant cigarette pack at the beginning, and for each commercial break we get a man in a business suit telling us that the average smoker inhales over 200 times a day, and if they would like less throat, nose, and lung irritating, they should switch to the milder Phillip Morris. I can’t help but find these hilarious in just how earnestly they were trying to say that this brand of cancer machine was healthier than the rest.
Overall, this set is immaculate, and is a must for any fans of the program or of just old television in general.
For most of my life, I knew OF The Honeymooners more than I actually knew it. I knew about “To the moon, Alice!,” and I knew that they watch it in Back to the Future, and I knew it was the general basis for The Flintstones. But all of that was more a zeitgeist thing than any knowledge. In fact, I had assumed that the series was famous because it was so old, older than most of the other sitcoms out there. Incorrect: The stand-alone sitcom (it had been part of Jackie Gleason’s variety show before and after the series) premiered in 1955 well after other behemoths like I Love Lucy and The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. The Honeymooners only lasted a single year of 39 episodes, but yet it’s still considered a classic. How come?
Well, I can’t say I find too much of it funny, but I think I sort of understand the appeal, and it certainly has become influential. It’s the prototype for sitcoms still being produced today – you’ve got your oafish, scheming husband (in this case Ralph Kramden played by Jackie Gleason), you’ve got the wife who is for some reason still married to the big idiot (Audrey Meadows), you’ve got the dimwitted best friend/neighbor/butt of most of the lead’s jokes (Art Carney), and you have his ditzy and uncomplicated wife (Joyce Randolph). That formula is used so often, I wouldn’t doubt if executives decree “Give me a Honeymooners.”
I think the show became so popular because, unlike the two older series I mentioned above, The Honeymooners was about working class schlubs and not the upper-middle that purveyed most television. The Kramdens (a play on the term “Crammed in.” It’s funny) live in a two-room hovel of an apartment and don’t even have basic creature comforts like a washing machine, an electric stove, or, as we see in the first episode, a television set. Ralph makes a very tiny salary as a bus driver but he’s also incredibly cheap, so he won’t even spend the money he does make. Ed and Trixie Norton are similarly broke, but they buy tons of things on credit. The men are always trying to get rich quick and the women are always longing for slightly better than meager surroundings. It’s sad, but it’s also so sad it’s funny.
The episodes were all performed live, so most of the action is in the Kramdens’ apartment done in one take, which is a skill nobody on TV really has anymore. With the exception of Ralph constantly threatening physical violence on Alice for daring to have opinions, The Honeymooners is good wholesome entertainment.
This set isn’t nearly as packed with extras as the others, but you do get a couple of promos, a Buick dealer presentation, a 60 Minutes profile of Jackie Gleason from 1984, and both the 35th and 50th Anniversary specials. For not being on TV very long, The Honeymooners sure does have staying power.
Beginning in 1960, The Andy Griffith Show is a sitcom produced altogether differently and would be the way most sitcoms were in the 1960s. Shot entirely on film on location, not in front of a live studio audience, the series showed the denizens of the fictional and quaint Mayberry, NC, and its chief resident, Sheriff Andy Taylor, who is pretty much the only one in town who can get anything accomplished or settle neighborhood disputes. He does it all with a smile and a whistle, of course.
Joining the single father Andy are his son Opie (Ron Howard), whose main occupation is catching frogs and making life more difficult for Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), who comes to look after Opie after Andy’s housekeeper gets married and moves away, as well as Andy’s cousin and deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), who is perhaps the least suitable person to be in charge of anything, but therein lies the comedy.
This set contains all 32 Season 1 episodes of the series, all looking gorgeous, of course (seriously, CBS really knows how to clean up their series for Blu-ray release), as well as a host of extras, including the episode of The Danny Thomas Show in which Andy Griffith plays a prototype of his Mayberry character, on-set home movies by the Howards, and the entire Return to Mayberry TV movie, in cast you want to be nostalgic immediately. Again, here, we have original sponsor materials, Sanka Coffee this time. In what looks like just another scene from the episode, Andy and Opie talk about something and then eventually they start talking about Sanka. It’s funny and weird every time, but that’s how TV was done back in them days.
The Veronica Mars Movie – You made this movie exist!
Godzilla vs. Hedorah – An early-’70s outing for the giant lizard, in which he has to defeat a horrible smog monster.
Godzilla vs. Gigan – The same but with a different monster.
Ebirah – Horror of the Deep – The same but with a more different monster.
Transformers Energon – All 52 episodes of the 2004 incarnation of the machines that turn into things.
Rear Window – Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a man who can’t walk witnessing a murder across the street.
Vertigo – Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a private detective with heights issues becoming obsessed with a mysterious blonde he’s been hired to follow.
The Birds – Hitchcock’s masterpiece (‘cuz they’re all masterpieces) about a small seaside town that is suddenly besieged by our fine feathered friends.
Revenge of the Nerds – Join the pledges of Lambda Lambda Lambda as they give the jocks some comeuppance.
Blazing Saddles – The 40th Anniversary of Mel Brooks’ taboo-busting western parody.