The Golden Age of Television
DVD year-end box sets
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., Nov. 27, 2009
The Golden Age of TelevisionThe Criterion Collection, $49.95
You know this new box set will be steeped in nostalgia – it's right there in the title, taken from a 1981 PBS series that rebroadcast these classic teleplays for the first time since their original Fifties broadcasts. And then there's John Frankenheimer, in a checkered blazer, earthy and gentlemen's-club gray: "If the magnetic tape had never been invented, I would still be doing live television." (This from the guy who gave us such big-screen thrills as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May and that silly vroom-vroomer Grand Prix.) "The problem is that after magnetic tape – and certain management changes at CBS – being a live television director was like being the village blacksmith after the invention of the automobile."
This new set collects eight of the finest productions to air on the likes of the United States Steel Hour, Kraft Television Theatre, and Playhouse 90. (Finest, yes, but grainy, too – remember, these were kinescope films, never intended for multiple rebroadcasts.) The 1981 PBS introductions provide context, not to mention a connect-the-dots of Golden Age players. Carl Reiner remembers fondly those "hairy, scary wonderful days" of live TV as he introduces The Comedian (1957), a trenchant, insider takedown of, you got it, live TV, written by future Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling (who also contributes the set's Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight). The Comedian earned universal praise for its star, Mickey Rooney, who recalled getting a laudatory telegram within hours of the broadcast from Paul Newman, who was coming off of his own triumph a year prior in the baseball drama Bang the Drum Slowly. It-girl Julie Harris appears as an Irish lass in the softy A Wind From the South (1955), and elsewhere she introduces Days of Wine and Roses (1958), which Frankenheimer directed and Fred Coe produced (when Frankenheimer was passed over to direct the feature version of Wine and Roses starring Jack Lemmon, he says, with welcome frankness, "It hurt like hell"). Scribe J.P. Miller recalls the late night he decided to call up Coe and pitch Wine and Roses, about a marriage destroyed by booze: "I knew in those days Fred would still be up drinking." Miller bursts out laughing. "Bless his heart." If the set – indeed the era – had a spiritual godfather, it may have been Coe; certainly his 1953 production of Marty was a stunner, setting a new bar for teleplays. Even more startling is the revelation that by the time the cast and crew sat down at the beginning of the week for Marty's first run-through, the (inestimable) writer Paddy Chayefsky hadn't finished tapping out the third act yet. Hairy, scary, wonderful days, indeed.
Also in Vintage TV
Zorro: The Complete First and Second Seasons (Disney DVD, $59.99 each); Hogan's Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant's Kollection (Paramount Home Video, $179.99); G.I. Joe: Complete Series Collector's Set (Shout! Factory, $145)