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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #37 and New Announcements

This edition of the column focuses on recent releases of mainly classic TV shows on DVD. I've sampled nine such releases and have short review comments for your consideration. Included are, from Paramount - Hawaii Five-0: The First Season, I Love Lucy: The Final Seasons 7, 8 & 9, Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1, The Streets of San Francisco: Season 1, Volume 1, The Untouchables: Season 1, Volume 1, The Wild Wild West: The Second Season; from MGM - The Magnificent Seven: Season Two; from VCI - Craig Kennedy, Criminologist; and from Questar - Funniest Moments of Comedy.

As usual, I've also compiled the latest new announcements of classic releases on DVD and HD, and they will be found following the reviews.


Reviews

MGM has carried through on its initial season offering two years ago of The Magnificent Seven TV series with the show's remaining episodes - The Magnificent Seven: Season Two.

The Magnificent Seven: Season Two

The set contains the final 13 episodes on three discs. When these shows were broadcast in 1999-2000, there wasn't a great deal of competition from other western programs so it could be said that at that time, any western would have looked pretty good no matter what its quality level was. Fortunately, The Magnificent Seven series was above average in terms of its cast, stories, and production values. All seven of the group are interesting and fairly distinct characters, each generally having some past misdeed or misfortune to deal with. The main ones are those of leader Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn) whose wife and child were brutally murdered and Vin Tanner (Eric Close) who is wanted for a murder he didn't commit. Only Chris's situation is given complete closure by the series finale. Otherwise, each character gets to be the centre of attention in one or more of the episodes with minor sub-plots focusing on one or more of the others. Generally, the whole group gets drawn into the final resolution of each episode. The group of seven actors playing the group remained together throughout the series' run and the ensemble cast exhibited a good degree of chemistry making the time spent with them on each episode a pleasant experience. Aside from Biehn and Close, the other "Seven" members are J.D. Dunne (played by Andrew Kavovit), Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy), and Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman). All (with the occasional exception of Ron Perlman) look comfortable playing western characters. Robert Vaughan appears in some of the episodes as a judge, providing a nice link back to the original theatrical film. The best of the thirteen episodes in the second season (most filmed at Melody Ranch) are "Sins of the Past" (Vin is finally arrested for the murder he didn't commit and crosses pathes with the actual killer), "Vendetta" (Chris's father-in-law reveals who apparently killed Chris's wife), "Chinatown" (the group unite to protect a camp of immigrant workers), "Achilles" (one of the group is much affected when he accidentally kills an innocent bystander during a failed bank robbery), and "Vendetta" (a surprising resolution of the murder of Chris's family). MGM's DVD release is fairly consistent in quality with its first season set. The full frame image is sharp and nicely detailed most of the time. Excessive grain is apparent at times, however, and there is some weak shadow detail in darker scenes. Colour is somewhat muted although it does appear accurate. The stereo sound is clear and strong, and adds a decent degree of presence in the action scenes. A Spanish stereo track and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. Unfortunately there is no supplementary material. The episodes do not strike me as being time compressed or incomplete, but the speed with which the closing credits roll by makes one wonder. It's so fast that they're almost impossible to read and if that's actually how they were originally presented, they do a distinct disservice to the cast and crew who worked on the series. Otherwise, an easy recommendation for western fans.

Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1

An even better bet for western fans is Paramount's release of Rawhide: The Second Season, Volume 1, available in conjunction with CBS DVD. It contains the first 16 episodes of the 1959-60 season on 4 discs, which are efficiently packaged in a single Amaray-sized case for shelf-space-starved collectors. Rawhide was one of, if not the best, westerns of its era and remains in the current consciousness chiefly because of Clint Eastwood's role as Rowdy Yates. Clint though was only part of what was a very strong ensemble cast led by Eric Fleming as trail boss Gil Favor and including Sheb Wooley as Pete Nolan, Paul Brinegar as Wishbone, and Steve Raines as Jim Quince. An additional strong point was the show's writing and the first half of the second season is a good example. Not only are the stories interesting, many also introduce themes that go beyond traditional western plot-lines. Good examples include "Incident at River Station", which deals with smallpox vaccine and the then-current fear of such a modern approach to dealing with an illness hitherto treated by bleeding with leeches or wearing small herb bags. "Incident of the Blue Fire" finds the men fearful of the consequences for the herd when there's an occurrence of St. Elmo's Fire during a lightning storm, while "Incident at Dangerfield Dip" relates the finding of a baby on the range to the willful contamination of the whole herd by a gang intent on extorting money from Favor in order to provide him with the medical treatment his cattle will then require. Even when the plots are more traditional though, the dialogue is thoughtfully written; there's entertaining interplay among the main players; and there's an adequate action to satisfy western fans. As with the first season DVD release, this latest set appears to contain the complete episodes without time compression. The DVD presentation is pretty consistent in quality with the first season release. The correctly presented full frame images, all black and white, are quite crisp and clear, although subject to some speckling and characterized by light grain at times. The mono sound is in good shape, but there are no subtitles nor any supplements. Three-or four-line summaries and airdates for each episode are included on the inner liners of the disc case. Recommended.

The Wild Wild West: The Second Season

Don't let The Wild Wild West, the 1999 feature film abomination, dissuade you from enjoying the 1965-69 TV series of the same name. The Wild Wild West: The Second Season (from Paramount and CBS DVD) gives us another dose of James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin), secret service agents in the old west with their own train, who seem to run into some sort of madman in every town or territory they pass through. The series is a bizarre combination of the western, spy, and science fiction genres that works quite well principally due to the engaging combination of Conrad and Martin (equally as impressive in exchanging well-turned phrases as participating in old-fashioned western action), and an inspired approach to casting their various antagonists. For this second season, that includes the likes of Victor Buono, Michael Dunn, Agnes Moorehead, Carroll O'Connor, Ed Begley, Ida Lupino, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. We also get the use of colour for the first time and it proves to be a plus, at least in terms of heightening the impact of the series' often surreal happenings. The ratio of good to mediocre episodes remains high (about 3:1) in this second season of 28 outings, with the most memorable episodes being those with Michael Dunn as West's chief nemesis Dr. Loveless ("The Night of the Raven", "The Night of the Green Terror", "The Night of the Surreal McCoy", "The Night of the Bogus Bandits"), with Agnes Moorehead ("The Night of the Vicious Valentine"), and "The Night of the Poisonous Posey". The DVD release follows the very good image and sound quality exhibited on the first season release. The image is crisp and clear with only minimal speckling and debris. The colour exhibits very good fidelity. The sound is clear and distortion free but there are no subtitles. Unfortunately it's not the 40th anniversary of the show's debut anymore, so there are no supplements whatsoever - not a great problem when you're getting over 24 hours of show content, but noticeable when compared to the commentaries and introductions by Robert Conrad that graced the first season set. An easy recommendation for fans of the show, but others should try a rental to see if the series is their cup of tea first.

Craig Kennedy, Criminologist

Unlike the western whose popularity waned after the 1960s, a genre of dramatic series that has persisted throughout the TV era is the police or detective one. Four different examples have been recently released. The earliest of them is Craig Kennedy, Criminologist, a series of mysteries produced for TV syndication in 35mm and comprising a total of 26 half-hour episodes aired in 1952. VCI has made 13 of them available on a two-disc set. The series starred Donald Woods in the title role of a private detective who uses scientific methods to solve crimes, sort of like an early CSI incarnation, to use VCI's publicity tagline. Other continuing roles were filled by 1950s TV stalwart Sydney Mason and 1943's Batman portrayer Lewis Wilson. Guest stars were common and included a number of second-line players such as B-western or serial performers Ralph Byrd, Phyllis Coates, Lane Bradford, Glenn Strange, and Jack Mulhall. The stories dramatized in the series are fairly simple but generally interesting mysteries with their resolutions reasonably well concealed for the most part. The acting and dialogue is uneven, however, and Donald Woods is not particularly charismatic even though he tries to convey a likable character. Given the 35mm source material, the full frame images look reasonably nice on DVD. Image clarity and contrast is good. Some speckles and scratches are evident and there is a modest amount of grain. The mono sound has some hiss but is quite acceptable. Supplements include bios for cast and crew bios, trailers for five VCI mystery releases, chapter one of the 1936's The Clutching Hand (a Craig Kennedy mystery serial from the same producers as the later TV series), a photo gallery, and text-based information on the history of the Kennedy character in print and on film. Early TV enthusiasts should find this to be a worthwhile rental.

The Untouchables: Season 1, Volume 1

One of the most popular and fondly-remembered shows debuting in 1959 was The Untouchables. Paramount and CBS DVD have teamed up to bring us Season 1, Volume 1 on four discs conveniently packaged in a single Amaray case. Some people will only be familiar with the excellent 1987 feature film The Untouchables starring Kevin Costner that chronicled Eliot Ness and his federal agents' attempts to bring Al Capone to justice during Chicago's Prohibition era and its aftermath. If you enjoyed that, I think you'll also find the earlier TV series to be to your liking. Those of us who grew up with the original series won't have to be persuaded, however. Memories of Robert Stack's steely no-nonsense portrayal of Eliot Ness, Walter Winchell's distinctively-voiced narration, a fine supporting cast of Paul Picerni, Nicholas Georgiade, Abel Fernandez, and Steve London as Ness's special agent team, and the series' driving theme music rest fondly in the mind, not to mention the numerous guest stars who played continuing characters in multiple episodes during the series four-season run from 1959-60 to 1962-63 (Bruce Gordon as Frank Nitti and Nehemiah Persoff as Jake Guzak, for example were most ubiquitous, but there were many appearing in only two or three episodes, such as Jack Warden, Telly Savalas, Luther Adler, Lee Marvin, Martin Landau, Cloris Leachman, Vic Morrow, Steve Cochran, Lee Van Cleef, Barry Morse, Barbara Stanwyck). Interestingly, Al Capone (played by Neville Brand) was disposed of in the series' two-part pilot program (later released in a seamless movie version known as The Scarface Mob) and the series mainly focused on his gang successors thereafter although historically, Ness's main work in Chicago climaxed with Capone's conviction for income tax evasion. In addition to its cast, narration and music aspects, the series has a pleasing melodramatic touch to it and nicely evokes the 20s and 30s through its noir-like lighting and editing styles. The Untouchables: Season 1, Volume 1 gives us the first 14 of the series episodes plus the movie The Scarface Mob, which one can consider to be a supplement depending upon how charitable you feel. There are no other extras. The full frame images look sharp and nicely detailed. There are some minor speckling and a few scratches, but overall, as with the Perry Mason sets that Paramount/CBS is offering, fans should be very pleased. The mono sound is fine. Recommended.

Hawaii Five-0: The First Season

"Book 'em, Danno" can mean only one thing; Hawaii Five-0 has arrived. Paramount and CBS DVD have released a seven-disc (four slimcases) collection of The First Season - all 24 episodes plus the original TV pilot Cocoon (shown as a two-part episode when the series went into syndication, but happily presented here in the original pilot movie form). The series first aired in 1968-69 and lasted for 12 seasons becoming the longest running police series up until that time. Starring Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett, head of the crack Five-0 state police investigative unit based in Honolulu, and featuring James MacArthur as Danny "Danno" Williams, Kam Fong as Chin Ho Kelly, and Zulu as Komo Kalakaua, the series was noteworthy for its Hawaiian locations (all episodes were entirely shot in Hawaii) and generally interesting and usually adult story lines. The McGarrett (tough, no nonsense) and Williams (emotional, impetuous) characters played off well against each other while the others added at least a semblance of local authenticity to the unit. Guest stars were common, with this first season featuring the likes of Kevin McCarthy, Khigh Dhiegh (as ongoing McGarrett nemesis Wo Fat), Tommy Sands, Sal Mineo, Farley Granger, Ricardo Montalban, Nancy Wilson, and Sally Kellerman. The DVD presentation continues Paramount/CBS's fine work with its classic TV releases. The images are sharp with good colour fidelity, with only the odd stray speckle evident. The mono sound is in very good shape and as is becoming more common with such TV releases, a Spanish track and English, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also provided. There is one bonus feature and it's a good one - "Emme's Island Memories: Memories of Hawaii Five-0", an informative and entertaining look back at the series by local broadcaster Emme Tomimbang and co-host James MacArthur (originally broadcast in Hawaii in 1996). Recommended.


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