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DVD SAVANT
Review of two separate DVD releases:

Prime Time TV from the Early Days:
One Step Beyond; Gangbusters & Dragnet


One Step Beyond;
Gangbusters and Dragnet

Nostalgia Ventures / National Film Museum, Inc.
1953-1961 / b&w / 1:33 flat / 2 x 156 min.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Working and selling from the web as Nostalgia Ventures, these Prime Time collections of famous old television episodes may be licensed and official, but they play like better-than-average quality Public Domain material. Interest in the television programming of the 50s and 60s is growing, and the examples here range from fascinating to ho-hum, as one would expect. The quality is reasonable but not exceptional, as I'll detail below.

The Prime Time TV series offers groupings of 6 b&w half-hour episodes in double-disc packages - Topper and One Step Beyond each occupy their own set, while other series are paired up as follows: Dragnet and Gangbusters, My Little Margie and Trouble With Father, The Cisco Kid and Robin Hood, Mr. and Mrs. North and Dangerous Assignment, Sherlock Holmes and Racket Squad. Each two-disc set is bargain-priced at 9.98, and at that price, are indeed a bargain. Savant viewed two sets.

One Step Beyond was an extremely popular show about paranormal phenomena with a two year run, that never rivaled The Twilight Zone or Thriller, but had its creepy high points. Host John Newland introduced every episode with an unblinking, dead serious monologue that makes you think he's himself possessed - he's an upscale, convincing version of Ed Wood's Criswell, complete with strange lighting effects. He also returns at the end of each show, sometimes stepping into the set as would Rod Serling, to offer a 'do you believe?' post-mortem. It all passes as rather corny now, especially after the predictable kinds of ghost-story activity in the shows, but host Newland has an impressive presence. One would think he could have become an effective horror star.

Newland also directed the shows, and he's not at all bad. The episodes have several well-lit settings and each features a solid starring performance, and even if the story is weak, the actors are not. Savant sampled three of the six shows: Goodbye Grandpa stars character actor Edgar Stehli as a dying old man ridiculed for telling tales about his past working on the railroad; the show is a good one-act play that ends in an (offscreen) appearance of a ghost train to back up his stories. The Sorcerer is an elaborately-mounted account of a German officer in WW1 who insists he is guilty of a murder that took place 800 miles away. Christopher Lee fans will want to see his turn as the confused German bewitched by a clairvoyant farmer (Martin Benson) who somehow pushes him through a wall in France, to appear in his girlfriend Gabriela Licudi's house in Berlin. The high-caliber acting helps get past the perfunctory story. With its mostly English cast, it may have been filmed in the U.K.. The Dark Room is the weakest story but has the best acting from young Cloris Leachman as a photographer in Paris who sees ghosts in her rented house. She makes it work, and her screaming flight from a murderous ghost is pretty good stuff.

The quality of the episodes on the disc Savant watched was not the best. They all appear to be 16mm prints that have been 'trimmed' for further syndication,  1 with additional footage missing here and there - there's no John Newland introduction on The Sorcerer, which is also missing the 'wavy' optical that starts its flashback. The Dark Room's end credits have been at least partially replaced with credits from a different episode - The Lover starring Vanessa Brown and John Beal! So there's plenty of room for improvement on these, both quality and honesty-wise.


The second disc of crime shows has much better quality. Racket Busters looks fine, and Dragnet has variable sources, but is at least intact.

Dragnet is fascinating on a number of counts. The early 50s were experimental years, as TV producers tried hard to find ways to get 40 episodes on the air per year while spending as little as possible. Action shows were the toughest, as they required multiple settings and coordination, while the schedule probably called for a show to be finished every two or three days.

Excellent film character actor and radio star Jack Webb hit paydirt with this 'law 'n order' series filmed with the cooperation of the notorious Parker adminstration of the L.A.P.D (referenced in L.A. Confidential's 'Badge of Honor' show). Each show had couple of minutes of radio-style filler in the form of a voiceover opening and closing. Webb introduced the city in a speech lifted from the earlier noir feature He Walked by Night, which itself owed a debt to The Naked City. At the end, another minute was padded with a supposedly true epilogue showing the miscreant criminals sentenced to long crimes, in speedy trials. In between was the actual story, which itself was mostly filler - ridiculous small talk between Joe Friday (Webb) and his sidekick (early movie star Ben Alexander). The meat of the show consisted of interviews with crime victims and witnesses, all of whom seem to be total idiots, if only to make the cops look more rational. Extra wide master-shots go on forever, and then each scene becomes a series of tightly-composed head shots of quickly-delivered dialogue. The relentless pace wasn't just Webb's personal taste, it also seems to have been his way of making the show easy to direct and film in tiny pieces. By cleverly manipulating backgrounds, Webb could film the majority of his own closeups for the entire season's worth of shows in a couple of days. The unchanging tone and pace of the dialogue would allow it all to be cut together.

The Big Bank Robbery tasks Friday (and us) with 'comic' interviews with a fussy bank manager and his idiot security guard, and a nosy housewife who makes the detectives rearrange the furniture, and then tips off her crook neighbor just as Friday is trying to pull off a raid. The episode stresses the police necessity of interviewing the neighbors and friends of suspects, but doesn't detail the unnecessary suspicions this might create. The Big Girl sends the pair on the trail of a female thug who beats up her victims, and who - duh - turns out to be a man in drag. An almost unrecognizable Carolyn Jones has some good schtick as a pistol-toting vamp they nab along the way. The unwritten message is that cross-dressers are criminals, but only a little more suspicious than real women, who lie and pack illegal weapons. One of the colorful characters is ace film designer Harper Goff, who worked on Webb's Pete Kelly's Blues. Webb must have had himself a jolly time handing out the personal favors while producing this show. The Big 17 is one of Webb's ludicrous anti-drug episodes, that became really annoying in his reprise of the series in the late '60s. Decent teens play with marijuana and immediately kill themselves by upgrading to overdoses of heroin. The kids pictured are all squeaky clean and the show seems to think that their proper place is being held prisoner in their bedrooms by overzealous parents. Their real crime disobedience, which they pay for with their lives.

The Dragnet Episodes are intact, but look more 'dupey' than the One Steps; sometimes the frequent stock footage seems to be a bad kinescope. But because of the constant closeups, they play rather well - as they would have with the bad TV reception of 1953. The intact spoken introductions and jailbird epilogues help the overall experience as well.

Gangbusters is a lot of fun, even though it's practically forgotten now. Each episode jams a feature's worth of plot into 25 minutes via fast-paced editorial hi-jinks - narration, stock shots galore, and graphic images that seem more like slide-show wallpaper to back up the tough-talking voiceover. Starting with a partly-animated jailbreak title sequence which riffs from from the pistol-in-your-face opening of the Superman TV series, the show moves at a lightning pace. The Alvin Karpis story does a swift docu recap of the notorious bank robber's career, placing it all in the late 50s even though it happened in 1933-35! Main characters like Karpis and Ma Barker are introduced firing a machine gun into the camera. There are some complete dramatic scenes toward the end, with Karpis extorting a plastic surgery makeover for himself, and being captured - on the Santa Monica pier, filling in for the midwest! But the majority of the show is stock footage reworked by ace editor Terry Morse, who repeats shots by flopping them and steals pieces of the aforementioned He Walked by Night to illustrate Karpis' reign of terror without actually having to show any of it.  2 The Burl Case is a less colorful but also less frantic tale of a womanizing 'nice guy' con man and thief; his main moll is Pamela Duncan from Attack of the Crab Monsters. The Old Trapper is a lot like this year's The Hunted, as the G-Men use a tracking expert to run down a forest-dwelling hermit, played in high style by John Carradine.

Gangbusters must have been mastered from better 16mm elements. The image is sharper than the other two and there are fewer splices. Like the others, it's both basic entertainment and a nostalgic look at an earlier era of TV.


Web-seller Nostalgia Ventures is an independent company that sounds a lot like the old 'Nostalgia Merchant' public domain VHS label. Its logo shares each disc with that of 'National Film Museum, Inc.', a company that seemingly wants us to think it is an archive or other non-profit devoted to film preservation (there's a dedication to such at the front of the disc), when it is simply another commercial company. I looked up One Step Beyond on Amazon, and found other companies selling compliations - Reel Value/Navarre; E-Realbiz. Their names make me think they're public domain packagers as well. Television fans interested in these old shows, and who aren't adverse to seeing them in less than prime quality, will enjoy Nostalgia Ventures' affordable compilations.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
One Step Beyond and Gangbusters/Dragnet rate:
TV shows: Always interesting
Video: Good- to Fair+
Sound: Fair+, sometimes muddy.
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 28, 2003


Footnotes:

1. 50s television shows typically ran as long as 26 minutes, allowing 4 min. for commercials. When they were resold as strip filler in later years, the FCC had allowed more minutes of commercials per half-hour, so the episodes had to be made shorter. Intros & epilogues were dropped. Sometimes the stage waits at the beginning of fadeups were chopped, as were the pregnant pauses before chapter fades. Savant had a friend at an editorial house whose job it was in 1976 to shorten 100 Ozzie and Harriet episodes by 5 minutes each. At the time we didn't know he was working from dupe negatives, so we thought we were ruining the shows.
Nowadays, many cable companies fix the length problem by time-compressing the shows, speeding them up (in my opinion) into an unwatchable mess of jerky movements and exaggerated timing.

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2. Besides being a well-known 'movie doctor', whipping many a hapless feature into sellable (if not award-winning) shape, Terrell O. Morse was responsible for editing and directing Raymond Burr into an extremely successful (and clever) reworking of Toho's Godzilla.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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