I had one of the most emotional holiday experiences of my life many years ago when I visited my childhood home in Salt Lake City, taking some pictures of it in the winter snow, and was invited in to look around by the current owners. It brought back such an overwhelming sense of time and place that I was close to tears by the time I left. One of my strongest memories of that tiny house (which seemed like a mansion to me as a little boy) was running home from school every day to catch Password with my Mom over my usual lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Fritos and two Oreo cookies. I remember quite clearly to this day begging my Mom on a virtual daily basis to let me stay at least through the first "lightning round" before I ran out the door and back to the school grounds. Watching this wonderful 4 DVD set brought back so many memories for me, but it made me totally aware, as I watched my own young son shouting out clues as he watched these DVDs along with me, that Password helped develop my love for language in a very real sense, and effortlessly built my vocabulary to boot.
Game shows in days of yore had none of the whistles and just a few of the bells (literally in Password's case, for what I imagine was a hand-rung signifier of a winning match) of such modern over-the-top ballyhoo like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. And yet I can't imagine anyone extracting half as much entertainment value from a DVD 40 years hence of the Philbin-Viera quiz fest when compared to this admittedly technically primitive piece of early to mid 60s television arcana. Host Allen Ludden virtually personifies the word "geek," what with his oversized glasses and gangly, goofy smile. But Ludden was undeniably smart (he was, in fact, holder of a Masters in English and a member of Phi Beta Kappa) and more than that, he was completely at ease with both the hoi polloi contestants as well as an alarmingly high grade of celebrity who visited the show regularly.
Half of the fun of watching these 1962-1967 episodes, all but the last disc from Password's weekly nighttime version, is seeing A-list film and television stars in what for them was probably an unusual and slightly unsettling setting. Some of the well-chosen episodes included are Password's inaugural nighttime episode from January 1962 (taped the day after Christmas, 1961), with Carol Burnett and Garry Moore trading faux-anger as Burnett wipes the floor with Moore. Later episodes up the celebrity ante quite a bit, however, with such luminaries as the entire Jimmy Stewart family (wife and twin daughters), Sammy Davis, Jr. battling his Rat Pack buddy Peter Lawford, as well as a very funny and charming foray with Lucille Ball, Gary Morton, and Desi, Jr. and Lucie Arnaz. In fact you get to see Lucy almost let loose with an unacceptable swear word, which she catches herself from uttering in the nick of time, slyly winking at the audience. A few minutes later, there's some hilarity when the first clue which emerges from the desk as part of the lightning round almost throws Desi, Jr. backwards out of his seat. It's these unrehearsed, off the cuff moments that made Password such a joy to watch, and that joy is still palpable now 45 years on.
There's a panoply of unexpected celebrities dotting many of the episodes, including Jane Fonda (in her early 60s glam mode with more eye makeup than Barbarella), Woody Allen (not very self-effacing as he brags about What's New, Pussycat's record breaking boxoffice--in all of the two theaters it had opened at thus far), and a kind of smarmy Jack Palance who attempts to crack a proto-feminist joke to an audience that must not have yet heard of Betty Friedan. In fact one of the interesting sociological phenomena to notice about the five years this set covers is how the early female contestants are all housewives, rating only an "are you married?" question from Ludden, while by the time the mid-60s arrives, you start to get actual career women, some with rather impressive jobs.
Several episodes of course feature Ludden's longtime wife, Betty White, including an episode evidently taped directly after their marriage, which includes some not so subtle jabs at Ludden by co-contestant Jack Parr (and keep your eyes peeled during the audience shots in a lot of other episodes--Betty is out there enjoying the show in a lot of them). Parr also provides an amazing moment giving a completely self-serving and hilarious clue for the word "me" that actually gets a correct guess right off the bat. It had to make me wonder momentarily if the game show rigging era had actually passed by then. Other episodes feature then-current television regulars like Arlene Francis, Jayne and Audrey Meadows, and Polly Bergen. The fourth disc of this set recreates at least most of the first week of daily color broadcasts from 1967, featuring CBS stars whose prime-time shows were premiering that week, like Martin Landau and Barbara Bain of Mission: Impossible and Brian Keith of Family Affair.
One thing astute viewers will notice is the re-use of several words, notably (and quite strangely), "ankle." It's hilarious to watch a befuddled Joan Crawford give the most patently strange and frankly Freudian series of clues for what should really be an easy word, while a couple of years later Lucy nails it with Desi, Jr. in about three clues. "Attorney" also pops up more than once, and one of the funnier moments is during a lightning round when the civilian contestant is, in fact, an attorney and is given about every synonym you can think of and still barely manages to guess correctly before the time runs out.
The first four discs contain black and white episodes, complete with sponsorship bumpers. The fourth disc, while sporting the early color episodes, unfortunately edits out the sponsor info, thereby badly editing Password's catchy triadic theme music, as well as quickly cutting to black when Ludden is about to announce the first commercial. I have to wonder why that was done only for the color episodes--I can't imagine any potential sponsor being more politically incorrect or unlicensable than the Salem cigarette spots that dot the first three discs.
Password, as with all great game shows, relied on a simple concept but adorned it with a charming host and a parade of usually extremely smart celebrities matched with some great contestants. This little boxed set time capsule is a wonderful treasure trove of memories for those of us who grew up with shows like this, You Don't Say, To Tell the Truth, and What's My Line?.
All of these full frame episodes include clapper taping information, which is kind of cool. It looks to me that the first year to year and a half may have been preserved on kinescope--they have a fairly soft, low-contrast look, with something akin to anamorphic squeezing on the left side of the image, as well as the diagonal missing corners that are usually a good clue of a kinescope source. That said, they're in remarkable condition for their age. Starting with about 1964, quality improves dramatically, with much sharper detail and better contrast. The color episodes have that ultra-red look that seemed to be the norm in 1967, though that doesn't diminish the bright blue-teal set. There's a bit of fuzziness in the color episodes, but nothing too distracting. There's nothing close to digital perfection here, but for me that was part of the charm of watching these.
Most of the soundtracks are pretty darned chipper for their age. There is some pretty bad damage to one or two, notably the very funny episode with Jack Benny and his daughter Joan, which suffers from omnipresent wobbliness and distortion. I'm sure that BCI decided to release this episode for its star wattage despite the soundtrack anomalies. No subtitles are available.
None are offered, and I for one have to wonder why an interview with Betty White couldn't have been put together.
The Password is "great." For any dedicated word-geek like I am, this is a Collector Series title. For the bulk of you less dismayed that no one seemed to think of the clue "construct" for "build," this wonderful set is still Highly Recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet