Though reviled when it was new, Gilligan's Island (1964-67) has undeniably become a television icon. Indeed, it's practically the center of the American pop culture universe. Some may argue the genuine affection so many of us have for this program is due solely to its familiarity through decades of inescapable reruns. Nevertheless, what producer-creator Sherwood Schwartz understood but critics were slow to realize was that the unpretentious slapstick and broad stereotypes of Gilligan's Island weren't its weakness. Rather, they were the show's greatest strengths.
The development of these elements can now be enjoyed in Gilligan's Island -- The Complete First Season a three-disc collection of the first 36 episodes (filmed in black and white), plus a generous if not definitive collection of extras.
For those living under a rock these past 40 years, Gilligan's Island is the story of seven castaways, trapped on an uncharted island in the South Pacific. They are, as the song goes, Gilligan (Bob Denver); the Skipper (Alan Hale, Jr.), too; the millionaire (Jim Backus) and his wife (Natalie Schafer); the movie star (Ginger, played by Tina Louise), and "the rest": the Professor (Russell Johnson) and Mary Ann (Dawn Wells). In nearly every episode, the castaways stumble upon some means to be rescued, but invariably Gilligan messes everything up, and the hapless band are back to where they started, with only each other on an island with "not a single luxury."
Schwartz likes to say that when he created the show he wanted the seven characters to be a microcosm of American life, to work through situations with the tiny island as their world. Maybe that accounts for one of the reasons so many have found the show appealing, that they can identify with the characters, broad as they are. It's certainly true that for years after Gilligan's Island was cancelled, everyone wondered what ever happened to the castaways and wanted to see them rescued, as if they were real, living people. (And they finally were rescued, in the hugely popular telefilm Rescue from Gilligan's Island, made some 15 years after the show went off the air.) Along the same lines, many people watching the show find themselves imaging how they would react to the kinds of situations the cast found themselves in week after week. They wonder how they themselves would try to find a way off the island, and what life would be like with such an inept stooge like Gilligan, a girl-next-door type like Mary Ann, or glamorous movie star like Ginger. Or driving around the island in a car made out of bamboo and coconuts.
The heart of the show, though, is the superb chemistry among the cast, especially Alan Hale and Bob Denver, who are like a TV version of Laurel and Hardy. Like Oliver Hardy, Hale was a seasoned character actor, cutting his teeth playing straight or comic heavies. Prior to becoming the Skipper, Hale's forte had been playing villains in Westerns. Both Hale and Denver have Laurel and Hardy's onscreen naturalness, and it's Hale's frustrated and exasperated reactions (like Hardy, frequently straight into the camera) that make Denver's schtick pay off. (Denver is only partly Laurel's babe in the woods; the character seems to be equal parts of Jerry Lewis's Kid and Denver's own Maynard G. Krebs.)
And like the classic two-reel format in which comedians like Laurel and Hardy excelled, Gilligan's broad stereotypes are entirely appropriate, just as the Irish cops, happy drunks, and extravagantly mustached heavies were in the short subjects of the 1920s and '30s.
Video & Audio
Warner Bros. has done a very nice job with this program, or perhaps the original elements were simply well preserved over the past forty years. In any case, Gilligan's Island looks darn near flawless, with its highly detailed image and solid blacks throughout. Even the unaired pilot (see below) looks brand new. The mono sound is just fine, reflecting the technical standards of the time.
In an unusual move, the extras for this boxed set are all found on the first side of the first disc. The most interesting of the extras is the show's original, unaired pilot, notable in that it features three other actors in place of Louise, Johnson, and Wells, and a calypso title tune instead of the iconic one ingrained in everyone's consciousness. It's easy to see why those parts were retooled and recast; for one thing, the other four actors have better screen presence, and their characters are easier to latch onto within the context of a 26-minute show. Moreover, the four that would stay hit the ground running, with a firm understanding and expert playing of the roles that would earn them all their immortality. One can easily see how actors like Russell Johnson were improvements -- the first professor is too generically handsome, like a TV Jeff Chandler -- and how the slapstick was refined when sections of the pilot were refilmed for later shows. The episode was shot mostly on location in Hawaii, and despite the added production expense, the cartoon-like unreality of the studio-bound palm trees and backlot lagoon ultimately work to the show's advantage.
Sherwood Schwartz provides an informative and nostalgic commentary track, which features a particularly sweet story about Hale visiting a children's hospital. A pop-up trivia option is offered for the first aired episode, "Two on a Raft." It features both general and screen-specific info on the program (e.g., the island under the end credits is Coconut Island, a tiny spot of land in Hawaii). "Before the Three Hour Tour" offers snippets from Schwartz's original treatment, describing the character's lives before taking that fateful voyage. The other extra is a notably lame "Survival Guide" trivia game, which features a particularly obnoxious host.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.