Image and Paul Brownstein Productions have once again given The Dick Van Dyke Show the super deluxe treatment, now with its newly-released third (1963-64) season. It might be argued that this landmark series's biggest concentration of great episodes fell immediately before and after its third year. Nonetheless, this classic show, "the Rolls-Royce of sitcoms," as one colleague calls it, maintains a remarkably high batting average. And even after two seasons worth of supplements, the Brownstein/Image team shows no sign of letting up, packing this set with an impressive array of extras.
The season gets off to a great start with its very first show, "Thatfs My Boy?," in which comedy writer / new father Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) is convinced that the maternity ward has accidentally given him the wrong baby. It's a great show with a wonderful twist ending. Van Dyke and series creator Carl Reiner fuss over its social significance in their audio commentary, but its importance (besides being very funny) is in how matter-of-fact this twist is handled. (Don't ask me. See the show.)
That episode also exemplifies the program's great strength and innovation in presenting the kinds of situations and emotions real young, married couples experience. (And co-star Mary Tyler Moore really was young, all of 24 when the show began!) Though it sometimes regresses into I Love Lucy showbiz antics, The Dick Van Dyke Show also depicts the Petries as real people who regularly express the kinds of hopes and frustrations its Kennedy generation audience of similar couples knew well.
The third season is also where producer-writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff really found their voice; after Reiner, they more than anyone else understood what made The Dick Van Dyke Show tick and especially how to write for its characters. Like Reiner's best shows, many of their episodes were semi-autobiographical. Case in point, "October Eve," which was based on something that happened to Persky's wife (or was it Denoff's?), in which a presumably destroyed nude painting of Rob's wife Laura (Moore) turns up in a prominent Manhattan art gallery.
Shows like "That's My Boy?" and "October Eve" also play up on Van Dyke and Moore's unsurpassed talent for expressing shame and embarrassment. As detailed in Season One, Carl Reiner was originally set to play Van Dyke's role, but by the show's third season, any doubts about Van Dyke's talent and rightness for the role had long evaporated. Rubbery-faced and agile, he is the perfect balance of clown comedian and subtle actor. Wise-cracking Morey Amsterdam and man-hungry Rose Marie continue to offer a nice contrast to the relatively normal Petries, while the late, great character actor Richard Deacon, forever the butt of Amsterdam's Vaudevillian insults, remains one TV's greatest straight men.
Video & Audio
The Dick Van Dyke show is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio in a near-flawless series of transfers. The shows themselves look superb, with so much detail one can frequently see droplets of sweat dribble down poor Richard Deacon's face. The opening and closing titles are, on some episodes, less than pristine. One possible explanation is that these titles, lacking sponsor logos, may have been created for syndication purposes. The mono sound is always sharp and clear. Season Three, with its 32 half-hour episodes, is broken up over five single-sided, dual-layered discs, with an average of seven shows per side. The program is not region-coded nor is it subtitled.
Score five stars here. Each episode offers menu screens noting filming and air dates, and most offer at least one or two production stills. A pair of lips (yes, lips) next to selected show titles indicates a screen-specific audio commentary track with Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke. It's easy to forget these shows are more than 40 years old, especially after listening to their like-it-was-yesterday memories of shooting individual episodes. At the same time, they often and amusingly laugh at gags they've presumably forgotten were there.
Scattered throughout the five discs are short on camera interviews, also in 4:3 format and shot on film, of Reiner, Van Dyke, Moore, and executive producer Sheldon Leonard (who died in 1997 just shy of his 90th birthday) remembering specific episodes. The best of these has Reiner and Moore recalling Leonard's influence, whose wonderful gangster voice both Reiner and Moore imitate.
If that were not enough, Disc 2 offers a not very funny but complete episode of "The Danny Thomas Show" from October 1963 featuring Amsterdam playing his Buddy Sorrell character. Disc 3 features excerpts from a May 1966 episode of The Magic of Broadcasting entitled "A Day in the Life of Sheldon Leonard," which offers rare behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage (possibly staged) on the Dick Van Dyke set (and in the editing room of The Andy Griffith Show). This extra starts out in poor condition, but is just fine once the Dick Van Dyke footage kicks in.
Disc 5 offers an excerpt from the 1975 series Van Dyke & Company, in an oddly cynical three-minute skit reuniting Van Dyke and Moore. (The excerpt features a rather frightening caricature of Van Dyke that makes him look like a cross between Stan Laurel and John Wayne!) Finally, short excerpts from the 1963-1964 Emmy Awards are shown. Sourced from ancient video tape, the clips are in great shape for their age, helpfully annotated, and fascinating for its glimpses at the all-star audience (Mel Brooks sits behind Reiner) and award presenters.
Like The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show is one of the few sitcoms worth investing in, with almost every show a little gem, though its longer run (compared with The Honeymooners' classic 39) will put a bigger dent in one's pocketbook. Highly recommended.
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.