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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » This Is Your Life - The Ultimate Collection, Vol. 1
This Is Your Life - The Ultimate Collection, Vol. 1
R2 Entertainment // Unrated // May 3, 2005
List Price: $49.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 31, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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In the 1982 film Frances, down-and-out actress Frances Farmer (Jessica Lange), after years of Medieval-like "care" in various mental institutions, is surprised live on national television for a program entitled This is Your Life (1952-61). With ghoulish glee host Ralph Edwards (Donald Craig) details her years of unspeakable anguish ("...and then in 1946 you had a lobotomy!"), finally rewarding her with a prize to help get her back on her feet: a brand-new Edsel.** If anything, the surrealism dramatized in Frances is no match for the actual episode, regrettably not included in this boxed set, This Is Your Life - The Ultimate Collection, Volume 1. It encapsulates everything that was tasteless yet irresistible about the program, its value as a record of various personalities in a highly personal if crudely choreographed environment.

For the uninitiated, This is Your Life's host, Ralph Edwards, with the help of various friends, agents, and colleagues, would ambush his "principal subject" by suddenly declaring "This is Your Life!" then coax the shell-shocked "guest" to the theater nearby where the program was filmed. (In the 1950s the show aired live from the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard just east of Vine Street; when it was revived in the 1970s the show moved down the street to Vine just north of Sunset Boulevard.) At the theater, the guest would be surprised by childhood friends, long-lost sweethearts, movie stars, and representatives from various charitable organizations.

Most of the celebrities video-mugged by Edwards are unfailingly gracious, though a few weren't at all amused. Stan Laurel of Laurel & Hardy reportedly disliked having to make his television debut without preparation of any sort (he and "Babe" Hardy were ambushed in their suite at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, the camera hidden in the kitchen), and one friend remembers newsman/writer Lowell Thomas, having been told, "This is Your Life!" reportedly answered, "The hell it is!" and started to walk off, though he finally agreed to suffer through it, if obviously disgruntled. This writer remembers a failed attempt to lure Angie Dickinson on the show during one of its many revivals; she steadfastly refused all attempts to appear, so all of the preparation and long-distance flying of various friends and relatives was for naught.

And as unfunny and unamusing as Edwards generally is - indeed, his ad-libs are often quite embarrassing - you have to give him a lot of slack. The '50s version of the show ran live, and more than most live shows, this one could have failed spectacularly each week. There was always a chance the surprise would flop, that the star wouldn't go on the air, or that he wouldn't recognize any of his old friends (or be angry to see them again!). Then what? I'll bet the show's staff racked up some pretty impressive ulcers.

All this said, This Is Your Life can be quite fun when the subject is willing to play along, like Vincent Price in his incredibly gracious reaction at having his life laid bare. Francis Farmer's lobotomy aside, the writers tend to gloss over most scandals; a show on blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield paints her as the pillar of her local church, and in Price's case he's called a "devoted family man," perhaps unaware he was in the midst of an affair with actress Coral Browne, whom he married after divorcing his then-wife, who's all smiles on-camera.

Still, Price warmly greets and seems genuinely delighted to see old friends like Helen Hayes, Jane Wyatt, and Mary Wickes. Conversely, a show featuring Bette Davis takes an uncomfortable tangent into confessional mode, when actor Jay Robinson, the former Caligula from The Robe, credits Davis with his rehabilitation after serving time on a narcotics charge. His testimony is heartfelt but evokes the same sort of queasiness tapped so brilliantly by Martin Scorsese in The King of Comedy.

Sometimes though, the show has a wonderful air of nostalgia that's hard to resist. The very same Bette Davis episode is highlighted by the appearance of her Now, Voyager co-star, Paul Henried, where they recreate their famous "lighting-of-the-two-cigarettes" scene. A This is Your Life with Roy Rogers is quite touching when the cowboy star loses his composure at the sight of the Joad Family-esque jalopy that carried his family across the country to California. And for all the show's crudety it's hard not to be affected when Holocaust survivor Hanna Bloch Kohner is reunited with a brother she's not seen in a decade, since the height of the war.

Timing, they say, is everything, and This is Your Life deserves points for capturing some of its guests at the turning point in their lives. Laurel and Hardy's first TV appearance would also prove their last after the latter was felled by a massive stroke. Bud Abbott's appearance with Lou Costello would mark their last television appearance as a team - they broke up just a couple of weeks later. Watching shows like this, where Abbott exudes a sort of show business sincerity talking about their partnership while Lou has a kind of "Just you wait, pal!" look bubbling just under the surface is uncomfortable but endlessly fascinating.

The set offers 18 half-hour shows on three discs, making its $49.99 SRP rather steep for the amount of material and general dearth of extra features. Most episodes include introductions Edwards recorded in 1986, when the show began turning up on American Movie Classics, and postscripts on the guests' lives after the show, some of which are more recent additions.

The set is well-organized, trying as it does to be all things to all people, with at least one episode likely to interest every adult:

Disc One: (Stan) Laurel & (Oliver) Hardy, Lou Costello, Bette Davis, Jayne Mansfield, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash

Disc Two: Milton Berle, Betty White, Rear Admiral Samuel G. Fuqua (Pearl Harbor hero), Hanna Bloch Kohner (Holocaust survivor), Bobby Darin, Dick Clark

Disc Three: Richard & Karen Carpenter, Shirley Jones, Jesse Owens, Duke Kahanamoku ("Father of Surfing"), Boris Karloff, Vincent Price

Video & Audio

The shows are a mixed bag quality-wise, due mostly to the outdated technology used to record them. The fifties shows are all kinescopes: shot on video, preserved on film, but are perfectly watchable. The episodes from the early 1970s have a look particular to that era of primitive color video technology, but have been well-preserved. The mono sound is okay; English subtitles are included.

Extra Features

This reviewer didn't receive the 32-Page Collectors Booklet reportedly included with the set. The only other extra of note is a Photo Gallery & Memorabilia feature, with material of a self-congratulatory nature, including a lot of thank you letters from various guests.

Parting Thoughts

Taken with a grain of salt, This is Your Life is a fascinating blend of lurid Hollywood Babylon mixed with sickly-sweet family entertainment. It's corny and contrived, but it also offers viewers a weird, fractured but sometimes quite honest glimpse into the personalities of the great icons of the '50s, '60s, and 1970s. Recommended.

**I paraphrase, not having seen this particular episode (nor the movie, for that matter) in almost 20 years.

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. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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