Timeless comedy...in an abbreviated form. Timeless Media Group, a division of Shout! Factory, in association with The Red Skelton Estate, has released The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes, a dubiously monikered two-set collection of 18 black and white episodes from Red's long-running CBS comedy variety series. Guest stars that pop up include Buster Crabbe, Slapsy Maxie Rosenbloom, Jackie Coogan, Jack Kirkwood, Warner Anderson, Barbara Nichols, Gerald Mohr, Keenan Wynn, Gordon & Sheila MacRae (amusingly they're listed on the DVD case...but they're nowhere to be seen here...), Sebastian Cabot, Fabian (again, no singing...), Eve Arden, Rusty Hamer, William Demarest, Terry Moore, Charles Ruggles, Vivian Vance, Anthony Caruso, Ernest Truex, Amanda Blake, Marilyn Maxwell, Guy Madison, and Skelton fill-ins Jackie Gleason, Arthur Godfrey, and Danny Thomas (jesus). Now...there's no explanation anywhere on the disc as to why these episodes have been "lost and now found," so I'm going to venture that intriguing-sounding title is merely a marketing gimmick in service of releasing more episodes from Skelton's estate that didn't make the cut on the recent Red Skelton - The Collector Edition set. So be it. And just like that recent collection, fans of the comedian will have to take their pleasures here with a big grain of salt: edited content, with music substitutions (and outright eliminations), and some questionable original materials for the iffy transfers. How much you're a fan of the radio-movie-television superstar will determine whether or not you'll pick up this compromised addition to your Skelton collection. For my money (and for that low price)...The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes is worth it in the end.
Just as an exercise in self-inflicted pain, before I even showed them the DVD, I asked some of my kids if they had ever heard of Red Skelton, or of some of his characters like "Clem Kadiddlehopper" or "San Fernando Red" or "Freddie the Freeloader"--names to me that are as familiar as my own kids'. Blank stares were all I received (not surprisingly), so, not knowing at all what were on the discs, I put The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes on for them (the ones around the house at the time were 8, 10, 12, and 15), just to see what would happen. Naturally, some of the context of Red's jokes was lost on them (particularly the frequent Cold War references), but sure enough, they reacted the same way they've reacted over the years to other "irrelevant, has-been" comedians from 60 or 70 years ago like Jackie Gleason and Lucille Ball and Ernie Kovacs that today's TV and cable programmers would hoot in derision at: they laughed, and asked to watch some more. You can't get a more simple endorsement than that from a kid. "Funny is funny," as the old saying goes, and Red Skelton's timeless pantomimes, physical shtick, and hilarious ad-libs are just as playful and delightful as they were 50-some odd years ago. And I would imagine they'll continue to play that way, regardless of when they're viewed.
I was five when CBS' famed The Red Skelton Show was unfairly axed from their airwaves (and I have no recollection of the show's last year on NBC), so I have only one or two fleeting frames in my memory of watching Red perform his weekly series (memories more than likely "enhanced" in the subsequent years by seeing clips of his TV work). A huge NBC radio star in the late 30s and early 40s, the former clown/vaudevillian/medicine show man became a full-fledged movie star at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941. After the war, Skelton saw the potential of television for an artist of his abilities and lobbied MGM early for a contract clause that would allow him to also perform on the small tube--a deeply unpopular notion at the time with the TV-phobic Hollywood studios, but one which MGM eventually, grudgingly relented to in Skelton's case. Debuting on NBC in the fall of 1951, The Red Skelton Show proved initially popular, but burnout soon set in for the performer (along with disagreements with Red's sponsor, Procter & Gamble, over filming the once-live series, and Skelton's admittedly erratic personal behavior), as well as with the viewers, and the show was cancelled at the end of the 1952-1953 season. Picked up without a sponsor by CBS the next year (a significant show of faith since the network was initially footing the entire production bill), The Red Skelton Show eventually settled into its familiar Tuesday night slot where it became an institution with viewers, invariably landing in the upper ranks of the Nielsen ratings, season after season, for seventeen years. Indeed, when CBS unceremoniously canceled The Red Skelton Show in 1970, during the midst of its infamous "Rural Purge" (which basically said to anyone older than 35 living in Middle America, "F*ck you,"), Red's variety show was the seventh most popular show in America.
Which brings us to Timeless Media's The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes. This particular collection encompasses a grab-bag of episodes from the seasons just prior to CBS bumping the show up to an hour in length: 1959-1962. And as I wrote above, these are edited versions of those original episodes. Skelton (who like Gleason owned all his programs) famously once threatened to burn all his copies of The Red Skelton Show during a point in his career when he was disgusted with television's evolution (an expensive lawsuit from his writers, panicked about losing their own legacy, helped change his mind). As well, he refused to have his program syndicated during his lifetime (opinions vary as to why he chose to do this, but I would suggest that decision is the number one factor why this former superstar and giant of the medium...just isn't known today). So, whether or not these particular episodes of The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes were actually syndicated...they sure look like syndication hack jobs, with crimped running times of 22 minutes and change, along with crappy chromakey end credits over a new, bad synth musical theme. The quality of the transfers vary greatly, too, no doubt due to the original materials (unlike Gleason, I've not read about how fastidious Skelton was about preserving his originals).
Now...when I first started here at DVDTalk, back when DVDs were selling like hotcakes, there were huge, ongoing blow-ups among collectors and fans about edited television content, and whether or not buyers should support such compromised efforts (try the death-threatening goons over at Home Theater Forum for starters...). Where that argument is today I don't know, and frankly I don't care. I take these issues as they come, with no strict doctrine about "yes"ing or "no"ing such releases. Usually, however, my feelings align along the lines of "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." In other words, life's too short, so try and enjoy what you can...particularly since it's just television. In The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes's case, if you're a big fan of Red's, or maybe you're curious to see this legend in action, then complaining about 3 minutes lost here and there may feel good...but ultimately, it won't get you to see Red Skelton. Now, can consumers force a company to go back to the drawing board and release uncut material? Yes, certainly...but I'm going to venture that Red's drawing power among potential buyers out there isn't what it used to be, so chances are, The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes is as good as it's going to get for this material (regardless of the reasons of Skelton estate, or Timeless, or the lawyers representing the other talent that have to be cleared: if the price of releasing seamless episodes of The Red Skelton Show exceeds expectations of sales...then it ain't gonna happen no matter how much we bitch). If you feel strongly you can't support a particular release, then don't buy it. Rent it. If you just want to see this relatively rare stuff with Red, and you can handle the disappointment of the cut episodes, then buy The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes. Or rent it. It's all up to you, the consumer. After all, it's not like we're at a point where the government can force you into buying some product you don't want. Oh, wait... (a nod to conservative Skelton).
With that said...I'm glad I watched The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes. Of course I would have preferred complete episodes, and if that material is out there (that's another consideration: sometimes these syndicated versions are all that's left), then let's get it released. But if it doesn't make economic sense to do so (I'm betting it's the musical number that have been cut from these episodes--clearance rights for music have become insanely prohibitive), I'm at least glad to see what I could see here. Comedy like Skelton's is the hardest to describe and write about, since he's such a visual comedian--an absolutely brilliant pantomime and clown who was as close to a successor to Charlie Chaplin as I think America ever produced. Besides, if I tried to pick out all the amusing and frequently hilarious things that happen and are said in these 18 episodes of The Red Skelton Show: The Lost Episodes...it would take you longer to read the review than the 400 minutes it took me to watch the discs (it's hopeless to decide which joke or gag was the best here, but I can't remember laughing any harder than at Red's stealth-dirty ad-lib to two impossibly gorgeous chorus girls during a skit, as he turns his back to the audience and watches their perfect bodies walk away: "Would you ladies wait outside in the hall...and forget all the things I ad-libbed in rehearsal?"). Getting right down to the essentials, what always strikes me whenever I watch Skelton, over and above his considerable skills as a mime, a physical comedian (he could take a pratfall with the best of them), and his vocal delivery (his ad-libs, justifiably, are renowned), is the sheer joy he brings to the performance. Some critics used to get on Skelton for laughing at his own gags, or breaking the fourth wall too often during his skits (just to be clear: there's a big difference between a supremely gifted performer like Skelton laughing along with his audience...and a talentless hack like, say, Jimmy Fallon, who somehow became famous by falling back on phony- "ironic" laughter to cover his meager talents). However, I find Skelton's inability to do anything but burst out laughing at his own results utterly charming, with it only adding to the laughter as we see a performer who is continually and sincerely delighted to find he's entertaining himself, as much as his audience.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.