Collectors of old TV shows really want their product, and the rights owners know it; I was more than eager to get my hands on the old Dobie Gillis show, and was also happy with multi-disc sets for Wanted: Dead or Alive and The Dick Van Dyke Show because they weren't time compressed. If it weren't for cable TV time compression to cram in an extra commercial, I'd be an addict of old TV just like Tobey Maguire in Pleasantville... old half-hours of Leave it to Beaver are mesmerizing pieces of Americana. Way back in the 1970s and before video time compression, I started editing by helping Robert S. Birchard find ways to trim ninety seconds out of 16mm prints of the old Ozzie & Harriet show; David Nelson and his wife would drop by the shop to see how Bob was doing. It's amazing to see multi-disc sets that contain entire seasons of TV shows sitting on a shelf like so many pocketbooks -- Bob had an entire year of Dragnet TV shows in his apartment at one time, in 16mm cans. There wasn't room to move around.
I left home for college in 1970, when many of the big '60s TV variety shows were still on the air -- Red Skelton, Dean Martin, etc. The 'generation gap' purge of old-time stars for younger talent (Sonny & Cher, Flip Wilson) happened while I was away at school. But Red Skelton's hour-long show was a major memory in the middle 1960s, seen in B&W even when it was broadcast in color. I first became aware of Red when my parents took me to an air base theater to see Public Pigeon Number One in the late 1950s; they had seen Skelton and Danny Kaye perform for soldiers and approved of them both.
Most TV variety hosts were singers but Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton were comedians, primarily. The singers usually got to sit out a portion of their shows while other singers, dancers and comics entertained, but Skelton was often 'on' for the most of the hour in his show. The man was a consummate clown -- if you didn't like broad, silly humor, he wasn't for you. His opening monologue was always warm, personal and funny. Skelton lead with his big smile and outgoing personality -- like a good clown, he was likeable and funny without having to do anything. The jokes were usually terrible, but he'd already be breaking up before he told them and he shared the laughs with the audience afterwards. It was one of those contagious humor things -- he was funnier because he was having such a good time, not because the material was good. In fact, a lot of it is just plain awful. It didn't matter.
The main color, hour-long shows from the '60s continued his traditional routines, with various characters like Clem Kadiddlehopper, and broad pantomime routines. Skelton took his clowning seriously and often signed off with a heartfelt wave to the audience and the words, 'God bless.' He had a corps of dancers at the ready but didn't always use them; he did provide steady employment for his music man David Rose (and his orchestra!). The theme song was Rose's "Holiday for Strings", written back in the early 1940s.
Collections of Red Skelton TV shows have been available on home video for a long time, limited only by the quality that could be derived from old '60s videotapes. As early as 1982 I sat in at a Hollywood video house that was trying to resuscitate old Smothers Brothers shows that just didn't want to play back -- as happened, different networks used slightly different tape recording systems, and they were having trouble reading the masters. This new The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons release follows several different DVD releases, some ten years old, that collect just a few shows or whole seasons -- 'the early years' or expensive 11-disc or 22-disc sets.
Unreleased Seasons is a modest 3-disc set of color shows from 1966 to 1969. They don't seem to be unreleased for any particular reason; perhaps they were difficult to remaster? The talent assembled is certainly not second-class. Actually, the 'unreleased' descriptor throws me, as the set appears to be the first three discs of a previously released bigger collection. If I were Red Skelton, I'd make a funny face and say that there wuz some powerful marketin' trickery done going on here.
Here's the rundown:
The Red Skelton Hour: In Color
That's a pretty good star lineup, with top names and variety, and personalities known from other shows as well, like Audrey Meadows. As can be understood from the show titles, what passed as PC in 1966 was a little different --besides his 'stoop' humor and endless booze humor, Skelton makes fun of hicks, intellectuals and women -- Martha Raye was something of a clown in her career as well, and her entire act is made of indignities. John Wayne steps in for a Skelton career recap show from 1968. Although on stage with all-adult audiences Skelton was know to be as ribald as any other comedian of his time, here in his show it's all family-proofed fare. I recommend spacing the shows out -- after three I got an overdose of Skelton's mugging. Yet there's no denying that he's instantly magnetic and lovable.
Time/Life's Blu-ray of The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons is a tidy package of three discs, with twelve shows and an extra interview with Bobby Rydell and Vicki Lawrence. The TV color from this time was clearly not easy to reproduce -- the hues are somewhere between decent color and an almost 'colorized' look. We see evidence of tape damage and analog video signal 'hits,' but not many. With 45 minutes per show, that's about 3 hours of content per DVD, yet the compression doesn't suffer too badly. Only a series shot on film can be remastered to better quality than we remember from original broadcasts.
The shows have no English subtitles, which will disappoint older viewers that are sure to make up the bulk of the audience for this 'old time TV' presentation. I have to imagine that there are legions of unhappy viewers out there, pretending to enjoy home video -- face it, many people don't have the time or the money to get into video until they're retired.
One thing I notice is that here on 2016 digital TV we're seeing the whole video raster. Back in the 1960s TVs cut off so much on the edges (overscanning) that cameramen composed everything wide. This is why some action seems a bit isolated in the middle of the frame.
Of interest is the fact that most of the show might as well be live. A couple of the news shows go in for flashier graphics and cutting, but the standard opening is a truck-pan across the guests for the evening. When camera settles unsteadily on the big Red Skelton logo -- his face as a clown -- we really get the impression of Live TV at work.
The Red Skelton Hour: In Color: Unreleased Seasons seem to have been released before, but fans of the comedian won't care. Unless one is a career completeist twelve shows will be plenty, and the price is right. Seeing these programs sure brought back memories for me.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,