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New on DVD: ‘The Barbara Stanwyck Show’

The Barbara Stanwyck Show

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From her early screen performances in Night Nurse (1931) and Baby Face (1933) to her career-topping turn as Australian business tycoon Mary Carson in ABC’s 1983 adaptation of Colleen McCullough’s epic, The Thorn Birds, Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) sizzled. I have continued to discover and enjoy her work over the years and I’m amazed at her remarkable range, powerfully vulnerable presence, and the depth of her talent. In fact, at the end of my run at Box Ofice Mojo, I had planned to run a series of reviews and interviews to mark her centenary. For now, I’m delighted to have made a new discovery which I hope you will enjoy, too: The Barbara Stanwyck Show. The 1960-1961 television anthology series, which aired before her colorful Western series, The Big Valley,  features Miss Stanwyck in silhouetted gowns and white gloves introducing each weekly 30-minute dramatic episode. The plots depict her in various roles and different stories.

This DVD edition of the recently recovered black and white program does not present the full season (the top-rated series was inexplicably cancelled, though she won a Best Actress Emmy), nevertheless, she is magnificent. The episodes are the equivalent of short stories, with the star of Double Indemnity at her peak as escaped murderer Vic Morrow’s hostage, a philanthropist wife and mother, and, in two excellent pieces, as Jo Little, a Chinese-born trader who tries to rescue a child refugee from Communism while trying to survive the U.S. government’s restrictions on business in Hong Kong. The best episode so far is “Size 10”, a dramatic cousin to her brilliantly pro-capitalist Executive Suite with the petite actress as a high-maintenance fashion designer in a tightly plotted business mystery with the independent woman as its central theme. The 3-disc DVD is handsomely packaged with a reference booklet which includes an episode guide and thoughtful comments from Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), who recounts seeing Miss Stanwyck in costume as a nun on the Desilu lot. Though the show’s glamorous introductions may or may not work, there’s much to appreciate here on this rare television classic, including unaired bonus material in a durable, well-designed box. And, of course, the best part is seeing Barbara Stanwyck in 16 episodes on a product the manufacturer tantalizingly labels Volume I. When it comes to Stanwyck, who personally helped launch the careers of William Holden and Ayn Rand, more is more.

New on DVD: ‘We the Living’

We the LivingAs I reported in May, a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1936 novel We the Living, is available on DVD. It is also on sale through the production company.

The 1942 motion picture was recut from a pirated Italian adaptation and released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures. I’m planning an interview series about Ayn Rand’s breathtaking literary achievement and the outstanding movie version, which was theatrically released in 1988, for publication on the site.

While the film is also excellent, there is no substitute for the superior experience of reading We the Living, which was recently reprinted with an urgently relevant introduction by Leonard Peikoff, in this new trade paperback edition.

Movie Review: ‘The Lives of Others’

With the rising threat of an American government-controlled society, I’m adding my 2006 Box Office Mojo review of the most powerfully accurate film about totalitarianism in recent years: The Lives of Others. I am including my DVD notes.

Read the review here.

Norman Lear DVD Collection

Norman Lear, creator and developer of several popular 1970s comedies for television, recently appeared at a press conference to promote his new deluxe DVD set, released by Sony today. The 19-disc set is a rehash of previously released first seasons of TV’s All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Their creator and developer, who was somewhat subdued at the presser, looks great and he’s still sharp. His work ages nicely, too.

Maude (1972–1978) is an exception. The CBS comedy starring the late Bea Arthur as strident Maude Findlay was more of a character than a show. The topically feminist-themed program was a spinoff (Mr. Lear’s first) of his vaunted All in the Family (1971–1979), which is based on a British series. While Mr. Lear is liberal and the comedy has that reputation, All in the Family depicted a likable white bigot—imagine such a character being introduced today—who often scored a point. Back then, a character could progress beyond idiocy and Archie Bunker became enlightened (he opened a bar in a later incarnation of the show). So, Mr. Lear reminds us that Archie was not an irredeemable bigot.

Another CBS All in the Family spinoff, The Jeffersons (1975–1985), is among the most successful shows in television. Why? I think it’s partly because the character George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) held the show together as one of America’s most persecuted minority: the businessman. Always fresh, lively and interesting, the middle class American family was supported by the dry cleaning business that Mr. Jefferson worked to make profitable and its cast of characters defied stereotypes: sassy maid Florence (Marla Gibbs), quietly rebellious Lionel (Mike Evans), and, in early seasons, mean, old Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), besides the more widely known characters Louise Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), British Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict) and the show’s interracial couple, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover). The Jeffersons was a microcosm of America, with foreigners, mixed race kids, college-bound sons, independent women and one strong-minded, self-made businessman who was happiest making money and guiltlessly enjoying the rewards. George Jefferson would not have liked Barack Obama’s economic policies.

Mr. Lear explained that hugely popular The Jeffersons was created to blunt criticism that his other CBS spinoff series, Good Times (1974–1979), portrayed the American black family as poor and unglamorous. Good Times, contrary to its title, layered on layoff after layoff for the Evans family, who lived in a government housing project on Chicago’s South Side, and they could never seem to get out of poverty. That might have been the show’s point—that housing subsidies trap the working poor in a viciously downward economic cycle—but the writers evaded deeper causes and went for laughs, saddling Jimmie Walker as J.J. with the comic relief. In hindsight, the J.J. character is the show’s saving grace. Good Times was created when its matriarch, Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), left her job as a maid for Maude.

That particular connection speaks to Norman Lear’s success. His shows were not merely a platform for the knee-jerk liberal. Black working woman Florida told white liberal housewife Maude off in an episode in which racially obsessed Maude patronized Florida unceasingly and Florida finally begged Maude to leave her alone to do her job. In another episode, one of TV’s best depictions of white liberal guilt, Florida’s replacement, who is also black, quits rather than submit to Maude’s constant racial harassment. Norman Lear created dimensional characters.

Also included on this exclusively first season collection with a disc of features: the satirical Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975–1977), which was syndicated, One Day at a Time (1975–1984), and Sanford and Son (1972–1977), Mr. Lear’s only show from this collection not to air on CBS (it ran on NBC). The Los Angeles-based Sanford and Son is built around raunchy comedian Redd Foxx, though not enough credit goes to his onscreen son, played by Demond Wilson, who had the task of playing straight to his conniving old junkyard pop. With no relation to the phrase made popular in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), One Day at a Time followed the lives of a woman (Bonnie Franklin) who divorced her husband after 17 years and moved with her two daughters back to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. One Day at a Time was an example of powerfully topical television programming, with episodes about youth suicide, drugs, job loss, and prejudice against women.

All of these shows, whatever their flaws, combine realistic characterizations with topical plots and humor and any of them are more realistic than the entire slate of today’s overproduced so-called reality shows. The extras—some run longer than others, with some stars in interviews, other stars glaringly absent—are admittedly a disappointment. This highly priced, handsomely packaged collection ($ 159.95) is strictly for those who haven’t bought the original first season products…and miss seeing the intelligent and thoughtful comedy of Norman Lear.

Epics Coming to DVD: ‘Benjamin Button’, ‘We the Living’

Paramount releases last year’s best picture, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, on a special, two-disc DVD tomorrow. Though I have not reviewed the DVD (I reviewed the 2008 movie here), the product, which includes printed material, looks promising and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this beautifully evocative movie again.

The slip-cased Criterion Collection package is presented in widescreen with the following features: a documentary called The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button; director David Fincher’s introduction; scoring, special effects and visual effects bonus bits and an audio commentary by Fincher. It’s also being released on a single disc DVD and on Blu-Ray. I plan to add DVD notes to my original review.

Another three-hour epic, We the Living, which was recut from an Italian pirate film released in fascist Italy and Europe as two separate pictures in 1942, is finally coming to DVD sometime this summer, according to reliable sources. This memorable movie version of Ayn Rand’s first novel (1936) premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in 1986 and was released theatrically in 1988. I’ll have more to report about this exciting news—watch for my exclusive articles about We the Living—for this outstanding motion picture. If you haven’t read the exceptionally haunting novel, a new paperback edition is due out soon (first reported here).